reviewed by Guido Keel
Journalists make mistakes, just like any other profession. But long-serving Mainz-based communication studies expert Hans Mathias Kepplinger believes that these errors are more significant than most. In his view, they contribute directly to the loss of trust in the media – a problem for a democratic society that relies on its citizens being able to trust the media.
Journalists themselves thus bear some of the responsibility for this development. After all, according to Kepplinger, journalists have now become so alienated from society (cf. 173) that they see themselves as enlighteners who stand above the rest of society and work for the common good. They think they know better than others (cf. 171). In doing so, they employ two problematic practices: They create scandals out of essentially unproblematic events and they withhold facts that could explain a situation or lead to an alternative conclusion. In addition, they suffer from blind spots when it comes to putting (their own) journalistic mistakes up for discussion (cf. 113, 140ff.).
These are the hypotheses that Kepplinger pursues in his book. His analysis takes on a clear point of view: He does not investigate whether errors occur, but instead assumes that journalists make mistakes and tries to find out why. The case studies he chooses largely confirm his hypotheses – arguably making Kepplinger guilty of exactly the same actions as the journalists he pillories. But more on that later.
The investigation starts from the observation that the media in Germany are suffering a crisis of legitimation (cf. 10f.), receiving criticism on a range of issues from academics, the public, and fellow practitioners. This lack of credibility in the media has already been exhaustively described by other authors, notably Uwe Krüger in his book Mainstream. However, like others before him, Kepplinger also has to concede that the level of fundamental trust in the media in Germany remains relatively stable (cf. 22). When it comes to evaluating the specific journalistic quality seen today, the author’s assessment is based on data from the period 1964 to 1995.
Kepplinger goes on to argue that the media have gained in power and begun to abuse this power – despite the fact that much of the public discourse is taken up with complaints about the media’s general loss of significance. According to Kepplinger, this increase in the media’s options for exercising influence lies in the expansion of its legal privileges, the increase in range, especially of television, and the »decades-long reduction in opportunities for politicians to address the public independently and directly« (31) – all arguments that are undoubtedly questionable in an age of Facebook election campaigns and Twitter-happy heads of state.
Another cause, continues Kepplinger, is the change in how journalists themselves view their role (cf. 34ff.). He claims that more journalists now see their role as an active one, in which they emphasize information that fits in with their own world view. This hypothesis contradicts regular surveys of German journalists, which repeatedly find that they see their role as neutral communicators, reporting on things as they are, as by far their most important – much more important than aiming to shape the political agenda or influence public opinion (cf. e.g. Weischenberg/Malik/Scholl 2006: 102-110). Kepplinger thus finds an »abuse of power« (39) among journalists and asks whether journalists bear moral responsibility for the unintended side effects of their reporting.
Kepplinger therefore does exactly what he pillories journalists for doing: He creates scandal, in this case about the abuse of power of a professional group that plays a role in democracy, while also withholding information about investigations and points of view that contradict this finding. However, he also provides empirical evidence, which forms the core of his book.
Using eight case studies, the author investigates how journalists assess dubious practices and the arguments for and against these practices. In one of these practices, journalists create scandal by unduly adding to, combining, instrumentalizing, or abbreviating statements and by setting events inappropriately in or out of context. In the other, they withhold relevant facts in order to retain interpretational sovereignty or to prevent damage to reputations.
All the case studies come, at least indirectly, from German politics and are – coincidentally? – chosen so that all the victims of alleged journalistic mistakes are found at the right-wing, conservative end of the political spectrum: Wolfgang Schäuble, Bishop Tebartz-van Elst, Pegida, supporters of nuclear energy, Sibylle Lewitscharoff, Pegida again, supporters of nuclear energy again, Christian Wulff, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, and Susanne Gaschke, who, although an SPD and therefore left-wing politician, is a media victim as the result of a controversial tax remission granted to a businessman.
Kepplinger states that his intention with these eight case studies is not to provide overall assessments, but to discuss obvious examples within them where a line has been crossed. This has the convenient side-effect of releasing him from any obligation to report fully on an issue or to evaluate controversial practices appropriately. Despite this, and although Kepplinger does not say so in as many words, the case studies undeniably give the impression that the scandalous abuse of power he claims to have identified among journalists is directed against right-wingers by left-wing journalists. The book does not mention any mistakes made against left-wing actors and concerns at all. To quote Kepplinger himself once again, one could easily come to the conclusion that the author himself is the victim of a »hostile media effect« (118) that causes the worried to perceive negative reporting on their concerns as more negative than impartial observers do. This is a shame, as it detracts from the author’s real objective: to find out how journalists themselves judge dubious practices.
The real knowledge value of the book lies in its investigation of the connection between the perception of whether a certain journalistic practice is legitimate and the approval or rejection of journalists with regard to arguments for or against a certain journalistic practice in general.
The survey of 332 editors from selected departments of daily newspapers on the eight case studies shows that journalists largely adhere to the professional standards and that the majority of journalists consider the actions that Kepplinger describes as »creating scandal and withholding information« as illegitimate (cf. 108). But it is not these professionals that Kepplinger is interested in: »The analysis focuses not on the journalists that follow the rules,« but on the arguments of the minority that condone dubious practices to a greater or lesser extent.
The results show that journalists endorse certain dubious practices in individual cases if they already have a negative opinion of the person or situation that has potentially been unfairly treated. For example, journalists with a negative view of nuclear energy tended to see the excessive scandal created around nuclear energy as more acceptable than their colleagues whose views were more neutral. Although journalists believed that standards of professional ethics applied in general, they saw these standards as irrelevant in some cases, depending on their views on the specific topic. The applicability of a standard was thus assessed based on the specific case in question (cf. 49). This opens up a gulf between ideal and practical application – something that is not atypical in journalism. Although journalists consider certain rules and standards to apply, they tend to qualify them when they contradict the journalist’s own world view in a specific matter.
Kepplinger ends by drawing a credible conclusion, arguing that covering up errors in professional practice damages the public image of journalism. This insight, which has long been established in other professional fields, such as medicine and engineering, needs to enter into journalism. There is still a lot to do – work that is not made easier by journalists’ view that they are already confronted with significant public criticism. Journalists need to face up to the findings that are presented in this book – without being distracted from the agenda that the author’s subjective choice of case studies seems to suggest.
Translation: Sophie Costella
This book review first appeared in rezensionen:kommunikation:medien (r:k:m).
Weischenberg, Siegfried; Malik, Maja; Scholl, Armin: Die Souffleure der Mediengesellschaft. Report über die Journalisten in Deutschland. Constance [UVK] 2006
About the reviewer
Prof. Dr. Guido Keel is Head of the Institute of Applied Media Studies at Zurich University of Applied Sciences. The focuses of his research include quality in journalism, change in journalism, and journalism in non-European contexts.
Hans Mathias Kepplinger: Totschweigen und Skandalisieren. Was Journalisten über ihre eigenen Fehler denken [Withholding information and creating scandal]. Series: edition medienpraxis, Vol. 15. Cologne [Herbert von Halem] 2017, 232 pages, EUR 21