Austrian Press Council: Don’t Report Anything that Could ‘Stir Up Prejudices’

In a checklist on “responsible” reporting on migrants, Austria’s Press Council instructs journalists to omit any information that could “stir up prejudices”.

The checklist by the self-regulatory institution, which enforces a “code of ethics” for the country’s media, the Press Council, also advises journalists to leave out names if they’re foreign sounding and asks them to consider whether stories could be left open for comments “without having to fear the discussion getting out of hand”, before publishing them.

Warning that the topic of “refugees” is discussed “emotionally and controversially” not just among the general public but also by the media in Austria, the Press Council proclaims the list gives reporters a chance of “self-reflection”, and provides them with “practical guidelines”.

The first points in the checklist ask reporters to consider whether they would report the wrongful behaviour if it had not been committed by a migrant, whether the topic has been “adequately researched”, and to reflect on whether they have “presented the facts that are required for a comprehensive and balanced reporting of [their] topic”.

Following on, most of the subsequent Press Council directives appear to make self-censorship of stories so as to avoid causing “prejudice” – the primary focus of “responsible journalism in refugee reporting”.

Journalists are asked to think about “whether [their] reporting, choice of words or selection of photos could strengthen prejudices”, and “whether information that could stir up prejudices could be left out, without changing the meaning and true content of the story, or impairing readers’ understanding of the subject”.

The list also warns reporters to check whether a piece contains any other information in a piece that might “thwart their intentions” not to inflame prejudice. “E.g. not mentioning a person’s origin, but mentioning a foreign first name”, the Press Council suggests.

It adds: “Note: the mere naming of the origin of a [suspected criminal] foreigner/asylum seeker/migrant is not an ethical infringement according to the current practice of the Press Council senate. However, journalists should weigh up whether it’s required for the reader’s understanding.”

Before publishing a story regarding migrants, the Press Council also asks reporters and people working in the media to consider whether they can “open an internet forum on the topic without having to fear that the discussion gets out of hand”.

Comments under the checklist are largely sceptical of the points, with one reader declaring: “This is a checklist for self-censorship. Do not be surprised if you are less and less believed… “

The Press Council “sees itself as a modern self-regulatory institution in the press sector, which serves editorial quality assurance as well as ensuring freedom of the press”.

In November, a comment piece in the Business Special supplement of NEWS magazine, which argued that Angela Merkel’s decision to open Europe’s borders will have disastrous consequences, fell foul of the council.

According to its ruling, the Press Council’s senate found “particularly problematic” the article’s assertion that Muslim migrants “have not come to integrate”, a statement which they say “fosters prejudices and fears”.

The judgement also condemned as unethical that the piece “attributed very negative attitudes and characteristics” to Muslim migrants, and said the article “gives the reader the impression that these immigrants are backward”.


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