German Initiative News Enlightenment
“We’ve Lost the Criteria for Relevance”

“The blind spot“ – the Initiative News Enlightenment
“The blind spot“ – the Initiative News Enlightenment | Photo (detail): Denis Junker –

The German Initiative News Enlightenment publishes annually a top ten list of news items that fare badly in media coverage. In this interview the INA executive director Hektor Haarkötter talks about the reasons why issues are swept under the table.

Mr Haarkötter, German quality media hide advertising links in their online articles, thus deceiving their readers and even being paid for it. Actually a scandal. But so far hardly anyone has reported on it. Why?

Quite simple: the media would then have to more or less pillory themselves, because they’re the ones who profit from this practice. In times of increasing economic pressures this is apparently particularly difficult, since you would then lose a profitable source of income. So in the end you make a decision against transparency and for a highly dubious business model.

And this is where the Initiative News Enlightenment comes in?

We’re a non-profit organization consisting of a team of scientists and journalists who have made it their task to detect such blind spots in the media. Since 1997 we publish every year a top ten list of such neglected news. The subjects are researched by teams of students at universities from Hamburg to Munich. Generally it’s about identifying issues about which we have the impression that they have high social relevance but that for various reasons haven’t received the public attention they deserve.

Gaps in media coverage

What issues are currently on your list?

Prof. Dr. Hektor Haarkötter Prof. Dr. Hektor Haarkötter | © University of Media, Communication and Economy (HMKW), Cologne For example, the problem of non-transparent finances in public foundations. These institutions receive every year almost half a billion euros of taxpayer’s money. It’s often not clear where this money is going in detail. Another important issue about which little has been so far reported is the massive underpayment of trainees in Germany. Then there’s the insufficient data protection for patients, the high paper consumption in Germany and the downright surveillance going on in ski resorts; the operators of lift stations photograph skiers for monitoring purposes without their knowledge.

The INA has been publishing these rankings now for nineteen years. What are the main causes leading to such gaps in media coverage?

There’s a whole range of factors that play a role here. It’s not always as clear as in the case of hidden advertising links. Often it’s systemic reasons that lead to some news items being swept under the table. Up to 5,000 ticker messages a day now hail down on editorial staffs. Some items fall through the cracks simply because there isn’t the time to evaluate them. Many journalists have lost the criteria for relevance. In spite of or just because of the oversupply of information. Another reason is journalistic herd behaviour.

You mean the mutual copying of headlines and stories?

Exactly. Journalists love to report about things that other journalists have already reported. When in doubt, you report the topic that has been already treated by the competition instead of reflecting yourself about what is relevant.

Media criticism is too weak

But shouldn’t the culture of journalism and media criticism that we have in Germany soften the effect of these systemic problems?

In theory, yes. But I don’t find the culture of criticism particularly lively in this country. The observation of the media has been done here so far above all by the media itself. And they don’t have a particularly vital interest in looking at themselves all too critically. In media journalism you seldom find an informed and objective discussion about the systemic problems of journalism.

But at least in the area of media regulation Germany is well-equipped, isn’t it?

The system is elaborate, that’s true, and yet it must be said that it doesn’t really work well. The broadcasting councils of the public broadcasters, which ought to assume a monitoring and supervisory function, often identify themselves so strongly with the institutions that constructive criticism is hardly possible. Much more sensible would be committees in which viewers, readers and users could offer constructive criticism. And they – this has been recognized now by established media companies – are very well capable of making such a contribution. Many media now seeks an active dialogue with readers and viewers.

Finding topics with citizen support

The INA depends on such committed citizens, because from them you get the suggestions for your topics.

That’s right, we get several thousand suggestions for topics per year, with which we then have to do a good deal of sifting. Among the submissions there are many conspiracy theory texts that inappropriately take the criticism of the media to the extreme. But we also do research ourselves, often supported by partner organizations at home and abroad.

What actions does the INA plan for the future?

We want, for example, to expand the existing cooperation with the German World Service even further and bring our issues into the main programme. In June 2016 we’ll jointly organize the 2nd Cologne Forum for Journalism Criticism in the Chamber Music Hall of the broadcaster. There for the entire day we’ll discuss with experts and those concerned what in some circumstances is wrong with journalism. We’ll also award the Günter Wallraff Prize for Journalism Criticism.

Dr. Hektor Haarkötter is executive director of the Initiative News Enlightenment (Initiative Nachrichtenaufklärung / INA) and Professor of Journalism at the University of Media, Communication and Economy (HMKW) in Cologne.