Lying press accusation against the media: maybe we can still be saved

The media industry thought it had to master the digital transformation in order to survive. Instead, the arrogance of academics has to go.

Academics don’t understand everything either Photo: photocase/cydonna

Okay, let’s talk about the divide. It has long been a constant companion of journalists’ everyday work; for the past three or four years, media makers have been talking about nothing else. It’s the one between sender and receiver: The senders of content find out that a large part of the potential receivers don’t care that anything is being sent at all.

That was true in 2016. And it was the same the year before, and the year before that, and it will be the same again in 2017. The closer the federal election gets, the more hysterical the tone will become. People will continue to search hyperventilatingly for the reason for "the gap," trying to fill it in from all sides.

First of all: Sorry, folks, it’s not going to happen that fast. The problem is home-grown and is closely linked to the structures that have evolved in our industry. It has to grow out of that first. Unfortunately, the symptom inherent in the system is that those who perceive the problem cannot see the cause. But let’s take it one step at a time.

If you read through analyses and interviews of the past few years, from the point of view of many editors-in-chief, directors, program directors and editors, the whole thing seems less like a chasm than like an impermeable but transparent membrane that cuts through our reality.

They did not believe it

Think of the huge dome in "Truman Show" or Marlen Haushofer’s novel "The Wall": On the other side, things go on, but there is no contact with this sphere. You can see the people going about their business there, but no matter how loud you shout, how frantically you wave your arms, they don’t seem to notice.

As if they were following their own world logic, disconnected from the communication contract that supposedly everyone can agree on this side of the wall. Who instead are convinced of the existence of the lying press, speak only of mainstream media and in historical lunacy of "Gleichschaltung".

No matter how conscientiously and continuously journalists set facts against assertions, the multiple-source principle against rumor-mongering: in 2016, too, the intended recipients always reacted the same way, no matter whether after the New Year’s Eve in Cologne, Bautzen, Clausnitz, Freiburg. They didn’t believe it. The patterns repeat themselves, a eureka moment has so far failed to materialize. The only realization of many media makers: No matter how you do it, you do it wrong.

When the big analysis began after the U.S. election in early November – the causes of the election results, the role of the press, the conclusions for German media production – three German journalists of distinction spoke out. And in doing so, they unintentionally exposed the crux of our industry.

A visit to the provinces

Spiegel editor-in-chief Klaus Brinkbaumer said in an interview with the NDR media magazine "Zapp": "Have we at Spiegel also had an elitist view of German reality from time to time? Because we sit in Hamburg, sit in Berlin, sit in major German cities, every now and then – now that’s a mean word – we’ve lost sight of provinces, small towns, sorrows, which, however, also exist in Germany," saying that instead, "we have to go there and write about it. We’ve been at it for a long time.

Stephan Lebert, Zeit editor, explained in a long text that, in his perception, journalists have wanted to be part of the elite instead of controlling it since the nineties: "There is also a discussion in Germany these days about whether the media should publicly admit that they have reported too little about the forgotten, the outcasts in society, in other words, about the very people who are now turning the democracies upside down. It’s an unhelpful discussion because, like so much, it ends in cantankerousness"; it would be better to "paint the big picture, and of course where the alleged outcasts are flocking together."

Claus Kleber tweeted in his inimitable elliptical style: "Admire d boys who win Volos today. Erasmus, super exams, noble internships. Close to de Leut? Not so fashionable."

Either it’s hubris or alienation or a mixture of both: it’s as if the three don’t even realize what they’re saying. On the other hand, an attitude shimmers through that makes the very membrane against which they are beating the drum so vehemently grow thicker.

Academics with other academics

Brinkbaumer wants to send his editors out into the provinces to look at people’s concerns; Lebert diagnoses an elitism (journalists long to put "the elite" on the guest lists of their birthdays and weddings? Aha.) and wants social reports about places where "the supposedly outcasts flock together" – my goodness, someone is writing with a lot of scum in his mouth.

