Reviewed by Marlis Prinzing
When truth becomes blurred, the biggest problem is not the lie itself, but the loss of orientation. The volume Medien und Wahrheit provides an interpretative order, insights, and concrete food for thought and calls to action from an ethical perspective. The book thus also lays down theoretical foundations, which makes it an important work beyond the immediate present.
The requirement of and self-commitment to truthfulness are the cornerstones of the German Press Code (Deutscher Presserat 2017, no. 1). But truth as a key principle of professional media seems to be challenged more than ever – at the very least, since former U.S. President Donald Trump used the term »Fake News« to unsettle the very concept of the media’s commitment to truth. »Truth« thus turned into a combat term, partly in order to undermine the norm of media freedom, and to weaken the role of journalism as an observer and corrective in democratic societies. On the other hand, the functional logic of social media, which is based on monetizing emotions and, above all, outrage, has reduced factuality to a secondary matter.
The nearly 400-page anthology Medien und Wahrheit [Media and Truth] is based on the conference proceedings of the annual symposium of the Communications and Media Ethics Section of the German Society for Journalism and Communication Studies, which was still held in-person in the very early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in February 2020. The volume was edited by Saskia Sell, Ingrid Stapf, and Christian Schicha. They and 22 other authors made theoretical or empirical contributions to the volume, many of which waver between hope and apprehension as they draw their conclusions, showcasing opportunities to create a digitally enlightened society, but also warning of a bleak future if we fail to respond to challenges with specifications, rules, etc.
In the introduction, the editors establish the foundations of their work: objectivity and fidelity to reality as the essential assets of journalism as a profession, as well as a reflection on the norm of truth, both from a philosophical perspective and by »analyzing its adversaries: trickery and deception, falsification, or a systematic propagation of disinformation, exaggerations, excessive scandalization, as well as errors and omissions in media reports.« (p. 11) The editors outline the various positions held in the long-waging debates on the topic of »media and truth,« ranging from Hermann Boventer’s 1986 definition of truth as an alignment with »factual reality« along professional principles to Markus Appel’s 2020 anthology, which discusses »post-factual phenomena« such as »fake news,« clickbait, and conspiracy theories.
The first part of the book is a philosophical-ethical exploration of truth in the face of the challenges of the digital age. Sybille Krämer offers an interpretive order on truth and testimony in digital publics, from which she derives empirical and theoretical impulses as well as practical calls to action. One example of how journalism can help a digitally enlightened society to enhance its critical faculties is to teach its audience how to expose manipulation, and encourage the public to actively use search engines for that purpose. Charles Ess claims that »techno-moral virtues« (p. 91) such as trust and courage, when practiced regularly, can open the door to an enlightened society of today and tomorrow that accepts and wants knowledge to be produced by a plurality of sources and responsibility to be shared by »the many« across a variety of fields (e.g. ethical design in engineering). Ess warns that if this path were to fail, it would pose a threat of »feudal enslavement to systems and machines.« (p. 93)
The second part of the volume includes theoretical classifications of »fake news« and disinformation. Some of these contributions also advocate an adherence to old practices: Ingrid Stapf, for example, considers it imperative that we continue to insist on truthfulness as the standard in media reporting.
The third part presents empirical analyses and case studies of fakes and manipulation, including image-ethical analyses of political motives (Christian Schicha) and the phenomenon of gimmickry. Olaf Hoffjann very plausibly uses the image of politicians as gamblers to explain why notorious liars score electoral successes, and the interconnections between political self-dramatization and the acceptance of lies and »bullshit.« According to Hoffjann, the »post-truth« era was not created by figures like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson. Rather, they are taking advantage of the public’s tendency to see politics as a game. He makes an appeal to the media: As long as this kind of political player gets so much media attention, those who don’t play games fall through the cracks, and public political debates will continue to become less factual and geared more towards emotions and entertainment value. He ends on the question whether playing political drama isn’t a bit cynical in the face of very serious crises such as war. An excellent example to discuss this question is the portrait of Olena Selenska, wife of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Selenskyj, published by Vogue on 26 July 2022.
The fourth part of the book deals with truth in journalism. Saskia Sell and Bernd Oswald use the example of #faktenfuchs by Bayerischer Rundfunk to analyze the challenges faced by fact-checker teams. Thomas Zeilinger and Markus Kaiser conducted an exploratory online survey and discovered a gap in ethical standards for automated reporting. Two of the authors used the occasion of the Relotius scandal that rocked the German news magazine Der Spiegel to propose different measures for »truth assurance«: Tanjev Schultz calls for a set of rules to better separate factual texts from fiction or journalistic narratives from literature. Tobias Eberwein would like to see control instances to prevent reporters from misusing rhetorical stylistic devices. The fifth and last part of the volume highlights ethical challenges to »programmed truth« on a methodological level (as Christian Riessl’s text on multimedia forensics, a form of automated truth-finding) or on the actor’s level (as in Michael Litschka’s contribution on the corporate ethical responsibility of platform operators).
Media are a vital element for members of a society to lead good and successful lives, and journalism is (and remains) a significant source of trust and guidance in digitalized societies. It takes an ethical compass to navigate them. This central role of ethics is often overlooked or sidelined, despite its all-encompassing function. Medien und Wahrheit provides an in-depth analysis of what happens to us as individuals and as a society when we no longer really know who to believe, when we feel exposed. The book reflects the current state of affairs and offers a set of arguments, based primarily on ethical perspectives and approaches, for an informed debate about truth, orientation, and responsibility.
This review first appeared in rezensionen:kommunikation:medien, 15 August 2022, accessible at https://www.rkm-journal.de/archives/23428
About the book
Christian Schicha, Ingrid Stapf, Saskia Sell (eds.) (2021): Medien und Wahrheit. Medienethische Perspektiven auf Desinformation, Lügen und »Fake News« [Media and Truth. Media Ethical Perspectives on Disinformation, Lies and »Fake News]. From the series: Kommunikations- und Medienethik, vol. 15. Baden-Baden: Nomos, 391 pages, Eur 79.
About the reviewer
Dr. Marlis Prinzing is Professor of Journalism at Macromedia University of Applied Sciences in Cologne with a focus on ethics, digital transformation, and innovation. She is a columnist (Der Tagesspiegel, Der Standard), moderator, author, and editor.
Translation: Sophie Costella