Astrid Blome, Tobias Eberwein, Stefanie Averbeck-Lietz (eds.): Medienvertrauen. Historische und aktuelle Perspektiven [Trust in media. Historical and current perspectives]

Reviewed by Hans-Dieter Kübler

As many sources cite, in 2014/15, the (first) Ukraine crisis and overwhelming refugee movements gave rise to the term »lying press« to bash liberal mainstream media for their alleged disinformation and manipulation, used especially by right-wing protagonists such as Pegida. Untenable accusations of fake news and conspiracy myths became rampant, especially in the U.S. Presidential election campaign. Hostility, defamation, and threats (hate speech) proliferated online. Ultimately, mainstream media came under enormous pressure to justify themselves. Trust in quality media and public broadcasting, which had previously been taken almost for granted, began to decline, media criticism often turned into criticism of the system. In Germany, communication studies responded with two large empirical studies, which are also represented in this anthology. These events prompted the Dortmunder Institut für Zeitungsforschung and the Verein zur Förderung der Zeitungsforschung in Dortmund e.V. to hold an international symposium entitled »Do you still believe or do you already know? On the ›credibility‹ of media in historical and current perspective« in November of 2017. Its nine contributions are documented here in revised and supplemented form.

In keeping with the conference topic, the first two contributions address the historical context: Based on historical newspaper critics since the 17th century, newspaper researcher Holger Böning formulates »basic principles of early modern news communication«, such as factuality, credibility, topicality, objectivity, plurality, and finally, the aspiration of the century, »economically independent reporting« (which never came to fruition). From his historical findings, which he rendered in quite a positive light, he then jumps to direct comparisons with the present day, which, in their contextlessness, are not historically proper.

Former Mainz-based journalism scholar Jürgen Wilke takes a more solid approach: Drawing on his thorough research of media history, he leverages the 1866 work of publicist H. Wuttke on German magazines and the emergence of public opinion, »Die deutschen Zeitschriften und die Entstehung der öffentlichen Meinung«. He identifies a variety of »driving forces of the ›lying press‹« from 1848 to World War I, when this accusation first became infamous. The fact that National Socialists reappropriated his term to attack the bourgeois, and especially left-wing, press after military censorship in World War I reveals its continuous lineage in German history.

Munich-based communication scientist Michael Meyen takes a completely different, empirically critical approach: He examined data from postwar Germany on media credibility among the public, demonstrating that it predominantly measures the general level of satisfaction with Allied policies, the performance of occupation forces, and, quite generally, the spread and acceptance of newly established media. Meyen concludes that such surveys tend to cater to instrumental interests and are largely general judgments about the quality of democracy to this day.

This is followed by the aforementioned empirical research projects: In Münster, the DFG Research Training Group on »Trust and Communication in a Digitalized World«, which has been underway for several years, conducted representative as well as qualitative surveys on media skepticism in 2017/18. In this process, two bundles of motifs emerged: Media are suspected of being part of the establishment, of pursuing only the interests of social elites, and of neglecting many issues affecting the ›common man‹ (Blome et al 2020: 88). Such resentments (harbored by up to a third of the population) have been building up over longer periods of time and are merely exacerbated by specific events.

From 2008 until 2017 (meanwhile, until 2019), communication scientists in Mainz have been collecting representative data on media trust, publishing it in various articles. We are including the survey campaigns of the »Mainzer Langzeitstudie Medienvertrauen« in 2008, 2015, 2016, and 2017. Media trust is defined as the »general trust in the media mainstream and the ›affirmation of the generally accepted social role of the media‹«, and it is measured using various items (101). This paper focuses on »interpersonal trust as a predictor of media trust«. The data collected across all four campaigns reveals that people who trust other people are also more strongly and more consistently predisposed to media trust. This means that »interpersonal trust«, which is determined by socio-demographic variables, to some degree influences trust in social institutions such as the media.

Greifswald-based communication scientist Martha Kuhnhenn investigated the linguistic features that bolster the credibility of statements and determine trust in a media actor’s credibility. For this purpose, she identifies linguistic criteria such as comprehensibility, recipient orientation, and proximity to the citizenry, but also psychological factors such as sympathy. Viennese communication scientist Tobias Eberwein conducted a qualitative case study to compare defamatory and hateful media comments on the web, which he calls »dysfunctional follow-up communication«, with the goals and motives of their authors, as ascertained in interviews. He found that in personal face-to-face conversation, they express themselves in a much more ›rational‹ and disciplined manner than in their online comments. Apparently, the opportunity to communicate spontaneously in the digital sphere fuels emotionality and licentiousness, and the anonymity such media afford lowers the ability to reflect as well as inhibitions in social interaction.

Finally, former Zurich-based communication scientist Otfried Jarren, once again, detects growing differentiation and segmentation in (post)modern societies, which are also weakening trust in the traditional, centralized, and linear (mass) media. He calls upon journalism to act as a service, offering guidance via new, decentralized and area- or audience-specific intermediaries which enjoy less trust, anyway. Dortmund-based representative of journalism Henrik Müller makes a similar argument concerning the implications for journalists’ training: Since their gatekeeping capabilities are dwindling, and they are more likely to become scouts in a »rivalry for attention« among countless competing media, they need to acquire additional skills in research, analysis, and »salesmanship« in addition to the traditional journalistic tools of their trade (Blome et al 2020: 179ff).

Overall, this anthology is also likely to articulate various ambivalences and contradictions, which is unsurprising given the profound changes occurring in our society and public sphere: Objectively and formally speaking, our information options are constantly growing; whether that is also true for their quality, is questionable. Superficially, the market is constantly propagating them as new, user-friendly options, and users do demand and use them. In fact, and in terms of quality, the recipients’ gains in usage and information are likely to remain modest; however, their specific demands on media are increasing, and criticism of the (traditional) media is being articulated more vocally than before, which is why quite a few people are quitting the mainstream and its rather generalized outlook. What are the fundamental consequences of these developments? How alienated has society already become from social elites and state institutions at this point? How much of this can these institutions withstand? These questions are the subject of much debate and a lot less empirical research.

This review first appeared in rezensionen:kommunikation:medien, 11 April 2022, accessible at

About the reviewer

Hans-Dieter Kübler, born 1947, Dr. rer soc., was a Professor of Media, Cultural and Social Sciences at Hamburg University of Applied Sciences (HAW), Faculty of Design, Media and Information. His work focuses on media and cultural theory; empirical and historic media research; and media pedagogy. He has published numerous works and has been a publisher of the semiannual magazine Medien & Altern (Munich) since 2012.

Translation: Kerstin Trimble

About this book

Astrid Blome, Tobias Eberwein, Stefanie Averbeck-Lietz (eds.)(2020): Medienvertrauen. Historische und aktuelle Perspektiven [Trust in media. Historical and current perspectives]. Berlin: de Gruyter, 202 pages, 20,95 Euro.