Reporting White Supremacist Terror Needs a Fundamental Shift

In the first anniversary of Hanau’s heinous terror attack, German and Western news media have to accept their part of responsibility in the emergence of White Supremacy terrorism.

On 19 February 2020, Tobias Rathjen, a far-right extremist launched a terror attack on two hookah bars in Hanau, near Frankfurt, Germany. The culprit killed ten people and injured five others. The common thread between the victims was that they were of foreign descent. Following the shooting spree, the perpetrator went to his apartment and killed his mother before committing suicide.

In the initial phases following this act of terror, German media coverage was often sub-par. For example, the tabloid Bild was quick to report on the attack. However, instead of enlightening the public about the killer and focusing on the most credible motives, namely racism and white supremacy, the reporter spread speculations that tended to blame the victims, using expressions like ‘organised crime,’ ‘criminal scene,’ and ‘protection money.’

Tobias Bayer, the Bild reporter who was reporting on the ground, provided some questionable reporting. Instead of showing empathy towards the victims, he depicted the victims’ families in bad light: “I was able to speak to some of the family members. The mood here is clearly aggressive. I was threatened with knocking my mobile phone out of my hand. Emotions are high. They were probably also relatives of allegedly dead people here.” Then, the correspondent moved to shift the culpability to criminal gangs. He said: “I learned from relatively well-informed sources in Hanau here – but I have to say: These are only speculations – that the perpetrators here could be Russians”.

In its quest to sensationalise its coverage and generate clickbait headlines, the newspaper Focus adopted the expression ‘Shisha murders’ initially to characterise the Hanau terror attacks. This terminology has provoked the ire of many commentators. Clara Herdeanu, a linguist and communications expert, denounced the ‘Shisha murders’ frame. For her, such a title trivialises the crime itself and shifts the blame to the victims by stereotyping them via exotic names and objects. Even when Focus decided to change its framing, Herdeanu argues that their new headline “Eleven dead after gunfire: Hanau in shock: First pictures after a bloody act” was also inadequate because it conceals the racist motive behind the crime.

As the crime label did not stick, several German media outlets resorted to other frames to describe the Hanau attacks. They labelled the offender as troubled or mentally ill. In a piece for the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Martin Bernstein decried how right-wing criminals are often portrayed as disturbed individuals that are ‘running amok.’ Bernstein stated that it had taken the Bavarian authorities more than three years after the mass shooting in Munich (2016) to recognise the racist motives behind that terror act. They eventually classified the attack as a “politically motivated right-wing crime.” Bernstein also lamented that the word “Amoklauf” (running amok) is still written on Hanauer Strasse’s memorial dedicated to the Munich victims despite evidence that this was a terrorist incident committed by a racist individual.

From their side, Joachim Käppner and Michaela Schwinn argued in an article for Süddeutsche Zeitung that the Hanau culprit was not an extreme right-wing terrorist but rather a ‘lone wolf.’

The lone-actor frame is erroneous and should be completely discarded. An academic study, published by the journal Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, criticised the ‘lone wolf’ typology even if media organisations frequently employ it. The authors spent three years of empirical research and dissected attacks committed by alleged lone-actor extremists. They examined 125 cases between 1978 and 2015 in Western Europe and North America. Their findings are edifying: In 86 per cent of cases, the so-called lone actors communicated their convictions to others. They also discovered that in 58 per cent of the cases, the perpetrators provided indications of actual violent intent. Furthermore, in all the cases, the culprits were subjected to radicalisation via social processes and “often turn out to have interpersonal, political, or operational ties to larger networks.” 

Adopting frames such as ‘lone wolf’ or references to mental illness are mere attempts to whitewash the extremist right-wing terrorism. Such discursive ploys aim to insulate the perpetrators’ racist ideology while depoliticising the terror attacks and making them more acceptable to the public. Such semantical blurring also absolves the extremist right-wing politicians from legal, ethical, and moral implications. These attempts are alas not new and remain pervasive of the news media environment in Germany and beyond.

A small shift indeed occurred in the past two years. For example, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern identified the heinous Christchurch attacks as an act of terror. Even so, many news media insisted on using the ‘lone gunman’ label. Similarly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel used the word racist to describe the murders; an act considered by some pundits as a “quantum leap.” Nevertheless, most German news media still adopted other narratives.

While these official statements are commendable, they remain insufficient. Mainstream media, whether in Germany or the Western World, has established a pattern of double standards. When Muslim culprits engage in acts of terrorism, they are immediately labelled as terrorists, and their religion and ethnicity demonised. Furthermore, their entire communities are requested repeatedly to voice their rejection of such acts.

On the other hand, racists and White Supremacists receive a much more lenient, if not complicit, treatment in Western mainstream media. Journalists compete with each other to describe the perpetrators’ mental health issues and social problems. British tabloid Daily Mirror went to the extent of romanticising the Christchurch mass killer as an ‘angelic kid’, describing him as ‘hardworking.’

In the first anniversary of Hanau’s heinous terror attack, German and Western news media have to accept their part of responsibility in the emergence of White Supremacy terrorism.

On the one hand, the reporting of migration and Islam has typically been inflammatory and contributed to the rise of racist ideologies. Thus, it has managed to create a connection between migration and terrorism in the common psyche. According to a Pew survey conducted in 2016, 61% of Germans believe that hosting refugees (perceived as Muslims) increase the risk of terrorism. On the other hand, the soft portrayal of racist perpetrators of terror acts has boosted the popularity of extreme right-wing ideologies.

Therefore, unless there is a fundamental shift in news coverage, we will witness many more tragedies like the Hanau attacks, while White Supremacy terrorism continues to spread, wreaking havoc on democracy, peace, and societal coexistence. 


*This article was originally published in TRT Deutsch’s opinion section

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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