Metajournalistic Discourse on Risks of News Reception A Case Study on the Legitimization of Authority in the Context of a Journalistic Scandal

by Laura Badura and Katherine M. Engelke

Abstract: The purpose of this study is to disclose metajournalistic discourse on risks (i.e., false, incomplete, erroneous information) that are present during the use of news content for recipients and to discern whether this self-criticism can contribute towards legitimizing journalism’s authority. Journalistic consideration of risks is relevant to the relationship between journalism and the audience because recipients’ trust always relates to risk-taking. The quantitative content analysis of German newspaper articles (N = 127) presented here is based on two pre-studies and focusses on the so-called Relotius scandal as a case study. A high number of articles (71.7%) mention at least one risk and almost all of them address several specific internal and external causes. Most of the legitimization strategies are self-referential (i.e., uncritical). The case study illustrates that risks of news reception can be operationalized to capture how they are addressed in metajournalistic discourse and that discourse on risks appears to be able to contribute towards legitimizing journalism’s authority in several ways.


Using journalistic news content can be risky for recipients, as illustrated by prominent historical and current examples of deceptions and fabrications (for research on US cases, see Carlson 2014; Govaert et al. 2019; Spurlock 2016; for research on German cases, see Burkhardt 2015; Doll 2012) as well as by newspapers correcting mistakes and errors (see Hettinga et al. 2018) in reporting. While such journalistic scandals and missteps call into question journalism’s authority and prompt self-criticism as a specific form of metajournalistic discourse (see Carlson 2016; Haas 2006), research so far has largely neglected to examine how journalists publicly legitimize their authority in the context of risks of news reception. However, examining such legitimization processes is especially important due to journalism’s democratic role in society (see Esser/Neuberger 2019), for which the trust of the audience is essential (see Vos/Thomas 2018: 2003). The purpose of this quantitative content analysis is therefore to disclose metajournalistic discourse on risks that are present during the use of news content for recipients and to discern whether this self-criticism can contribute towards legitimizing journalism’s authority. We do so by drawing on the Relotius scandal (see below) as a case study.

Journalistic Authority and the Relevance of Metajournalistic Discourse

Journalistic authority as »a contingent relationship in which certain actors come to possess a right to create legitimate discursive knowledge about events in the world for others« (Carlson 2017: 13) is increasingly being called into question: Not only deceptions, fabrications and errors, but also changes in technology, economy and politics (see also Wahl-Jorgensen et al. 2016) contribute towards journalism’s legitimacy as an authority regarding knowledge creation and its democratic role in society being challenged (see Carlson 2017: 2f.; Figenschou/Ihlebæk 2019; Tong 2018: 258ff.; Vos/Thomas 2018: 2001, 2004ff.). Authority in turn is based on journalism developing professional norms and practices and the audience accepting these and trusting that they will be adhered to (see Carlson 2017: 14; Tong 2018: 257; Vos/Thomas 2018: 2003; for Carlson’s critical reflections on the relationship between credibility/trust and authority, see Carlson 2017: pp. 106f.).

Authority is not fixed or constant – rather, journalism’s position as a legitimate conveyor of knowledge is the result of a continuing discursive process (see Carlson 2017: 15; Vos/Thomas 2018: 2001, 2003). One prominent site in which »actors publicly engage in processes of […] rendering judgments about journalism’s legitimacy« (Carlson 2016: 350) is metajournalistic discourse. The concept is understood as »public expressions evaluating news texts, the practices that produce them, or the conditions of their reception« (Carlson 2016: 350) and has three discursive components: the actors from which the discourse originates, the sites in which the discourse is published and the topics to which the discourse refers (see Carlson 2016: 355ff.). Regarding these three components, this study focuses on metajournalistic discourse on risks of news reception originating from both journalistic and non-journalistic actors and published in journalistic sites that is reactive in that it is a response to a specific journalistic incident. Despite including non-journalistic actors’ contributions to the discourse (e.g., letters to the editor), it should be noted that the fact that all articles are published in journalistic sites means that journalistic actors ultimately decide what becomes part of the discourse or not.

