Editorial Problems of Autonomy

The independence of journalism is a common thread weaving through several articles in this issue. More precisely, it is the question of whether journalists (can) reliably focus on their professional task of ›creating a public‹, in other words, of providing an optimum of accurate information that is generally accessible to everyone. The next question is how to protect this professional autonomy from encroachments from politics and parties, but also from corporations, churches, sports associations, etc.

How do journalistic media respond when politicians appear on social media? Is journalism able to fend off political influences, or do politics set the agenda? Anna Spatzenegger has examined a large number of Facebook posts and tweets by German, Austrian, and Swiss politicians and corresponding articles from newspapers in the three countries. One of her findings was that regardless of cultural differences, journalists seem to prefer social media posts that generate the greatest amount of engagement. The author’s conclusion is a caveat: Journalists should be »wary and critical« about using Facebook and Twitter posts as sources for their work.

Should I major in journalism? Should I pick journalism or communication science? Professionals often advise choosing a »tangible« subject. A study by Konstantin Schätz and Susanne Kirchhoff presented in issue 2/20 shows that this disregard for academic professional training is also evident in the discipline’s desperate efforts to please the media business and its failure to provide innovative impulses to practice, as is the case in other professions. »The idea that training and continuing education must not only satisfy the needs of media companies, but could also be a source of innovative impulses that might shape the journalism industry and hone its professional profile beyond quality assurance and teaching ethics and responsibility is hardly anchored in the minds of the majority [of those responsible for journalistic vocational training in Austria].«What are the causes of this rejection of university-based journalism training, which has clearly led to a lack self-confidence amongst journalists? In his article, Horst Pöttker traces it back to the publishers and editors-in-chief of the Weimar Republic, who were committed to ideological journalism. According to Pöttker, they saw themselves first and foremost as Social Democrats, Communists, Catholics, National Socialists, etc., and »did not want to leave the professional socialization of their journalistic staff up to the universities, which are institutions of objectivity«. From this perspective, academic professional training can be a means to defend the professional autonomy of journalism against external influences. The US provides proof that this is not just wishful thinking. In the US, professional journalism training at universities has been widespread since the 1920s. Journalists, along with judges, are among the key professional groups defending the democratic system against attacks from the Trump administration. Would German journalists put a Chancellor Alexander Gauland in his place with the same grit?

In his essay, Peter Welchering elaborates on the difference between »attitude« and »posture«. He also refers to the historical division between opinion press and commercial press, cautioning against alinging journalistic education and training with Emil Dovifat’s model of opinion journalism. A professional attitude, on the other hand, means a stable commitment to the journalistic mandate of providing reliable public information.

This issue’s debate focuses on the relationship between »alternative media« and »lead« or »mainstream media«. In my contribution, I consider many current alternative media as »copycats« seeking to emulate and hijack successful civil society concepts. Michael Meyen, on the other hand, believes that the problem lies with the mainstream media, which are currently failing to fully meet their democratic mandate to publicize a pluralistic optimum of different positions. However, the »alternative media«, he argues, regardless of their political color, are showing us new financing models and new forms of audience participation and loyalty. When we criticize the mainstream media for being enslaved to the economics of attention, we must also ask whether maximizing attention really only serves commercial purposes, or if it doesn’t also serve the goal of reaching the largest possible audience – which is, after all, part of journalism’s core public mandate.

Our debate addresses the question of a steadfast commitment to this mandate, or the question of autonomy, in that both of our articles ascertain deficits of thereof: One of us believes that this is mainly the responsibility of those who operate under the false flag of »alternative media« in order to inject problematic political positions into the public; the other one believes the problem lies with the mainstream media and their subservience to dominant political positions, styles of argumentation, and concepts of legitimacy.

How do you assess the role of the »alternative media«, in the past and now? Join our debate – directly below the articles, the essay, and the debate pieces. Do you have any suggestions for topics, a manuscript, or criticism? redaktion@journalistik.online.

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Gabriele Hooffacker, October 2020

Translation: Kerstin Trimble