Media Credibility Crisis “Re-thinking Our Role”

Lying press?
Lying press? | © mitrija - Fotolia.com

Cronyism with elites, one-sided reporting, abuse of power – many Germans are dissatisfied with the media. How warranted are their charges? And how can journalists regain the confidence of the citizen? Four commentaries from the areas of journalism, science and politics.

Have the German lost their trust in the credibility of journalistic reporting? Since the followers of the anti-Islamic Pegida movement, and the right-wing party Alternative for Germany (AfD) have sweepingly attacked the media as the “lying press”, this has been an issue of public debate. While according to an October 2015 survey by the polling institute infratest dimap about 72 per cent of those questioned did not accept this allegation, 20 per cent nevertheless expressly embraced the term “lying press” in relation to newspapers, radio and television in Germany. And 42 per cent of all respondents expressed fundamental doubts about the credibility of journalistic content.

How justified is this criticism of the media? When is it misused for political propaganda? To what extent can it be constructive? And what role is played in the credibility crisis by the difficult economic situation in which many editors find themselves as part of the process of digitalization? The media journalist Petra Sorge, the political scientist Thomas Meyer, the politician Tabea Rößner (Alliance 90/The Greens) and Uwe Krüger, communication researcher at the University of Leipzig, respond to these questions.

“The Credibility Crisis Has Economic Causes.” – Petra Sorge, Editor and Media Columnist at “Cicero – Magazin für politische Kultur” (i.e. Cicero – Magazine for Political Culture)

Petra Sorge Petra Sorge | © Andraes Dallmann for Cicero (Ringier Publishing GmbH) When we’re talking about the current credibility crisis of journalism, I think it’s important first of all to distinguish two things. On the one hand, the media are the projection surface and target for one of the most dangerous cultural-political fights since German reunification. On the other hand, because of the digital revolution, they find themselves caught up in a phase of economic crisis.

In 2014 the phrase “lying press” was chosen the “Ugliest Word of the Year” because, as the jury explained, it already served in the First World War and then during the Nazi regime to defame independent media. This term, taken up by the anti-Islamic Pergida movement and continuing to survive in the environment of the right-wing populist party AfD, flatly denies the democratic control function of the press. It is alleged that German editors, with a view to a purported leftist domination of political discourse, conceal facts or give their stories a pro-government spin. The reporting of the sexual assaults in Cologne and other cities on New Year’s Eve 2015/2016, however, shows that there can be no question of a leftist domination of discourse. Crimes perpetrated by immigrants are now as much in the focus of reporting as is criticism of Angela Merkel’s refugee policy.

When we talk about the “credibility crisis”, we must also talk about economic factors. Digitalization has accelerated production processes in the media and caused advertising revenues to melt away. Editorial staffs are being thinned out, and there is less and less time for research. Looking for new sources of income, publishers have entered into new and dangerous alliances: through so-called “native advertising” they have allowed advertisers to give advertising content the semblance of editorial content.

To establish credibility means not to let ourselves be imposed upon by rightist political attacks, but also to guard editorial independence against commercial influences. And as to all other forms of criticism, whether expressed in commentaries or on social networks, it’s important that the public should be taken seriously, a constructive debate conducted and transparency established. Different segments of the public can even help in these tasks by providing research hints or detecting errors.

“The Federal Republic Needs Clarifying Discussions.” – Thomas Meyer, Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Vice-Chairman of the SPD’s Basic Values Commission

Thomas Meyer Thomas Meyer | Photo (detail): © Reiner Zensen The slogan of “lying press” has been since 2014 the rallying cry with which the protest movement Pegida, which is shot through with right-wing populists, aggressively opposes the German mass media. This blanket attack the media has rightly rejected. Nevertheless a discussion has been started in society and by some journalists about the actual failures and biases of German mainstream journalism under the heading “communication infarct”. The awareness is spreading that something has gone wrong in the relationship between society and its radio and print media. Mistrust and disaffection are growing.

Their causes can be summed up in three points. First, trust in the objectivity and truthfulness of the mass media has suffered. Many citizens, comparing their own experience with the image of society disseminated by the mass media, perceive that not a few journalists, through covertly partisan reports and comments, have sought to make policy instead of serving as fair custodians of social self-observation. Moreover, from the talk shows to parts of the quality press, there is a tendency to de-politicize the political process. Instead of debating relevant social issues, the media stages personal rivalries between celebrities. Finally, a picture of the world dominates many media in which social problems like growing insecurity, inequality and exclusion play only a marginal role.

