German TV: A Turkish anchorwoman needs to become a normal thing
Sonia Phalnikar - 09/07/2008
In the end of April 2007, Dunja Hayali, a German journalist of Iraqi origin, did break the mold when she began co-anchoring the main news show on ZDF, one of Germany's biggest public television networks.
In a country where a fifth of the population has an immigrant background, experts said minority presenters of all backgrounds remain conspicuously absent on mainstream television information and news programs.
"It doesn't matter whether you have Turkish roots and look obviously different or have blond hair and blue eyes and blend in with Germans," said Minou Amir-Sehhi, a freelance German-Iranian TV journalist for the publicly funded ARD network who coordinates the "Intercultural Network" at the German Association of Journalists (DJV). "There's been a general wariness about contact with other accents and cultures in the country, and that's reflected on television."
In the entire media industry, about 3 percent of journalists are estimated to have an immigrant background.
Striving for normality
A sprinkling of immigrant presenters is currently to be found on some private channels and stations such as MTV. On the influential public broadcasters, a few tend to be on niche programs devoted to issues of multiculturalism and integration.
In that context, Hayali's appointment was "quite revolutionary," said Amir-Sehhi.
"It's a sign of normality when you have a person with an immigrant background casually reading the news or the sports results on a major network instead of being shown as a problem or an exotic stereotype," she said.
Experts added that in recent years a vocal debate about integration of immigrants has raised awareness about the role media, especially television with its high-profile visibility and reach, can play.
The German government has also weighed in, urging the networks to recruit more journalists and TV presenters from immigrant minorities.
"We have to make immigrants more visible in German television," State Secretary for Integration Maria Böhmer told the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. "I keep hearing from immigrants that they don't see themselves represented by the public sector broadcasters. There isn't enough awareness of their experience of life, and there aren't enough immigrants in front of or behind the camera.
"For example, having a Turkish anchorwoman needs to become a normal thing," she added. "We need more reporters who themselves know the immigrants’ world and can convey it."
Some observers said further examples such as Hayali's could also provide much-needed role models for immigrants.
"It's a sign to potential journalists who perhaps haven't trusted themselves to think that presenting a prime-time news show on a major network could be a job for a person with an Italian or an Iraqi name," said Gualtiero Zambonini, commissioner for integration at Cologne-based public network WDR, one of the few broadcasters to have such a post.
Learning from the Netherlands?
At a European level, Germany lags behind countries such as Britain, where black and Asian presenters are established on the BBC, and France, where a black anchorman, Harry Roselmack, has been hosting the country's most popular news program.
Immigrants in those countries come largely from former colonies and share the language of the adopted nation, making it easier for them to break into the media.
Zambonini pointed out that Germany could take a page from the Netherlands' book.
"For example, minorities in the Netherlands are entitled to have a certain share of programming in the media and there are laws governing it," said Zambonini. "That obviously creates a whole new basis for the question about which journalists the networks hire."
Networks doing a rethink
German broadcasters, prodded by the government, are also reexamining their policies.
Dunja Hayali said broadcaster ZDF made no secret of the fact they were consciously seeking a minority presenter when they hired her.
"Of course my qualifications were the most important criterion, but there's no denying my immigrant background was an added plus in bagging the job," said Hayali, who previously moderated a news show at DW-TV.
Demographic pressures are also forcing public broadcasters, which are partly financed by TV licensing fees, to adapt to a changed viewership.
"Today every fifth person in Germany has an immigrant background, among the young generation in the big cities it's every second," said Zambonini. "We just have to take these viewers into account, otherwise we lose our right to exist."
Not enough immigrant journalists
But the biggest problem for the networks, experts said, is finding minority journalists.
"The pool of potential immigrant journalists is tiny, which shows that promoting diversity has just not been a priority for media networks," said Lutz Michel, head of the MMB Institute for Media Research in Essen.
He added that a combination of poor language skills, lack of an academic environment at home and insufficient educational qualifications prevent many from opting for a career in journalism.
An OECD study last year found that children from immigrant families in Germany have fewer chances to succeed at school than in almost any other industrialized country.
A long way to go
Most media observers agree that only a shared drive by politicians, media companies and journalism schools to fix problems in the education system as well as consciously seek and train budding immigrant journalists is the only way to boost the presence of minority reporters in the long term.
Minou Amir-Sehhi said German media needed to do more than appoint a few minority journalists to be a true mirror of society.
"Only when we have a dark-haired, dark-eyed presenter reporting from the German parliament then we can say we've truly accepted reality and our status as an immigration country," she said.
DEUTSCHE WELLE/Qantara.de 2008