Sound facts on the immigration society

“The Migration media service is as important today as it was in the year it was founded”

The Migration Media Service was founded ten years ago. How has the social debate changed over this period? Ferda Ataman, the Federal Anti-Discrimination Commissioner and co-founder of the Migration Media Service, in discussion with its executive director, Dr. Mehmet Ata.  

Marija Latković
Thomas Lobenwein, Julia Teek, Sarah Eick, A. Salzmann
September 20, 2022

The Migration Media Service has existed for ten years. That’s a reason to celebrate. On the other hand: Isn't it also significant that this service is still needed in 2022? Shouldn't Germany have made more progress on its integration journey?

Ferda Ataman: One of the goals of the Migration Media Service is most certainly to become superfluous at some point, at least as a media service for an immigration society. There’s been a lot of progress in this direction, but we’ve not reached that point yet. I’d even say that ten years after its founding, the Migration Media Service is at least as important as it was back then.

Mehmet Ata: The Migration Media Service is and remains a useful institution because we offer a sober view on immigration society issues. We want to provide facts, academic findings. It is important to provide a data basis in such an emotionally charged topic.

Ms. Ataman, you've been with MDI right from the start. What led to its being set up?

Ferda Ataman: Germany’s National Integration Plan incorporated, among other things, a Media Working Group. It was clear to everyone there that the media landscape should become more diverse, but there was a lack of people with an immigrant background applying for jobs in the media. Secondly, we noticed that people were often talking about migration without involving the migrants. And thirdly, there were academics who said that the public debates about migration and integration were mostly counterfactual. 

“One of the goals of the Migration Media Service is most certainly to become superfluous at some point, at least as a media service for an immigration society.”

Quote fromFerda Ataman, Federal Anti-Discrimination Commissioner and co-founder of the Migration Media Service

Like the controversy over Thilo Sarrazin's theses in 2010?

 Ferda Ataman: Exactly. "Integration has failed" – that was the big issue back then. The scientific facts, however, pointed to exactly the opposite conclusion. But there were hardly any specialist journalists who were regularly reporting on successful integration. Studies often led to the wrong conclusions. That's how the idea for a low-threshold but expert information platform was born – with academic support.

Mehmet Ata: Today, no editorial desk can avoid these topics, which is also evident at events organized by the Migration Media Service. To put it bluntly, immigration is no longer just a topic for interns and volunteers. At the same time, this is increasing the demands made on us. Inquiries are becoming more complex, and the range of topics is broadening.

Integration plays a role in almost every area of society. Why did you decide on a media service in 2012?

Ferda Ataman: Mass media play a decisive role in determining what people know or don't know about certain topics – especially in areas where the public is not well versed. If the portrayal is simplistic and sweeping, the general public gets a stereotypical, one-sided picture of things. Today, many people are in contact with immigrant families, especially in urban conglomerations, but the fact remains that most people get their knowledge about "Islam" or "the refugees" from mass media. 

Mehmet Ata: In essence, it's about mapping complexity. Let's take an example: We had a press briefing with the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) on the willingness of people with a migration background to get vaccinated. In a survey conducted by the RKI they discovered that these people were, on average, less likely to have been vaccinated. Yet among these non-vaccinated people there was also a greater willingness to get vaccinated than among non-vaccinated people of no migration background – providing they were approached differently or in a more targeted way. This complexity should be reflected in media reporting.

Where do you think this complexity very often leads to erroneous conclusions?

Mehmet Ata: Unfortunately, the fact that social phenomena are often interpreted culturally still plays a major role. If people come from a non-academic household and have a more difficult start in life, this is quickly attributed to their cultural background. We need to take a closer look at what really causes this.

Ferda Ataman: I also notice that the focus on people with a migration history is primarily problem-oriented. There is not enough focus on how things could be better and work better.

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The Robert Bosch Stiftung supports the Migration Media Service in expanding the state of knowledge on the immigration society through practice-oriented research and insights into current debates. The aim is to disseminate the results and analyses as widely as possible into society as a whole in order to expand the circle of users beyond a journalistic and academic audience and to win over as many people as possible to these socially relevant topics.

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How important is highlighting opportunities and solutions for the Migration Media Service?

Mehmet Ata: We are primarily concerned with introducing academic findings into debates, making things more objective, and providing facts and figures. If people with a migration background are less likely to get vaccinated, that's the way it is. Others can comment on or interpret this fact, but we want to first provide the scientific basis for the debate. That was one of the problems about the Sarrazin debate: There were no figures for many of his claims, so he simply asserted certain things. Later, he admitted he’d done just that.

