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Web Activists Changing Face of Journalism

Tahir Sq 2011 pic alliance dpa
The protests in Tahir Square, Cairo in 2011 were largely coordinated on social media platforms.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The Internet has allowed unfettered reader engagement with journalists and news organizations, driving up the amount of scandal and abuse. Journalists have to redefine and justify their roles to regain public trust.

  • Facts


    • Online anonymity has allowed abuse and threats against journalists to flourish.
    • Journalists and news organizations are often criticized for stimulating outrage and scandal by a public whose appetite for scandal is insatiable.
    • Social media played a key role in uniting demonstrators and informing journalists during the Arab world uprisings from 2010 to 2012.
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The unnerving message could have come from Islamic State: “May his hands be broken multiple times or simply chopped off.”

It wasn’t from IS, however. It was from a German reader,who was upset about an article by Steffen Dobbert, an editor at the popular German news website ZEIT Online, about Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Separately, a viewer referred to Katrin Eigendorf, a journalist at German public-service television broadcaster ZDF, as an “agitator.”

And Golineh Atai, a correspondent for the ARD public broadcast channel, who reports regularly on the Ukraine conflict, was the target of particularly harsh criticism: “This woman is disgusting,” a “revolting propaganda dummy,” and “political vomit.”

All of these attacks are recent – and were made publicly on the Internet. You don’t have to be a lawyer to know that if the authors of these kinds of comments weren’t hiding behind fictitious names, they would have been in court long ago. What they are doing is extreme and offensive.

Of course, print media readers also produce ugly tirades, but it is on the Internet where comment has free rein. On Twitter and Facebook, the opining and evaluating never stops. Online media invite their readers and viewers to add their thoughts at the end of an article and sometimes to discuss the article.

Steffen Burkhardt, a media scholar in Hamburg, said that, through the Internet, and for the first time, “people without specific qualifications can speak directly to large numbers of people.”

This is one of the great achievements of the digital world, and effectively breaks the tradition of transmitters on on side and receivers on the other. Journalists are no longer unquestioned authorities and it is highlighting that it is people who are good or bad, not the media.

It is not only the intelligent comments that have skyrocketed, but, to an even greater extent, the number of confused and insulting comments. “On the Internet, there’s always someone shouting ‘scandal, scandal,’ and finding like-minded people faster than ever before. This creates a veritable frenzy of outrage,” said Mr. Burkhardt.

The long-held belief that the media are a protecting power for citizens and for democracy as a whole seems to have come unhinged.

This frenzy of outrage is increasingly directed against journalists. The attacks cited above were against journalists who write about Russia. But these transgressions of limits exist almost everywhere. After journalist Ronja von Rönne published an essay about organized feminism in Die Welt newspaper, Frankfurt pastor Hans-Christoph Stoodt sent her a veiled threat alluding to a French revolutionary song about the desire to see the nobility die a miserable death.

According to Mr. Burkhardt, the aim of the cyber-mobbing attacker is always to “symbolically kill” the person in question “through public isolation.”

The long-held belief that the media are something of a protecting power for citizens and for democracy as a whole seems to have come unhinged. The fourth estate seems no longer to enjoy the confidence of the people.

A representative survey by the Infratest Dimap research institute in Berlin for Die Zeit underlines that substantial trust in the media and deep disappointment with it barely balance each other.

The lack of trust in the media is glaring. Die Zeit readers regularly ask if its staff is independent and if they really do research, or from which sources their information comes. In other words, we are being personally addressed, so in response we must ask: where does the rage come from? Where does the loss of trust lead? And what can be done about it?

Many important newspapers and broadcasters have invested in quality in recent years, despite the advertising and circulation crisis. More investigative reporters than ever are employed today, and much of the coverage now offers fact-filled journalism.

Editorial departments have given themselves new codes of ethics, so as to document, both internally and externally, how they preserve their independence. In other words, those who flatly badmouth journalism or see nothing but its demise are wrong.

On the other hand, there is no denying that journalists have failed at critical moments in recent years, for example before and during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. At the time, many journalists, especially in the American media, essentially echoed U.S. government propaganda. They produced sugarcoated reports from the front and PR videos about supposed “surgical” air strikes, even as prisoners were being abused in secret torture prisons.

After the crash, the German Press Council received more complaints than after any other event since it was founded 60 years ago.

It also should not be forgotten that while some journalists investigated and criticized the excesses that preceded the financial crisis in 2008, they too did not see the big crash coming. And because this occurred at a time when neo-liberal voices dominated in the German media, the impression remained that business journalists simply had not paid close enough attention. Instead, they were accused of being propagandists of this unbridled capitalism.

Editors did learn from their mistakes. They began to cooperate with exposure platforms such as WikiLeaks and whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden, paid closer attention to the activities of banks and rethought their political reporting. But the mistakes of the past continue to have an effect.