Risks of News Reception for the Journalistic Audience

Trust in journalism is not only relevant in the context of authority, it also played a major role in the Relotius case – which we focus on in this study – in that the scandal led to a decline in or loss of trust. This is shown by various headlines such as »Der Spiegel Made Up Stories. How Can It Regain Readers’ Trust?« (Schultheis 2019; see also Hertreiter 2018; Newman et al. 2019: 85f.). Although risks are decisive for shaping the trust relationship between audience and journalism (see Blöbaum 2014: 42ff.; Kohring 2004: 95ff., 160f.), it remains unclear so far how risks are discussed in metajournalistic discourse and how this may be related to legitimizing journalistic authority.

The long tradition of the risk construct in different disciplines makes a consensual definition difficult. In general, and from an interdisciplinary point of view, risk can be understood as future-related uncertainty regarding a dimension that people value and that needs to be calculated according to the probability of occurrence and the extent of damage caused by an action or event (see Renn 2007: 11f). Interdisciplinary trust research mostly agrees on the role risk plays as a precondition for trust (see Mayer et al. 1995: 711) and that both constructs have to be examined together. Following Kohring’s concept, this is also true for journalism studies, as risk that arises for the recipients must be considered when examining trust in journalism (see Kohring 2004: 360ff.). We follow the common assumption that risk-taking is based on voluntariness (see Kohring 2004: 92), but we also see the necessity of risk-taking for the recipients as the risk-taking action in this case is supposed to lead to a positive outcome that contributes to the reduction of complexity (see Luhmann 1979).

Discussing risks (that are present during the use of news content for recipients; see Badura 2016) publicly is relevant because metajournalistic discourse on the part of journalists has been found to be a »reaction to the public’s growing distrust of mainstream journalism, serving to persuade the public that mainstream news organizations are capable of self-improvement and to avoid external regulation« (Haas 2006: 351f.). Journalistic public evaluations of the conditions of news texts’ reception – specifically strategic explanations of risks that media use poses for recipients, including how risks are dealt with and why journalism adheres to the accepted norms and practices despite their presence – as a transparency measure can potentially increase trust in journalism (see Uth et al. 2021: 65ff.), which itself is not only an important prerequisite for journalism’s legitimacy and authority position in the eyes of the audience (see Tong 2018: 257; Vos/Thomas 2018: 2003), but also for its democratic role in society (see Usher 2018: 564f.). Discourse in which journalists publicly and strategically discuss how the risks are dealt with can also be understood as a form of paradigm repair (see Carlson 2014: 36, 2016: 351f., 2017: 83; Haas 2006: 350f.; Hindman 2005: 226f.; Vos/Thomas 2018: 2003), where journalists try to restore their professional status (in the sense of authority, credibility, and legitimacy) in response to a professional crisis (see Koliska/Steiner 2019).

In order to investigate how risks of news reception are dealt with in metajournalistic discourse, we operationalize how journalists legitimize risks – i.e., journalists’ strategies regarding the presentation of causes of risks within metajournalistic discourse. To this end, we first conducted two pre-studies to explore the understanding of risks of news reception: first, focus group interviews with German media users that captured the recipients’ views on risks (see Badura 2016). For the recipients’ perspective, we used the findings from two German focus groups on media usage and trust (N = 12) and searched for recipients’ perceptions of risks in news reception, focusing especially on the causes for risky news media use that recipients mentioned. Second, we conducted a literature review of German reviewed journal articles dealing with risks of news media reception that ascertained scholars’ views on risks (see Badura et al. 2019). For the journalism studies’ perspective, we conducted a literature review of journal articles and investigated how the risks identified in the first pre-study and their causes can be described in a more differentiated manner. To this end, we searched for all full articles in four German publications – Medien & Kommunikationswissenschaft (M&K), Publizistik, Studies in Communication and Media (SCM), Journalistik – from the years 2014 to 2018, which led to 275 articles. Using relevant search terms, we checked the titles and abstracts for each of these articles to ascertain whether they dealt with the relevant risks. Eight articles emerged as relevant for our study and were analyzed in depth. Taken together, the results of both studies are threefold:

