Reviewed by Sascha Thürmann
In their Handbuch Politischer Journalismus, Marlis Prinzing and Roger Blum planned to take on the brave experiment of representing the totality of political journalism in modern European democracies (cf. 17f.). There is no doubt that this is a major challenge given the diversity and crucial significance of political journalism. As the editors themselves state, there are currently no comparable publications in the German-speaking world (cf. 20).
With 124 authors and almost 900 pages, the book offers a remarkable number of up-to-date articles on the theories, history, roles, and features of political journalism. The edited volume is aimed not only at students and academics, but explicitly also at publishers, journalists, media and PR professionals, and politicians.
A large proportion of the 22 chapters and 162 articles examine basic principles and characteristics of political journalism, while articles on the theories, history, functions, stakeholders, channels, features, relationship networks etc. make up around two thirds of the book. This shows the level of detail in which it covers the totality of political journalism.
The book’s most interesting articles are those that look at political journalism within the context of its application, drawing on empirical reports, analyses, and suggestions for action. They are guided by the theories of Roger Blum, as compiled in his essay entitled »Politischer Journalismus im angehenden 21. Jahrhundert« [Political journalism in the nascent 21st Century] (cf. 832ff.). He takes six »looks« at the profession in an attempt to illustrate the current position and relevance of political journalism. Arguably the most important aspect of this is the political, economic, and technological challenges of the 21st Century.
An article by Marlis Prinzing, in which she addresses the ethical and legal obligations of journalism against exactly this background, refers strongly to this essay. She demonstrates that, in a time in which the »media are met with more hostility than ever before« (833), a democracy can only work successfully if it enjoys media that »inform, explain, observe, monitor, and even inspire discourse and opinion-forming among the citizens themselves« (533). Prinzing goes on to argue that society’s digital transformation is a challenge that is changing the classic roles of journalists, as well as presenting specific problems. She calls for journalism to be spared the worst cost-cutting measures, which, she argues, inevitably lead to excessively brief reporting and threaten the idea of political journalism focused on quality and responsibility (cf. 555). She regrets that many editorial offices no longer have the resources needed for analysis and in-depth reporting, making the kind of (critical) reporting that is so essential in a democratic society increasingly difficult.
The chapter »Fallstricke erkennen – Probleme des politischen Journalismus« [Spotting the traps – Problems of political journalism] can be seen as providing further theoretical support for Roger Blum’s essay. Political parallelism (Melanie Magin), stereotyping (Martina Thiele), gender disparity (Anja Maier), reducing complexity (Beatrice Dernbach), acceleration and time pressure, lack of resources (Sonja Schwetje), and scandalization (Hanne Detel) are just a few of the examples that show the difficulties faced by political journalism, often in very specific topic areas.
The final section of the book examines political journalism itself in a chapter of the same name. In interviews with representatives from both academia and practice, the editors have tried to work out where exactly action is needed. The academics are unanimous in their finding that the main role of journalism is criticism and scrutiny, but that this is no longer an easy task in what they call the outrage democracy of the digital age (cf. 861). The article by Marlis Prinzing described above, for example, shows that reporting on the AfD often fails to be truly objective, in the sense that journalists do not look at the way the party is framed sufficiently (critically) (cf. 532). Yet it is exactly this explanation, transparency, and orientation – i.e. nuanced reporting – that the academics argue is a fundamental requirement for the formation of public opinion in democratic societies.
Practitioners take a similar view, although they also see journalism as providing stimulation for further thought and thus being capable of dialog. These practitioners see the independence of journalism – from policymakers, business, media, and advertisers – as under threat.
It is touching that the book is dedicated to all journalists who have lost their lives in the course of their work. The volume sees itself thus not only as a manual, but as a clear appeal for political journalism. Not only is the opening quote from Peter van Burens, claiming that political journalism is dead, contradicted – this contradiction is backed up by almost 900 pages of impressive argument.
The manual lives up to the high standards it sets itself, demonstrating the role and significance of political journalism in the 21st Century. In doing so, it covers much more than just general questions – numerous articles also provide answers and propose solutions to current problems. Sonja Schwetje, Editor in Chief of n-tv, for example, emphasizes in her article (cf. 654ff.) that smartphones have become a ubiquitous part of our society today and that algorithms decide who receives which information. She does not stop at describing the facts, however, but goes on to describe effective methods such as fact checks, live verification, and source analyses – effective means to counteract the rise in disinformation strategies online. It is empirical reports like this, compiled by practitioners, that make this book so enriching. The best of both worlds is intertwined in a remarkable way; the care and level of detail in the work itself reflect the criteria for high-quality journalistic reporting: factually accurate, comprehensive, and up to date.
The book is undoubtedly up to date and absolutely recommended. However, with a cover price of EUR 72, it is unlikely to be within reach of many students. It can only be hoped that plenty of university libraries will add this book to their collections, providing access to this important group of readers. The fact that the work can be considered a standard reference text on political journalism from the moment of its publication shows that the editors’ ›experiment‹ has been a success.
This review first appeared in rezensionen:kommunikation:medien, 10 December 2021, accessible at https://www.rkm-journal.de/archives/23107
Translation: Sophie Costella
About the reviewer
Sascha Thürmann is a research associate at the University of Tübingen’s Institute of Media Studies. His research focuses on reception and effect, with a particular emphasis on minorities and discrimination. Before taking on this role, he studied Public Relations and Applied Communication Studies at Kiel University of Applied Sciences.
About this book
Marlis Prinzing, Roger Blum (eds.)(2021): Handbuch Politischer Journalismus. [Manual of political journalism] Cologne: Herbert von Halem, 912 pages, EUR 72.