So academics sit with other academics in editorial conferences and consider from their academic point of view how they could report on the sensitivities of non-academics in order to reach them as readers (according to a study by the University of Applied Sciences in Vienna, 69 percent of German journalists had a university education in 2005). Solution: Let’s send one of our academics into the field to look around among the uneducated provincials, yes, exactly, and add a few expert voices.

This "Let’s get down from our tower" is fatal in its ignorance. "The people whose intentions we were so worried about were around us all the time," Matt Taibbi wrote in Rolling Stone after the U.S. election about "The Divide," "and they heard it talked about like some wild, uneducated beast." They are "not a zoo where we as journalists take a look around on a Sunday afternoon," Anne Fromm recently put it in a nutshell here in the taz.

Well, and then "heute journal" host Kleber wonders where the highly bred offspring come from. Maybe it’s because he belongs to a generation for whom it’s not a "once upon a time" story to talk about those who got an editor’s job or at least a trainee position without graduating from high school, college or journalism school. Because they may not realize that you have to have parents with enough money in their bank accounts to be able to afford internships or a journalism school place in cities like Munich or Hamburg.

Mapping society

In short: The bubble continues to grow. (And this is written by someone who herself sits in a glass house – father an engineer, mother a teacher, first foreign language Latin, doctorate, i.e. the full educated bourgeois stereotype). This simply cannot work!

Because the task of journalism is not only to depict the diversity of society in reports, features and portraits – those who research and write must also cover all these perspectives. Otherwise, it remains just writing and talking about X. The internal perspective cannot be reproduced.

It is about much more than just those who are subsumed under "the outcasts. Of course, there have long been initiatives that do something to counteract the monotony, whether it’s the continuing education programs offered by the "New German Media Makers," the WDR’s "grenzenlos" support program, or the taz-Panter traineeship, which tries to promote those who add something different to the majority white, male editorial staff; the American Press Institute has its own "Diversity Program," and one branch of the BBC’s training is so inclusive that the "ideal candidate" has an immigrant background or disability.

Now, one may ask why this aspect has so far been neglected in human resources development. One reason will be that decision-makers over the past ten to 15 years have been primarily focused on getting the digital transformation thing right.

"Diversity management is more than just a free skate

Permanently on the lookout for a solution to somehow cushion the decline of print with digital products. HR departments even created viral recruiting videos for the "war for talent. And in the process, everyone beyond the "18-25" market research category seemed to slip out of sight. Target groups who now think "the media" doesn’t cover those topics they find themselves in.

In addition, "diversity management" is often seen as mere freestyle. Establishing justice, well, how difficult that is between men and women alone is well known. But it’s about so much more: It simply makes sense in terms of craftsmanship, content – and thus ultimately also economically.

The multi-award-winning Spiegel editor ozlem Gezer, who made headlines not least with her scoop, the interview with art dealer Cornelius Gurlitt, told the following about her work in the industry magazine Medium Magazin in 2014: "I grew up in a high-rise on Hamburg’s Kiez. With many of my topics, this is a bridge into the milieu," people forget that she is a journalist.

Even if she, like Gurlitt, is not subscribed to migration topics, her perspective is an advantage: "Imagine something happens in a Turkish extended family. Then you can send Melanie there as the chief reporter and it can work. But you can also send ozlem. She rings the doorbell, takes off her shoes, kisses her grandmother’s hand, and sits on the other side of the table, not next to her father. It would be stupid, also from Spiegel, if you don’t use my access," Gezer said. "And when Turkish boys in their neighborhood tell what annoys them, how they are stigmatized by Germans, I also unpack three stories because I know their feeling."

"That connection is severed"

What emerges in this way is trust. A sense of understanding that cannot be created artificially. No matter how empathetically the reporter from an academic household is able to research and write, equipped with "Erasmus, super exams, noble internships" – his view is different, and so is his perception of codes. Journalism needs to convey this sense of understanding so that the circle of recipients changes.

East Coast media elite here, economically and socially "disconnected" there: "This connection has been severed," Brinkbaumer said, but that is "not a media problem." Yes, it is. It’s high time that editorial staffs fill their positions more diversely. Until that takes effect and communication through the glass wall works again, it will take at least one generation of training. Too bad: It won’t happen before the federal elections.

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