Ferda Ataman: A factual view of the issues can be the basis for more solution-oriented approaches. For example, educational researchers have long said that segregated schooling is not suitable for teaching German to children who have insufficient prior knowledge of the language. Nevertheless, even after 2015, many children have remained in these “welcome classes” for too long. Valid data show, however, that these children learn German faster in regular classes. Politicians and public officials should take these findings into account.

What has improved in the past ten years?

Mehmet Ata: The fact that migration and integration are major social issues today is a success in itself. Just like the fact that people affected by racism have their say more often than they did back then. There is more expertise amongst journalists and, generally speaking, a different level of societal sensibility, especially among young people. 

Ferda Ataman: In the past, there were very few academics, such as Klaus Bade, who were called on when the topic of immigration and integration came up. Today, there are many more numbers in journalists’ address books for educational issues, recent immigrants, Eastern Europe, migration history, and all kinds of aspects. This expert input helps a lot in the discourse. But more could be done on racism issues. After all, those affected by racism are often interviewed, but the academic perspective and valid data still come up short. For example, the Black Lives Matter debate in 2020 went on for months without any German research on racism. 

“The fact that migration and integration are major social issues today is a success in itself. Just like the fact that people affected by racism have their say more often than they did back then.”

Quote fromMehmet Ata, Executive Director, Migration Media Service

What challenges do you see in the future? And how can the Migration Media Service contribute to solving them?

Mehmet Ata: It's important to me that we continue to develop, not least because the demands on our work are changing. That's why I was thrilled by our collaboration with the University of Bielefeld on the topic of hate speech against journalists. We not only evaluated the survey findings, but were also involved in drawing up its concept. And in 2021, we developed an e-learning platform on our topics with Dortmund Technical University. Today, it’s not just media professionals but to an increasing extent public officials, academics, politicians and civil society who are using our services as well, because there is no other independent body that has bundled so many facts and studies in this field.

Ferda Ataman: It's interesting to see how quickly the coordinates change in this field. When we started in 2012, there was a lot of talk about Germany as a country of emigration and immigration from Europe. In 2015, suddenly everyone began talking about refugees from Syria and Africa again. Currently, it's more about labor shortages. The challenges are changing. This shows why the Migration Media Service needs to evolve, but also how necessary it is. Migration and integration are not exceptional situations that can be addressed on a political ad hoc basis in order to find a solution and wind things up. Germany is and always has been a country of immigration, with all that entails. So the issues never cease.

Do you miss such insights in political circles and civil society?

Mehmet Ata: I’d be thrilled if the different social groups would listen to each other more. Much of what we’re now talking about in the context of racism has emerged from civil society over the past two or three years, with the discussions initiated by the victims of racism. This issue is now playing a bigger role for politicians and the media. But we could listen even more to the victims of racism because they are experts, because racism has a direct impact on their lives.

Ferda Ataman: It would help if the political sphere were to integrate diverse perspectives and become more diverse itself. This is not only true of anti-racism, but also of other forms of discrimination. At the moment, many people understand diversity and anti-discrimination to mean that you simply count up the numbers and then say, for example, every fourth person has to have an immigrant background. But diversity is important, above all, because people bring different perspectives with them.

It sounds like you have concrete ideas.

Ferda Ataman: All in all, with regard to my new job as Federal Anti-Discrimination Commissioner, I would like the topic of anti-discrimination to be seen in the broad sense of the term, as it should be understood – in other words, with regard to age discrimination, people with disabilities, gender, sexual identity, religion and ideology as well. After all, this all applies to migrants and their descendants, too: they are young and old, have disabilities, or different sexual identities. I think it would be great if the Migration Media Service were more intersectional.

Mehmet Ata: We're already doing that to some extent. We’re also spotting topics that are very relevant to society, but for which there is no or hardly any research. Here, we’re taking the initiative ourselves. 

Ferda Ataman

She is Germany’s Independent Federal Anti-Discrimination Commissioner. The political scientist previously worked as a journalist and publicist, and was a speechwriter at the Ministry of Integration in North Rhine-Westphalia. In July 2022, the German Parliament elected her to head the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency. From 2013 to 2016, she headed the Migration Media Service. She also did voluntary work for New German Media Makers, a society that advocates more diversity in the media.

Mehmet Ata

He studied communication science, German language and literature, and history, and earned his doctorate with a dissertation on the "Muhammad cartoon controversy in the German and Turkish media”. He trained as a journalist at the Express, a Cologne newspaper, and then worked as an editor at the Fuldaer Zeitung, a writer for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, and a press officer for the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. Since April 2016, he has headed the editorial department of the Migration Media Service, and since April 2019 has also been its executive director.

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