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Press Versus Liars: Doing Good Journalism in These Trying Times

An Editorial By

In addition to protesting against Muslims, Germany's Pegida movement has also sought to discredit the media. Zoom
DPA

In addition to protesting against Muslims, Germany's Pegida movement has also sought to discredit the media.

We are living in times of growing tension and near societal hysteria in Germany in the wake of the massive influx of refugees. One of the first victims of this development has been the media's credibility. Restoring public trust will require considerable effort by journalists -- but also on the part of their readers.

The times we are living in are raucous, raw and confusing, which means a preliminary remark is needed as part of any article about the outrage and hatred that is currently being directed at the media in Germany.

First, many, many people inform themselves thoroughly about the complicated world in which we live. These people tend not to be very outraged, which is also why their voices often go unheard amid the cacophony. But they do exist, and it is important to note this.

Second, there are many, many media outlets out there which report precisely and passionately and refuse to be intimidated. They are viewed, listened to and read. You could start to list examples in Germany here -- the primetime heute-journal news on public broadcaster ZDF, the Süddeutsche Zeitung and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspapers, for example -- but the list could go on and on and would never be complete.

A Growing Credibility Problem

At the same time, there have been myriad incidents in recent weeks highlighting the fact that the media in Germany currently have a public image problem. At protests against Muslim immigrants living in Germany, camera teams have been attacked. And following its reporting on a 13-year-old German-Russian girl who disappeared in Berlin last month, threats in the social media against journalists at the Berliner Zeitung became so egregious that the newspaper has now instituted a policy of taking legal action against individuals who threaten its staff with physical violence or defame them. Recent days have seen the Russian media and the country's foreign minister unleash a wave of propaganda around the world over inaccurate claims that the teenage girl in question had been raped in Germany.

In another significant development that has not helped the media's image, regional TV station SWR in Baden-Württemberg recently submitted to a demand by the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) to rescind an invitation for the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) to appear with other national parties on a televised political debate, creating the impression that a supposedly independent public broadcaster's strings were being pulled by the government. Meanwhile, a freelance journalist working for WDR, the state public broadcaster in North Rhine-Westphalia, went on a talk show claiming she had been instructed to report in a "pro-government" way.

SPIEGEL, too, has been on the receiving end of the animosity. One reader, who has subscribed to the magazine for 30 years, ignored a series of recent covers we have run about the German state losing control and Merkel's growing isolation in at home and abroad over her refugee policies and accused us of "uncritical reporting" in a letter peppered with charged terms like "Jew lovers" and "assholes."

The events of New Year's Eve in Cologne, which saw hundreds of German women attacked or sexually harassed by largely immigrant perpetrators, have acted as an accelerant in this trend, with the result being that 40 percent of Germans no longer trust the media. In addition to, but also because of, the hysteria and division that have gripped our society engaging too little with facts and too much with emotions, the German media now finds itself with a serious credibility problem.

What Journalists Need to Do

Is there something we can do as journalists to counter this? Should we carry on? Of course we should. But we also need to do more.

In times like these, especially, the quality media cannot allow cost-saving measures to kill the very thing that sets them apart from the loudmouths -- namely their capacity for research and reporting, i.e., local reporters, foreign correspondents and investigative teams. We need to take the time necessary to have a true understanding of contexts and be able to explain them properly, and we must maintain a moderate tone and not allow ourselves to descend into the ruckus. Modern life demands immediate gratification, but journalism requires clear thinking and calm.

All the same, there are times when escalation and judgements, based on reporting and analysis, are necessary -- but this must come at the right moment and cannot be based on self-fulfilling prophecies or prejudices. However, differentiation doesn't mean backing down -- of course journalists need to have a spine.

We must also admit our mistakes and explain them. We must determine whether we do, on occasion, have another, more elite view of German reality than many readers. We need to engage in a dialogue with our readers and absorb their criticism. To this end, having a sense of humor might help. The fact is that we should have no problem accepting that millions of people who in the past tended to be quiet consumers today use social media to get involved and, as such, have themselves become producers of media. While debates can be gratifying, people who are too thin-skinned seldom seem attractive. Astonishingly, the same holds true for journalists.

What Readers Should Know

Still, it would nonetheless be helpful if our esteemed readers were to consider three things every now and then:

First: There's a danger inherent in Facebook and Twitter that users will only read what they want, spending every minute seeking self-affirmation and, in the end, viewing their own hatred to be rational and perfectly justified.

Second: The oft-disparaged "mainstream media" do not exist. The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and right-leaning Die Welt have adopted different editorial lines from those of the left-leaning Die Zeit or Süddeutsche Zeitung. There are some media whose perceptions of reality border on fantasy.

Third: SPIEGEL is an independent publisher owned by the journalists it hires and, as such, is not influenced by any third party. This is not a publication where a person can just spew unverified information out into the world, only to turn around and say the opposite the next day. Our reporting takes days, weeks, sometimes even months to complete. Articles are then subjected to a rigorous review process that includes editing and vetting by section editors, fact-checkers, researchers, lawyers, editors-in-chief and copy editors, with steady improvements made to the stories throughout. Our editors and reporters engage in constant debate over the contents of these articles and the views expressed by the magazine and website. We are united in our belief that we must seek to understand and not denigrate people who are fleeing war zones. We are also united in our belief that it is self-evident that we must report on mistakes made by the German government or political parties, European failures or any apparent loss of control on the part of the state. These tasks may prove to be as complex as the entire migrant crisis itself, but none of them are mutually exclusive.