  1. We found that there are three risks of news media reception: the risk of incomplete information, the risk of erroneous information, and the risk of distorted information. Such information can be risky since the reception of incomplete, erroneous or distorted information can have a negative outcome, namely that the information becomes part of the citizens’ opinion and decision-making process, who then make decisions based on, for example, incorrect facts (see also Grosser 2016; Blöbaum 2014: 42).
  2. The three risks can have internal or external causes: Internal causes can lie in problems with, for example, quality or media diversity and can therefore be differentiated in causes arising from journalistic practices, norms, institutions or actors. External causes can be political, economic, or technological in nature. These causes mirror previous differentiations between internal and external influences on journalistic content (see Shoemaker/Reese 2014: 7ff.), how metajournalistic discourse discusses deviancies and discrepancies (see Carlson 2014, 2016: 351f., 358, 2017: 82ff.), and the changes in technology, economy, and politics (see also Wahl-Jorgensen et al. 2016) that challenge journalistic authority (see Carlson 2017: 2f.; Figenschou/Ihlebæk 2019; Tong 2018: 258ff.; Vos/Thomas 2018: 2001, 2004ff.).
  3. Finally, the causes of the three risks can be non-intentional or intentional.

In general, two characteristics of metajournalistic discourse can be seen as strategies with which journalistic actors legitimize their authority and which are therefore relevant for this study: First, drawing on and adapting previous literature (see Reinemann/Huismann 2007: 466ff.), three larger structural contexts in which discourse is embedded can be distinguished, regarding both problems and solutions for journalism, namely (1) actors, (2) journalistic products, and (3) recipients. When analyzing metajournalistic discourse, Reinemann and Huismann (2007: 466) suggest to differentiate between actors and content or products, as products (2) are the result of actions made by actors (1). Since risks have an impact on the recipients (3), we extend their differentiation to include this context. Second, we can distinguish two levels of reflection (see Denner/Peter 2017: 275; Reinemann/Huismann 2007: 468): self-referential (uncritical – in our case, for example, a mere mention or description of risks) or self-reflexive (critical – here, for example, an evaluation of causes). Providing additional information in this manner – beyond simply reporting on the scandal itself – can be seen as a strategy with which journalists can better justify their judgments regarding journalistic legitimacy (see Carlson 2016).

Based on these two strategies and the three results of the pre-studies, we developed a codebook to capture whether and how journalists – as the third important group of actors besides the previously investigated recipients (see Badura 2016) and scholars (see Badura et al. 2019) – strategically address risks of news media reception and their causes in metajournalistic discourse.

The Relotius Case

Research has shown that metajournalistic discourse is especially relevant – and thus also often examined – »when taken for granted practices come under fire, which then spurs efforts to define appropriate practices while dispelling deviant or outsider actions« (Carlson 2016: 352). News media self-criticism in particular occurs in response to journalistic scandals (see Haas 2006: 351). In order to disclose metajournalistic discourse on risks of news reception, we therefore focus on a recent German journalistic scandal, namely the Relotius case, which was made public in December 2018. The case concerns deceptions and fabrications spanning several years on the part of the award-winning journalist Claas Relotius, who worked at the weekly German magazine Der Spiegel as a reporter (see Fichtner 2018). The case is a prominent example for the failure of journalistic mechanisms that are meant to prevent journalistic fraud and was highly discussed not only in the German but also in international media (e.g., Bennhold 2018; Conolly 2018). Communication science has focused on the case, for example by fact-checking articles written by Relotius (see Lilienthal 2019), reflecting on it from a media ethics perspective (see Eberwein 2021), discussing the difference between fact and fiction in journalism (see Schultz 2019) as well as the challenges of (self-)reflection (see Neverla 2019) and the role of emotions in discourse (see Lünenborg/Medeiros 2020), and investigating the metajournalistic discourse on the case (see Katzenberger/von der Wense 2019; Menke/Serong 2020; Voit 2019).

