Reviewed by Hans-Dieter Kübler
Trite criticism of journalism is currently to be heard from all quarters, not least from insiders. Despite this, the author – a former radio journalist and channel controller at Hessischer Rundfunk who now teaches the topic at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz – believes that the continued spread, and indeed consolidation, of the common prejudice expressed in the book’s title is down to a widespread and deep-seated »ignorance« of the »structure and operating principles of the media.« He intends his brief »explanatory book« to counteract this by explaining »the mechanisms of the media and its undesirable developments, as well as the practical constraints under which journalists work and that are much more commonly the cause of mistakes than the malice of which journalists are often accused« (8).
Over ten chapters, the author examines striking, frequent trends and undesirable developments in news and information journalism in the traditional mass media in particular. He quotes numerous up-to-date examples, is generous with his diverse and undoubtedly justified critique, repeatedly offers rules and standards for good, reputable, responsible journalism – as in journalistic recommendations – and often backs these up with results and findings from communication sciences, especially from the Mainz school.
This starts from the classic maxim »bad news is good news,« and continues in the way facts and truth are dealt with in the era of fake news, with continuing trends towards scandal and (over)dramatization and the now-omnipresent primacy of entertainment. He then argues in favor of the trend – proven in the English-speaking world – for keeping news and comment separate. After that, the closely interwoven, often hidden network of politics, business, and the media, for example as a result of the growing influence of PR and political advisors, is examined and the accusation of manipulation and the power of the public sphere inspected, for example in light of the famous »spiral of silence.« In the penultimate chapter, the author addresses the ongoing changes brought about by social media and scrutinizes the common claim that professional journalism is becoming surplus to requirements – rejecting it, needless to say. Some claim that »we« in the »information society« are »overnewsed, but underinformed« – indeed the author himself repeatedly condemns the loss of knowledge, orientation, and education. He goes on to discuss this issue in the final chapter, although he ultimately leaves the conclusion open. It is not until the end that he briefly mentions the rampant social disparities and disadvantage among the audience that are far from indicating the theory of the knowledge gap – let alone the world in general – in a sufficiently nuanced way, and wonders whether the much-lauded quality journalism is now only on offer to the »elites« (130).
There is little to indicate exactly whom the author is talking to and who he expects to make changes. Holding up a critical mirror to journalists as has so often been done before, arguing that their work is not thorough, reputable, or responsible enough, that they lack general knowledge, that they mistreat the language, that they are taken in by PR, that they make life too easy for themselves by relying on PR people, or that they like to make deals with the powerful – all this is trite and anything but new. Such admonishments and calls for reform do little to help the audience. Meanwhile, the author explains to this audience too little, and mainly only superficially, why journalism works this way today, how it does it, and which basal structures dominate. These lie primarily in the economy and in interrelations with commerce and advertising (which Arnold barely mentions) and force even the much-praised, theoretically independent public service broadcasters to submit to adjustments.
International power structures like this are a great deal stronger on social media. Political concepts to improve – or indeed save – journalism can do little to counteract this, often failing completely. Effective appeals to the ethos and professionality of journalists, calling for them to focus on their honest, journalistic craft (which was never entirely full of integrity and ambition in the first place), will certainly not abolish these structures or the functional and working processes they bring about. We can thus expect to see even more critical reappraisals of journalism in the future; and those responsible in the relevant degree and training courses will have to ask themselves what qualifications outside the narrow ideal of a wordsmith they hope/plan to give their students in order to avoid feeding the notorious cynicism of the sector even more.
This review first appeared in rezensionen:kommunikation:medien, November 20th 2020, accessible at https://www.rkm-journal.de/archives/22416.
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, and is Chair of the Institute of Media and Communication Research (IMKO). 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: Sophie Costella
Bernd-Peter Arnold (2018): Die Medien sind an allem Schuld?! Behauptungen – Vermutungen – Erklärungen. [It’s all the media’s fault?! Claims – assumptions – explanations] Leipzig: Vistas, 140 pages, EUR 16,-.