Media and society are drifting apart. The relationship of trust between society and its media is disturbed. Certainly, we must begin by rejecting the blanket attacks of right-wing populists. But then the Federal Republic needs clarifying discussions to repair the visible cracks.

“To Re-define the Journalist’s Mission” – Tabea Rößner, Spokeswoman for Media, Creative Industries and Digital Infra-Structure for the Alliance 90/ The Greens Parliamentary Group

Tabea Rößner Tabea Rößner | Photo (detail): © Stefan Kaminski/ Alliance 90 / The Greens Parliamentary Group First of all, we should be wary of slogans like “forcible coordination” or “lying press”. These are political battle cries, which are really not appropriate to represent the situation in this country. The same applies to the repeatedly expressed accusation of cronyism between journalists and power elites. Such relationships prevail in totalitarian states, but are far from being the case in Germany.

In other words, we should be wary of demonizing the media in general. Do the media make policy and form opinion? Yes. But this is the role that has been assigned them by the constitution. The media serve freedom of expression and press freedom, and should provide citizens with the possibility of hearing different opinions and forming their own picture of things.

We must, however, take the massive loss of trust in the media, which is confirmed by surveys, with absolute seriousness. The crucial question is how we mean to deal with this credibility crisis. I believe that it is important for broadcasters and publishers to rethink their role. The time when they possessed the sole privilege of interpreting social reality is gone. What we need is reflection and an open culture of correcting errors. Working conditions and practices must be made more transparent; the media must make themselves more their own subject.

In addition, it is necessary to re-define the journalist’s mission. It is no longer enough merely to provide news. The background and framework of information has become increasingly important. In this way we can avoid the situation in which more and more people attach credence to supposedly simple answers, dubious blogs and conspiracy theories.

Of course this is also a question of resources. Comprehensive coverage, intensive research, detailed reports and more editors and correspondents on the spot – all this has its price. So this is also a question for politics. How, given the difficult (economic) situation, can we succeed in creating conditions in which the media can continue to provide the high journalistic quality that we need for a well-functioning democracy?

“A Narrowing of Media discourse” – Uwe Krüger, Journalist and Media Researcher at the University of Leipzig

Uwe Krüger Uwe Krüger | © Olivia Jasmin Czok/ University of Leipzig “System press”, “mainstream media”, “forcible coordination”, “lying press” – the terms are sometimes hyperbolic. Nevertheless it seems to me that resistance and repression are not adequate strategies for responding to the criticism. For there are established journalists and politicians who share some of these impressions. In 2005 the editor of the Süddeutsche Zeitung Franziska Augstein already spoke of “self-imposed coordination in the newspaper industry”. In 2008 the then editor-in-chief of the Wirtschaftswoche, Roland Tichy, called the phenomenon a “voluntarily coordinated press”, and at a media conference in 2014 Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was surprised by the “homogeneity” and “pressure to conformity” of editorial staffs.

Of course there is no Ministry of Propaganda in Germany that forcibly coordinates the media by censorship. There are, however, various mechanism that, working together, produce similar effects and lead to the reader’s “feeling himself the victim of information scams by the established media”, as the sociologist Arno Klönne has formulated it.

Among these factors are the economically precarious situation in which many editorial staffs find themselves today. A mixture of time pressure, PR-dependency and fear of job losses induces a climate in which journalists have little incentive to question agenda and purportedly self-evident facts. Another important cause for the homogeneity of world-view is the homogeneity of the journalistic milieu itself. Young journalists are recruited primarily from a Western or Westernized upper-class, and leading foreign policy journalists usually enjoy good contacts with the United States, NATO and the EU.

I basically believe that the media is strongly oriented to the discourse of the political elite in their setting of issues. The parties have become increasingly similar in their political positions. This too may have led to narrowing media discourse. Moreover, on many issues there are considerable divisions between the majority opinion of the public and the actions of the elites. When users then perceive that the major media are on the side of the elites and see their own questions ignored, this can come at the cost of trust.