Allgemein Germany

Powerful Snapshot

The Relationship between Police and Media

Police and media reporting are in a tense relationship with each other, and not just since press photos of so-called “Querdenker“ demonstrations have generated media attention. Since April 2020, demonstrations against government action to contain the COVID-19 pandemic have taken place in many cities. Misinformation is frequently spread here.

In the following essay, Clara List examines the media’s representation of the police based on press photos and shows the fine line between truthful reporting on the media’s part and the police’s work.

Nowadays the media provide information from all over the world – with the help of reports, videos and photos we can get an idea of a demonstration in another city, form an opinion, make a judgment. The type of presentations selected by journalists influences our view of the world in which we live.1 Sociologist and systems theorist Niklas Luhmann argues that the media are merely a reflection of our reality: “What we know about our society, indeed about the world we live in, we know through the mass media”.2 He does not address the question of whether media represent facts or fictions but argues that media can do nothing but construct reality.  Accordingly, the press photo shown here constructs a reality. Photos become press photos through their publication, which is the case for this image, as it was published on ZEIT ONLINE3 on November 18, 2020, alongside an article about the “Querdenker” demonstration in Berlin. It was taken at a demonstration which supporters of various conspiracy theories the coronavirus met in Berlin with the aim of demonstrating against the measures decided by the government. Press photos have a specific subject affiliation and must be embedded in a media framework. The main purpose of a press photo is to inform. Furthermore, press photos serve to address the reader emotionally and to entertain.4

In the foreground, four police officers can be seen forming a semicircle around a man and holding him down. The man’s arms are pressed backwards, his upper body is bent forward. One policeman is holding his head and thus covering the man’s face, another policeman is holding his arms. A police woman is placing her hands on the arms and back of the arrested man, thus pushing his posture towards the ground. Behind the three acting police officers is another policeman, who is covered by his colleague. In the background of the picture, two participants of the demonstration are standing on the left side. The men are estimated to be middle-aged. They wear a mouth and nose protection and hold up a poster on which the words “The Basic Law is…” are written. The last word completing this sentence is hidden by one of the men. The so-called lateral thinkers see the Covid-19 measures as a restriction of the Basic Law and are demonstrating against the conditions imposed by the federal government, concluding to the context. The eyes of the two men are directed at the policemen and the supposed arrest. Next to them, obscured by the police, are two middle-aged female onlookers and a man. Another man wearing a mouth and nose guard is walking past the action. Behind them on the street three police squad cars parked. The caption explains that there were violent attacks carried out by the demonstrators on the police and there were arrests. These facts frame the photo.

Visuality Generates News Value

Since the police should be a social conflict-solving authority, a general force of order and the direct manifestation of the state’s monopoly on the use of force, the question of violence comes up with them as with almost no other institution. Police officers regularly come into contact with violence in the course of their work – they can become targets themselves or use violence on their own. This can occur in different contexts. The most obvious is the use of police violence in the context of the execution of concrete policy measures, for example during demonstrations and arrests. Visuality can generate a high news value with the viewer. In this case, the demonstrators are aware of the power of images, as are the police officers. Photos of demonstrations visually embed protest and give it a space to take effect.5 Here are both in the field of vision, police officers and demonstrators. The effect of this photo depends on the viewer and the context, it can evoke both positive and negative emotions. The message of the image conveyed can be summarized by a demonstration with violent riots that led to arrests.

Conflicts Increase Media Attention

The media have a constitutional mandate to monitor and criticize state institutions. This includes the police and their work, which embodies the executive branch of the separation of powers. During demonstrations, the police must protect and uphold the participants’ right of assembly. Journalists, however, not only try to report on the subject of the demonstrations, they strive for a citizen-oriented and transparent portrayal of the events.6 They are subject to a social information mandate, which includes facts and background information on relevant topics. It is their task to enable citizens to form a balanced opinion and to highlight social problem areas.

Luhmann differentiates several selectors, which are supposed to generate attention and can increase the probability that mass media communication continues, and a message is received as information.7

In the course of this, he notes that conflicts are preferred in media reporting because they indicate self-generated uncertainty. Conflicts generate tension and are forward-looking in terms of their binary classification into winners and losers.

The photograph, which was described above, creates such tension. It depicts a dynamic between the so-called lateral thinker as the government opponent and the police officers on the other side as the executive. Since the previously announced measures were violated, arrests, as the photo shows, took place. Previously, the police had taken criticism, it had been accused of being too harmless against Corona deniers.8 The 18th of November showed a different reality. Water cannons were used to break up the demonstration.9 Participants had disregarded the distance rules and mask requirement. The demonstrators did not shy away from violent confrontations with the police. Almost 200 provisional arrests were recorded.10 According to the vice president of the police union, Jörg Radek, the organizers of the unconventional demonstrations are only interested in provocation.11 It is not the task of the police to protect a particular opinion, but only to ensure the freedom of assembly. 

A Question of Perspective

According to a survey by the European Commission, 87 per cent of people in Germany tend to trust the police.12 Trust in the work of the police represents a fundamental basis of our democratic society. It is one task of the media to question this by monitoring the work of the police and publishing, among other things, pictures like the one above.  A photo represents only a snapshot, according to ZEIT ONLINE, police officers were targeted by protesters with bottles, stones and firecrackers at the demonstration in Berlin, which could be a legitimization for a violent arrest.13 The police reacted to the incident with physical force, pepper spray and arrests of the attackers, which is their task in this case. They have to protect the freedom of assembly and act against physical attacks. In the context of this, it is important to emphasize that photos of demonstrations are only a snapshot and must always be embedded in a context. If the man has previously thrown stones at the officers and rioted, their actions are justified and legitimized. If he merely violates the ban on assembly and, for example, wearing mouth and nose protection, then the police officers’ actions seem excessive and not justified. It is a question of perspective.

[1] Kahr, Robert. „Gewalttaten in den Medien“. Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, September 12, 2016.

[2] Luhmann, Niklas. „Realität der Massenmedien“. 2., erw. Aufl., Opladen 1996.

[3] N.U. „Querdenken-Demo in Berlin: Maskenlos gegen die angebliche Ermächtigung“.

[4] Beifuß, Hartmut, Sachsse, Rolf. „Bildjournalismus: ein Handbuch für Ausbildung und Praxis“. München 1994.

[5] Kahr, Robert. „Gewalttaten in den Medien“. Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, September 12, 2016.

[6] Grimberg, Steffen, Weitbrecht, Dagmar. „Wenn die Polizei zum Medium wird“. MDR, April 16, 2020.

[7] Binczek, Natalie. „Die Realität der Massenmedien“. 1995, in: Jahrhaus, Oliver/ Nassehi, Armin u.a. (Hrsg.): Luhmann Handbuch. Leben – Werk – Wirkung, Stuttgart 2012.

[8] Potthoff, Niklas. „Polizeieinsatz bei Querdenken-Demo „Der Veranstalter nimmt bewusst Kinder mit in die Versammlung““. Deutschlandfunk, November 18, 2020.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Kees, Michael. „Aufruf vom Journalisten-Verband: Der Polizei weniger nachplappern“. taz, July 7, 2019.!5606690/.

[13] N.U. „Querdenken-Demo in Berlin: Maskenlos gegen die angebliche Ermächtigung“. ZEIT ONLINE, November 18, 2020.

Written by Clara List:
What do you identify as? She/her
What is your guilty pleasure? I can’t say no to chocolate.
Which book do you recommend? Ferdinand von Schirach, „Die Würde ist antastbar“, 2017.

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  1. In all fairness and admitting that all above is correct, still AKK was the main person since she was inaugurated…

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