This book is the first of its kind. Journalism in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland have been examined many times, but never before together and using identical questions. Despite this, the first feeling one has upon reading this work is one of tedium – the results do not teach us anything new about the 41,000 German, 4,000 Austrian and 10,000 Swiss journalists. But then comes something truly striking and controversial: Although more than 90 percent of the media people surveyed see themselves as neutral communicators of information, they see their role of providing critique and monitoring as almost negligible. Only 20 percent in Germany and Austria, and 22 percent in Switzerland, view themselves as a counterweight to the government. That figure for the USA is 86 percent. Just 29 percent of the German, 13 percent of the Austrian, and 47 percent of the Swiss journalists trust the government, and clear majorities believe that it is acceptable to use confidential government documents without permission occasionally – yet they do not want to scrutinize the government. The study shows that there is a need for action here, and that the journalistic community in the three countries needs to hold a debate about how it sees its role!
More than 90 percent of those surveyed say that journalists should maintain professional ethics at all times, regardless of the situation and context. Yet at the same time, between 40 and 60 percent say that what is ethically acceptable depends on the specific situation. They thus contradict themselves. In addition, the study shows that journalism is undergoing a rapid transformation, manifested particularly in economic (more competition, greater consideration of expected profit), technological (online search engines, impact of social media), societal (more audience involvement), and organizational (greater time pressure) changes. The proportion of women has risen slightly, but it is a scandal that female journalists still earn around a quarter less than their male colleagues. The level of academic education has also increased. The pressure to base stories more on sensations was clearly expressed. As Josef Seethaler sums up: »The sensitivity of the question of the freedom to make decisions, as well as the value of research, is demonstrated by its – surprising – connection to factors that influence the image of journalism: its credibility and its relevance in society, like the applicability of ethical standards, are not perceived merely as having fallen, but as having fallen to a relatively low level in international comparison.«
Politically, the journalists continue to place themselves slightly to the left of center (a value of 4.0 in Germany and Switzerland and 4.7 in Austria on a scale of 0-10, where 0 is far left and 10 is far right). They do not want to set the agenda with their work, nor to shape the political agenda or influence public opinion. Instead – especially in Switzerland with its direct democracy and Austria, which has regular referendums – they aim to communicate information that enables people to make political decisions themselves.
The study is the work of teams from LMU Munich (Thomas Hanitzsch, Corinna Lauerer, Nina Steindl), the Austrian Academy of Sciences (Josef Seethaler, Marlene Dietrich-Gsenger), and ZHAW Zurich University of Applied Sciences (Vinzenz Wyss, Guido Keel, Filip Dingerkus). The University of Neuchatel (with Annik Dubied, Vittoria Sacco) was also involved in the survey, responsible for French and Italian-speaking Switzerland. The study was based on telephone and online interviews with 2,502 journalists, conducted between fall 2014 and summer 2015. The survey was part of the second stage of the Worlds of Journalism Study, which covered 67 countries. Stretching to more than 80 pages, the tables section of the book is proof of how extensive and complex the study was. Before the survey could even begin, arduous work was required to research how many journalists there actually are in the three countries in total: Whom do they include? What counts as an independent editorial office? Which media types need to be excluded?
Unfortunately, embedding the work into the international study made it impossible to examine some research questions: What is the status of elite integration in journalism? Has nepotism in Vienna and Bern been overcome? Is the journalism culture in the three countries focused more on investigative research or concordance with power? How many journalists remain involved in political parallelism by working for party media (such as Die Neue Freie Zeitung of the FPÖ, Radio AfD or the SVP-supporting Weltwoche)? How noticeable is state control over the media? Which complaints processes for the audience do journalists face?
The essence of the study should not only encourage further research, but also initiate debate among practitioners. The transformation of journalism is indisputable and unstoppable. Changed economic conditions appear absolutely irrevocable. Yet many circumstances are also ‘self-inflicted’ and can be influenced by the community.
This review first appeared in rezensionen:kommunikation:medien, April 22. 2020, accessible at https://www.rkm-journal.de/archives/22161.
About the reviewer
Dr. Roger Blum is a journalist and Emeritus Professor of Communication and Media Studies at the University of Bern. His research fields are media systems, political journalism, media ethics, and media history. He is currently working together with Marlis Prinzing on the Handbuch Politischer Journalismus (Verlag Herbert von Halem, Cologne).
Translation: Sophie Costella