The good news is that many, many media are already exercising great care and accuracy. See above.

About the Author
DER SPIEGEL

Klaus Brinkbäumer is the editor in chief of DER SPIEGEL.

The author on Facebook

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1. Hysteria?
glasspix 02/03/2016
Klaus, the problem with the German press is not public hysteria. People in Germany are genuinely scared, an they have nowhere to turn. They have been abandoned by the police, press and government. The world that they grew up with and knew has changed beyond recognition within months and their experience is absolutely nowhere reflected in the media, nor do they have any official platforms to voice their concerns. They have to rely on foreign media to find out what is going on in their own country, because instead of reporting on facts German journalists are writing disgraceful self-apologies like the above article. You are ideologically aligned with the officially sanctioned government line, that itself is totally removed from the terrifying reality unleashed on German streets. Take this from a fellow journo.
2. The Press
Publisher 02/03/2016
I appreciated this editorial very much as a member of the reporting media in the US. I live in California and publish a small weekly newspaper. I was stationed in West Germany in the 70's and lived there 4 years. I loved my time there and the German people. Timing is everything, especially in journalism. The delayed reporting - and lack of response by the local police - on the events on New Years Eve in Cologne is what I believe concerned people the most. Timely reporting on events that affect people - especially where criminal activity is concerned - is something people depend on when looking to the media. I hope the media in Europe can reform itself, especially in this very difficult time, so people's faith in the media is restored, and good, unbiased reported can be depended on. MJL
3. Trust
par4 02/03/2016
What would Reinhard Gehlen do?
4. Above
Jay-jay 02/03/2016
I'll offer my unsolicited opinion in the hope that you read it - do you wish to know why the media, especially the mainstream (whose existence you deny), has lost all credibility? Its because you are so frustratingly assured of your own moral authority. The media, even the so-called "right-wing" you speak of, has been overtaken by people who share the same set of values, who have a loyalty to those values and those mores. Self-censorship in the name of a greater idea, in the name of the paradigm of the world that you all seem to share. When did you report on the abomination that occurred in Cologne? Now compare that to the speed and voracity at which you attack and publish anything to do with PEGIDA or similar. You massage the truth by saying that you need to vet sources and clarify facts, but you have no issue with time when reporting articles that put the AfD in a bad light. The fact that you happen to be owned by a troupe of journalists has not bearing on your objectivity or lack thereof. German people are angry and you are not reflecting the reality. Your editorials, like the one above, call for your own absolution. "We're innocent" you imply, but your very own editing of this newspaper shows where your allegiances lie - the articles that have primacy. They lie with the perpetuating of your view of the world. Thank goodness for Facebook, twitter and the like. People are able to see the world they know and not the one that they are shown by the likes of the mainstream media. You may not like the characterisations above, and you may not agree with them, but then, why are the Germans angry with you? Why do they not trust you? 40% is a conservative estimate of their misgivings. The only way you can ever win back trust is by reporting objectively and honestly on what happens, no matter how politically incorrect it may be. Its not your job to dictate public opinion. I'll end my ramblings by saying this, I know what an independent press looks like and as an immigrant from a less than free country, I can tell you what a biased media looks like too.
5. Editorial misrepresents the problem
Oh-boy 02/03/2016
I am a non-German, non-Muslim, who lives in South America—I say this to make it clear, I have no "skin in the game". I come from a position of impartiality. The problem is, many people—both inside and outside of Germany—believe that the German press misrepresents, suppresses, and occasionally lies about what is actually going on in Germany. These misrepresentations, suppressions and lies seem of the politically correct variety. For example, it took over a week for mainstream German press to report on the events of New Year's in Cologne—Der Spiegel included. When the mainstream German press began to report on what happened (finally), they played down the nationality of the people involved. And when someone in the initial reports pointed out that the criminals were Arab or North African, those people were labeled as racists by the German media. When the truth finally emerged—that refugees were acting lawlessly—the German media quickly pointed the finger at Right wing groups, as if what Right wings groups say or do makes it acceptable for refugees to behave lawlessly. The German media refuses to accept that reasonable people think that the open-door policy for refugees is a mistake. The German media wants to label any such reasoned opposition "Right wing". In pursuit of this point of view, the German media is willing to distort and actually suppress information that they find "objectionable". As an example, Der Spiegel has refused to report that the EU has estimated that 60% of the refugees that have been accepted were economic refugees—not political refugees. This information was headline news in the rest of the world last week—but Der Spiegel ignored it. This was just one example. There are dozens more. Is it any wonder that reasonable people think German media is corrupt, lying, and not to be trusted? If 40% of the German people think that the press is lying, and not to be trusted, could it be that maybe . . . the German press lies, and is not to be trusted? And that, in order to win back that trust, the German press should set aside its political ideology, stop lying, stop suppressing the news, and actually report on what's actually going on, regardless of political sensitivities?
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