News in action: The impact of reporting ethnic backgrounds

New Weizenbaum study provides insights into the practice of mentioning the nationality of criminals on the perceived credibility of a news article.

Does it matter in news coverage whether criminals are Germans or foreigners? Right-wing populists often accuse the mainstream media of concealing the foreign origin of criminals for the sake of political correctness. In principle, the media is required by the German press code to report on the nationality only if there is "a well-founded public interest." In order not to lose credibility in some audience segments, more news media outlets decide to report the nationality. In a new study, communications scientist Marlene Kunst investigated the question of whether mentioning the criminal’s national origin has an effect on the perceived credibility of a news article. The results show that this effect depends on the pre-existing social attitudes of news consumers.

"There are very few empirical findings on whether mentioning the nationality of criminals has an effect on the perceived credibility of a news article," explains Kunst. "To address this question, I conducted a web-based experimental study with approximately 260 participants. The subjects were shown various news articles about crimes in which the criminals were described as either Germans or foreigners—or no information about their nationality was given at all." Foreign nationals, which are affected by stigma and prejudice in Germany, were selected for the study.

The findings show that the influence of reporting the origin on the perceived credibility of a news article depended significantly on the degree of xenophobia of the participants. Thus, participants with xenophobic attitudes rated news articles in which crime suspects were described as foreign nationals as particularly credible sources.

Psychologically, this effect can be explained by the activation of available racial stereotypes. People tend to regard information that is consistent with their own attitudes as more credible than information that is inconsistent with their own attitudes. The opposite effect could be observed in participants with hardly any xenophobic attitudes. They tended to rate news articles in which the foreign citizenship of crime suspects was mentioned as less credible than news articles with a reference to German origin or without a reference to origin.

The study results make it clear that the media cannot do justice to all recipients when it comes to the matter of reporting the ethnic background of criminals and whether this has an effect on their overall credibility. What increases credibility for some, inevitably leads to a loss of credibility for others. "Findings from other empirical studies also show that referring to the foreign nationality of criminals contribute to stigmatization and stereotyping of ethnic groups," Kunst explains. "Against this background, the decision whether or not to mention nationality in an article always requires case-related ethical reflection."


The study, "References to Nationality in Crime Reporting: Effects on Perceived News Credibility and the Moderating Role of Xenophobia," was published in the journal Studies in Communication and Media. Marlene Kunst was awarded the Top Student Paper Award in the Political Communication Division for this article at the International Communication Association Annual Conference in May 2021.

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