Relotius Journalistic Fraud Case
Statement from DER SPIEGEL's Editors-in-Chief
Claas Relotius wrote many seemingly excellent feature stories for DER SPIEGEL, but unfortunately most of them apparently contain fabricated passages. We are sorry about what has happened and we are investigating with the requisite humility.
It has only been two days since we went public with the news that Claas Relotius, a reporter at DER SPIEGEL, was inventing and embellishing parts of the stories he wrote for the magazine. We have had a number of crisis meetings, conducted a few press interviews, carefully followed social media channels and spoken about possible strategies. The days have been long, and more long days are sure to come.
Claas Relotius worked for DER SPIEGEL for four years and wrote many fantastic features. Unfortunately, most of them included passages that were made up. He wrote about people that he never met or simply invented them out of thin air. He described scenes that never happened.
We can't yet precisely assess the full dimensions of what has taken place, but we nevertheless decided to make it public. We didn't want to leave that task up to others. We have begun the investigation process and will establish a committee whose task will be that of leaving no stone unturned. Because we want to know exactly what happened and why, so that it can never happen again. We have a lot of questions for ourselves, and the answers will likely result in quite a few changes at DER SPIEGEL.
We are deeply sorry about what has happened. We have a large readership which can now be forgiven for wondering if DER SPIEGEL should still be trusted. We have many journalists on our staff who do excellent work and who must now face the reality of living under a cloud of suspicion. It is up to us to prove that such suspicions are unfounded.
We are aware that the Relotius case makes the fight against fake news that much more difficult. For everyone. For other media outlets that are on our side and for citizens and politicians who are interested in an accurate portrayal of reality. We would like to apologize to them, too. But we can assure them: We understand the gravity of the situation. And we will do everything we can to learn from our mistakes.
Claas Relotius apparently had the feeling that he could never live up to our expectations with stories that were merely good or very good. He had the impression that they had to be excellent. It is not something we ever communicated to him, but we were naturally proud of the enormously positive feedback they generated and of the many prizes he won. That increased the pressure on him to repeat his successes and win the next prize. He apparently thought he could only do so with fabrications.
We are now fighting for our credibility and of course we are angry that Relotius so bitterly disappointed our readers and us. But we don't see Claas Relotius as an enemy. We see him as one of us who found himself at a psychological dead-end, and who then reached for the wrong, badly misguided remedies. We also have compassion for him.
He committed fraud and we allowed ourselves to be defrauded: the top editors, the section editors and the fact checkers. We were always proud of our system, which includes numerous safeguards ensuring that stories are read by many different people. Our fact checkers examine each story closely on the search for errors.
Now we know that the system is flawed. In the coming weeks and months, the committee will search for these flaws and make suggestions for how we can fix them. Such instances of fraud, however, cannot be completely prevented because verification must not turn into spying.
As a reporter, Relotius primarily wrote reportages. It is a special form of journalism in which diligence and vibrancy are a must. The reporter is there, watching and listening, and then writes what he or she has seen and heard within the framework of a narrative arc and eloquence.
Some may be tempted to transform journalism into literature and ultimately into fiction. Reporters are often on their own, frequently in foreign countries. For a fact checker back home, it's not always easy to determine if assertions in a story are true or false.
Most reporters work with precision and accuracy, something that needs to be emphasized here. Yet it is still necessary to closely examine the discipline of reportage and the temptations it presents. Just as we should look at the numerous journalism prizes that spur ambition, but not always in a healthy way.
We have always believed that a certain amount of freedom is necessary for excellent journalism. We don't want to monitor every step taken by our journalists. They should also be allowed to drift, a necessary spark for creativity. But too much creativity should also be avoided.
We will investigate the Relotius case with the humility it requires. That is something we owe you, our readers. We love our magazine, DER SPIEGEL, and we are extremely sorry that we could not spare it, our dear old friend, from this crisis.
Steffen Klusmann, future DER SPIEGEL editor-in-chief
Dirk Kurbjuweit, deputy DER SPIEGEL editor-in-chief