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“The media has a keen interest in racial profiling”

Sociologist David Czudnochowski is investigating the relationship between police public relations work and the media

Freiburg, Jul 24, 2020

“The media has a keen interest in racial profiling”

Photo: Heiko Barth -

The Freiburg research project "ZuRecht – Die Polizei in der offenen Gesellschaft" ("ZuRecht - The Police in an Open Society") at the Centre for Security and Society, in cooperation with the German Police University in Münster, is investigating, among other things, the relationship between police public relations work and the media. Within this framework, the sociologist David Czudnochowski is concerned with naming suspects' origins in police press work in interaction with media reporting on crime. He has also dealt with the so-called Hans Bunte case in Freiburg, in which the judgements have just been handed down. Our colleague Jürgen Reuß spoke with him about this issue.

An investigation into the relationship between police public relations work and the media is a project at Freiburg’s Centre for Security and Society. 
Photo: Heiko Barth -

Mr. Czudnochowski, what are the exact regulations for when the police may or may not name a suspect’s ethnic background in a case?

David Czudnochowski: There is no concrete set of rules as to when the ethnic background is named and when it is not. In some federal states, police forces now always state the nationality of potential suspects, while others weigh up in each individual case whether the origin is relevant to understanding the crime. However, the relationship between police and media is basically regulated by uniform federal service regulations and the press laws of the federal states. These oblige the police to be transparent and neutral. The police are also bound by data protection regulations. If the suspect’s ethnic background is mentioned, they must take care that that person cannot be individually identified as a result. The press code of the German Press Council also plays a role. It states that the ethnic background should only be named if there is a justified public interest in it. However, the press codex is initially only a voluntary commitment. How the police proceed in concrete terms therefore varies from federal state to federal state.

How does that look in real life?

An interesting example is the incidents in Cologne on New Year’s Eve at the turn of the year from 2015 to 2016, where the police initially spoke of a peaceful night, during which there were isolated incidents but no incidents worth mentioning. Consequently, this topic did not appear in the major media. Then there were statements in social media that contradicted this view and reported incidents worth mentioning. There was quite quickly talk of a homogeneous group that was “North African.” Public pressure started to build. The serious media came under fire because they had not mentioned the “origin” of the suspects, and the police that they should finally reveal what they know. Subsequently, the police also passed along descriptions of the suspects’ ethnic backgrounds.

Why not name a suspect’s characteristics? Don’t they merely serve a descriptive function?

Information needs a context, and this in turn depends on current social debates. You can quickly end up in a sensitive area. As soon as you name a suspect’s ethnic background, you no longer have any influence on what association this triggers in the mass media discourse. That New Year’s Eve in Cologne in particular was a drastic example.

How so?

Studies clearly show that after the incidents in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, mentioning the origin of people with an ethnic background and of people of non-German descent has increased disproportionately in crime reporting, especially with regard to sexual crimes and other serious offenses. At the same time, however, this increase is not reflected in crime statistics. In some federal states, increasing criticism following the Cologne events has led police forces to categorically state nationality and to refrain from mentioning it only in justified exceptional cases.

Why is that problematic?

It actually starts with the term “ethnic background.” What is meant by that? Nationality? An immigrant background of any kind? Cultural imprint? In the category of immigrant background alone, there are many definitions, some of them quite different. In addition, categories of origin have little or no significance as to how criminal activity occurs. Research shows that there is no connection between mere categories of origin and crime. That is simply too narrow a view. Making such a connection in public reporting does not do justice to the criminological complexity of the topic. Moreover, the police are usually treated by the media as a privileged source. What the police report is typically taken over in media reporting. So when the police name the “ethnic background,” it is duly noted, suggesting that there could be a connection. This also has to do with the fact that the descriptive framework of how the media report on crime is changing.

Sociologist David Czudnochowski has also looked into the so-called Hans Bunte case in Freiburg, in which the judgements have just been made.
Photo: Klaus Polkowski

What do you mean by that?

In communication sciences, they speak of “frames.” Crimes, such as sexual offenses, but also terrorism, are often put into context with immigration. This becomes established, multiplies and ultimately leads to the fact that alleged “foreigners” are perceived as more dangerous. By the way, the investigation of the incidents in Cologne showed that the group of perpetrators was much more heterogeneous than was first believed. The reporting creates an image that is difficult to counter with the mere correction made by the investigation results.

What about the so-called Hans Bunte case in Freiburg?

The first press release appeared very soon after the crime and was picked up by the local press in Freiburg. Ethnic background was not mentioned. However, it was already clear that this was a terrible crime, on a scale that happens very rarely. Nevertheless, no significant nationwide coverage took place in the following ten days. This only changed dramatically when the ethnic background of the suspects became known via a tabloid parallel to the second follow-up report by the police. From then on, all major editorial offices took up this Freiburg case. This shows what role categories of origin play in the media.

So the trigger for speculation about the connection between “ethnic background” and crime is not necessarily the police reports?

The media has taken a keen interest in categories of origin, as the first interviews we are currently conducting with police press offices have shown. Even if the police do not name them, media representatives proactively research the matter and the police then find themselves in a situation where they have to deny or confirm it. This shows that policing does not take place in a vacuum, but follows public debates.

Is it not important for the public to know this information?

If I wanted to make it easy for myself, I would say ‘no’. On the other hand, a democratic state like Germany necessarily lives from the fact that the public can fulfill its functions and enable a free exchange of opinions and initiate public debates and discourses. Transparency is very important for this.

Could the current proposal to always state the nationality of all suspects help?

The purpose is to counter the accusation of withholding information. If this helps to defuse criticism of the police for not communicating transparently, it may help. But here too, one must be careful. Not every crime that the police record becomes part of a press release. And not every press release is picked up by the media. So what is made up of these reports will not give a complete picture of the actual crime structures. That is why we have crime statistics. The more deciding question for me would therefore be: Does a general mention protect against generalization and stereotyping? If you look at how the media work, I would doubt that very much.

"ZuRecht – The Police in an Open Society"