Research Questions and Methods

The magazine Der Spiegel’s own metajournalistic discourse is excluded from this study as it is not a national daily newspaper (see below). Instead we are interested in the reactive reflection of other German media outlets – thus, most of the contributions have a media-related discourse (for the concept see Reinemann/Huismann 2007: 467). While all articles dealing with the Relotius case can be considered (reactive) metajournalistic discourse (Carlson 2016: 358) in that they are public expressions on journalism, specifically a journalistic scandal, our particular interest lies in the metajournalistic discourse on risks of news reception. Since we only use the revelations of Relotius’ fraud as the context for this, the content analysis therefore does not deliver an analysis of all aspects within the metajournalistic discourse on the Relotius case. Instead, the study specifically focuses on five main research questions:

  • RQ1: How prominent is the metajournalistic discourse on the risks of news reception?
  • RQ2: Which risks of news reception are mentioned in the metajournalistic discourse?
  • RQ3: What is the nature (internal vs. external; intentional vs. non-intentional) of the mentioned causes?
  • RQ4: How are legitimization strategies expressed (actors/products/recipients as context; uncritical vs. critical vs. both reflection levels)?
  • RQ5: Are there differences in the mentioned risks and causes depending on the media type, sections, or presentation form?

A full census of all articles in the six German national daily newspapers with the highest circulation in the first quarter of 2019 (see Statista 2019) – i.e., Bild, SZ (Süddeutsche Zeitung), FAZ (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung), Handelsblatt, Die Welt, taz (die tageszeitung) – published between December 2018, when the fabrications were revealed, and June 2019 that deal with the Relotius case (inclusion criterion: mention of »Relotius«) was drawn in July 2019, resulting in 133 articles. After removing duplicates and excluding entries with unsuitable text forms (quotes of »Relotius« without further context, references to the TV program, mentions of forthcoming reports), 127 articles remained for further analysis. A codebook was developed deductively based on our pre-studies as well as research on metajournalistic discourse, although a few adjustments were made inductively after a pretest. Formal variables included the media type (where we differentiated between quality newspapers and tabloids), the section (where we differentiated between the media section and other sections) and the presentation form (where we differentiated between opinion-oriented and fact-oriented articles). Following the formal variables, the codebook included content variables measuring whether the three risks, the internal causes arising from journalistic practices, norms, institutions or actors as well as the external causes arising from political, economic or technological developments were present or not in the article. Other internal and external causes could be coded openly. Furthermore, two content variables measured whether intentionally caused risks as well as unintentionally caused risks were present or not. Regarding the structural contexts, content variables measured whether metajournalistic discourse addressed actors, products and recipients or not. Again, other structural contexts could be coded openly. The final content variable measured whether the level of reflection was self-referential (uncritical), self-reflexive (critical) or mixed. Self-referential points of criticism are operationalized as text passages where the Relotius case is merely mentioned, while more critical and self-reflexive point of criticism were coded when the authors discuss or even evaluate the case.

The coding was mainly done by a student assistant and was double coded on a sample of 10% (n = 13) of the cases by one of the research directors. An average agreement of 89% with Holsti’s formula was achieved for the content variables.


While FAZ (26%), SZ (25.3%), taz (22.8%), and Die Welt (17.3%) published most of the articles about Relotius, the tabloid Bild (5.5%) and business newspaper Handelsblatt (3.1%) featured scant metajournalistic discourse on the scandal. Opinion-oriented articles (63.8%) such as commentaries and editorials outweighed fact-oriented articles (36.2%) such as interviews and reports. Following an initially strong metajournalistic discourse with 27 articles published between 20 and 31 December alone and an additional 50 articles in January, coverage flattened to 13 articles in February and 8 articles each in March and April. The discourse increased again with 16 articles appearing in May, when a commission established by Der Spiegel released its final report on the case. 5 more articles followed in June.

91 out of 127 (71.7%) articles dealing with the Relotius case mention at least one risk. Regarding RQ1, metajournalistic discourse on the risks of news media reception is thus very prominent in the Relotius case. However, only two articles (1.6%) contain mentions of all three risks. The risks are not dealt with equally often (RQ2): The risk of incomplete information is mentioned twice, the risk of distorted information 23 times, and the risk of erroneous information 90 times.

RQ3 explored the nature of the mentioned causes. 83 of the 91 (91.2%) risk-articles also mentioned causes, while 8 (8.8%) did not mention causes at all. While all 83 articles addressed internal causes, there are differences in the frequency of the specific causes: all 83 articles depicted risks originating with the journalistic actor(s) (mainly Relotius), 17 articles depicted journalistic practices (e.g., quality issues or research standards), 15 articles addressed journalistic institutions (e.g., Der Spiegel), and journalistic norms (e.g., journalists’ sense of responsibility) occurred in 7 articles, followed by 6 other internal causes (which mainly alluded to mistakenly awarded prizes for Relotius). External causes were mentioned in only 3 of the 83 articles, with risks being depicted as originating from economic developments three times and from technological developments once. Political developments were not mentioned. In 76 of 91 articles (83.5%), mentioned risks were displayed as being intentionally caused, while non-intentionally caused risks were never displayed.

Besides risks and causes, we also examined how legitimization strategies are expressed (RQ4). As the metajournalistic discourse for this study is only relevant if it refers to risks, RQ4 can only be answered for these 91 articles. To this end, we first distinguished between the three larger structural contexts of the discourse. They were addressed in only in 31 articles, of which 23 mentioned actors, 17 mentioned journalistic products and 3 mentioned recipients. Regarding actors, Relotius himself or his colleagues at Der Spiegel and their actions were mostly the subject of discussion; journalistic products referred to the nature of reports as journalistic forms of expressions; and the seldom mentioned recipients appear, for example, when articles questioned whether these could understand the problem of the norm of objectivity. In addition, we investigated whether points of criticism are self-referential (uncritical) (46%) or self-reflexive (critical) (14.2%), or whether both reflection levels (7.9%) occur.

Differences in the mentioned risks and causes depending on the media type, sections or presentation form (RQ5) cannot be investigated due to small sub-sample sizes: The number of 7 tabloid articles is too small to compare with 120 articles from quality newspapers (5.5% vs. 94.5%). The same applies to the differences between the sections (media vs. other), as 104 articles (81.9%) were published in the media section. Regarding the presentation form, we found that while 67 of the 91 articles (73.6%) that mention risks are fact-oriented, only 24 are opinion-oriented articles (26.4%). The situation is similar for causes, where 63 of the 83 articles (75.9%) that mention causes are fact-oriented, while only 20 opinion-oriented articles (24.1%) address causes.

Discussion and Conclusion

What do the results reveal about how metajournalistic discourse on risks in the context of the Relotius case can contribute towards legitimizing journalistic authority? Two strategies seem to emerge: As a first strategy, journalists depict risks prominently and overwhelmingly provide internal causes for them, while they at the same time strategically seem to justify their continued position as an authority by mainly attributing the risk to Relotius as an individual journalistic actor. Relotius appears to function as a black sheep on which the blame can be put, thus illustrating why recipients can trust journalism in general to adhere to accepted norms and practices despite the scandal and thereby strengthening its authority position (see also Carlson 2017: 14; Tong 2018: 257; Vos/Thomas 2018: 2003). This metajournalistic discourse therefore can be regarded as journalists using paradigm repair to respond to the crisis (see also Carlson 2014: 36, 2016: 351f., 2017: 82ff.; Haas 2006: 350f.; Hindman 2005: 226f.; Koliska/Steiner 2019: 1156; Vos/Thomas 2018: 2003).

As a second strategy, the other internal reasons presented, the context of journalistic products and the number of self-reflexive articles embody a broader response beyond simply blaming Relotius. Although this strategy is less prominent, this indicates that some German newspaper journalists are aware of more wide-spread problems and willing to engage in self-improvement in order to strengthen or even reclaim the trust of their audience by demonstrating their willingness and ability to adhere to accepted norms and practices and to thus legitimize their authority (see also Carlson 2017: 14; Tong 2018: 257; Vos/Thomas 2018: 2003). That some articles discuss the nature of reports as journalistic forms of expression seems to not fundamentally question journalism’s norms and practices but rather to illustrate pertinent shortcomings, thus affirming their general importance, which is another use of paradigm repair (see Hindman 2005: 227). This interpretation is also supported by the fact that trust in the news overall in Germany, not just in Der Spiegel, declined slightly from 2018 to 2019, which may possibly be attributed to the Relotius case (see Newman et al. 2019: 85f.). This decline is something German journalists certainly seem to have become aware of (e.g., Hertreiter 2018), which may be a possible explanation for the described self-reflexive discourse.

Both strategies within the metajournalistic discourse on risks can be regarded as ways to demonstrate trustworthiness on the part of journalists, namely by rejecting blame and emphasizing the general adherence to norms and practices on the one hand while acknowledging possible more wide-spread shortcomings without actually questioning the norms and practices and thus demonstrating a willingness to steadily improve on the other hand. All in all, the results indicate that journalists convey to the recipients that the norms and practices and the general adherence to them continues – and thus: that journalistic authority is legitimized –, albeit with room for optimization. What is surprising, however, is how seldom the recipients themselves were mentioned as victims, although they are strongly affected by the consequences of such a scandal.

This study does not come without limitations. The high number of articles addressing risks can certainly be attributed to the Relotius case involving deception and fabrications, which makes the depiction of risks more likely than in metajournalistic discourse not driven by such scandal. The case nevertheless provides interesting insights into the journalistic legitimization process as well as an operationalization of how risks of news reception can be discussed. Both could be applied to the metajournalistic discourse on risks in other contexts, including in countries other than Germany and with regard to unintentional causes of risks. Furthermore, Der Spiegel’s own metajournalistic discourse may have differed from the newspapers’ discourse uncovered here. It would be interesting for future research to examine this very specific form of self-criticism (e.g., Hindman 2005). Also, a qualitative analysis of metajournalistic discourse on risks would provide more in-depth insights on the strategies uncovered here. Finally, analyzing user comments on articles with metajournalistic discourse on risks of news reception and interviewing journalists who produce such discourse would complement the content analysis conducted here. Such studies would provide insights on recipients’ evaluations of journalistic attempts to legitimize their authority in this context as well as on journalists’ intentions, potentially allowing a comparison of both.

In conclusion, the present study shows (1) that risks of news reception can be operationalized to capture how they are addressed in metajournalistic discourse and (2) that discourse on risks appears to be able to contribute towards legitimizing journalism’s authority in several ways. Future research should examine metajournalistic discourse on risks of news reception beyond the specific Relotius case in order to better ascertain how and to what level of success journalists use this to legitimize their authority in various contexts.

Acknowledgments: We would like to thank Valerie Hase for her early contributions to the project, Maren Wistoff for her commitment in coding, and Chiara Oldach for her help with data analysis. Also, we would like to thank Bernd Blöbaum and Bernadette Uth for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper. This research was funded by the Research Training Group 1712 »Trust and Communication in a Digitized World« of the German Research Foundation (DFG).

About the authors

Laura Badura was (in her last academic position) a research associate at the Department of Communication (University of Münster, Germany) and PhD candidate at the DFG-Research Training Group »Trust and Communication in a Digitized World« in Münster. In her dissertation project, she examines the perception of journalistic risk from the recipients’ point of view. She obtained a Master’s degree in communication science and a Bachelor’s degree in journalism and public relations. Recent research interests are journalism studies, risk research, trust and media, news literacy, media skepticism, audience and reception studies. Contact:

Katherine M. Engelke, Dr., is a research associate at the Department of Communication at the University of Münster, where she completed her PhD in Communication Science in 2017. She studied Communication Science and Political Science at the University of Münster. Her research focuses on journalism research – particularly on participatory journalism – and on political communication as well as on crises and media. Contact:


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Laura Badura / Katherine M. Engelke: Metajournalistic Discourse on Risks of News Reception. A Case Study on the Legitimization of Authority in the Context of a Journalistic Scandal. In: Journalism Research, Vol. 5 (1), 2022, pp. 39-52. DOI: 10.1453/2569-152X-12022-12053-en




First published online

March 2022