This presumably also explains much of the criticism and even hatred that the reporting of the Ukraine crisis has triggered. The suspicion has apparently taken hold in a portion of the public that, in their reports on the Russian annexation of Crimea, the media were once again simply parroting what is in the interest of the United States or NATO.

But it isn’t just old mistakes that have undermined trust, something else has been added to the mix. It seems that there is now a daily effort to shock the public. Bernhard Pörksen, a media scholar at the University of Tübingen, now calls the media “excitation machines.”

In the battle for attention, they invite outrage. First a failing is exposed and is often greatly exaggerated. This is followed by the collective agitation of journalists and the public. Finally, there are the unavoidable phases of reappraisal. First comes the silence of those affected, then their explanations and, finally, an apology.

Again and again, we are left with “innocents and the barely guilty,” who were “deprived of their dignity,” said Mr. Pörksen.

Instead of providing guidance and enlightenment, journalists simply move on with the media caravan after the slaughter, and their credibility falls by the wayside.

The crash of a Germanwings flight over the French Alps in March is a case in point. From the very beginning, a substantial portion of the public severely criticized the breathless reporting.

In the comment sections of online media, readers immediately accused editorial offices of filling live tickers with nothing but speculation. They wrote that anyone who disseminates incomplete information as confirmed fact is violating all professional rules and trampling the dignity of the victims.

After the crash, the German Press Council received more complaints than after any other event since it was founded 60 years ago. Readers were especially critical of how shamelessly journalists bore down on the victims’ families and residents of the town of Montabaur, where co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who is accused of crashing the plane, had grown up.

Die Zeit also received sharp criticism. More than 1,000 readers complained because the paper’s main story on the day after the disaster was printed at a time when the facts weren’t clear, and as a result was wayward.

The lead story raised the question of whether Lufthansa’s new strategy to transform its Germanwings subsidiary into a budget airline could have led to safety defects. Following the impulse of doing what a journalist has learned to do during a major event, namely to report quickly, the editorial department chose the wrong direction.

This became apparent a short time later, when it emerged that the co-pilot and not safety defects had caused the crash. But Die Zeit was unable to undo its story.

Of course, the public knows very well that journalists, as a rule, write and broadcast things that they believe will appeal to and arouse readers, and are also important to them.

Paradoxically, there is also a boundless appetite for scandal – and, at the same time, widespread disappointment over the media that cater to this appetite.

In fact, the heavily criticized live tickers used after the Germanwings crash attracted many readers. The click rates of news sites shot up in the days after the crash, as did the sales of tabloid newspapers that were able to provide details about the co-pilot and his medical history.

Paradoxically, there is also a boundless appetite for scandal – and, at the same time, widespread disappointment over the media that cater to this appetite. And, even more paradoxically, there are more and more satirical formats on television, which very successfully appeal to both the appetite for scandal and frustration with the media.

In this way, disgust and mistrust further augment each other. Oliver Welke has been very successful with this approach. He fronts a Friday-night news satire show in Germany that is much more popular than serious news programs. No one on his Heute Show does the kind of research that some of the role models in the United States do.

In the U.S., top hosts such as John Oliver go to immense lengths, work their way deeply into topics and send out reporters so that they can later recount what they have learned using the tools of satire. By contrast, Mr. Welke only caters to the lust for scandal and satisfies his audience’s simple desire for a world that is morally black and white.

The same way of thinking can be found in many readers’ letters and online comments, and on Twitter and Facebook: “system media” equals “lying press” equals “bought journalists.” The speakers and writers usually speak and write more clumsily than Mr. Welke, but the message is the same: You journalists have betrayed us.

A dozen other German satirical programs now use the same recipe. And media satirists amplify the aversion to the very media to which they owe their time slots.

All of this no longer has very much in common with the ideal of a civilized, public debate. The permanent scandalization signifies a departure from enlightenment and real debate.

But wasn’t that once the hope? The knowledge and wisdom of the many who congregated on digital platforms were to form a new supervisory entity, a fifth estate.

This fifth estate exists today, and it isn’t going away anymore. The structural transformation of the public that we are experiencing is permanent. It would also be wrong to say that the fifth estate is fundamentally destructive; it also inspires many debates.

Many articles, including those in Die Zeit, have been written as a reaction to intelligent comments of readers. Suggestions made by non-journalists in social networks are important sources of information for journalists.

In other words, the fifth estate pollinates the fourth estate and, in some respects, even competes with it. An alternative news universe has developed in social networks, in which a different currency of trust applies.

Trust develops differently in that universe. It doesn’t matter if someone is a professional journalist, what counts is faith in the people we follow. But this fifth estate has been relatively fickle until now, and it offers no reliable classification of world affairs.

On Twitter, for example, a piece of news disappears if it is not immediately shared and rated thousands of times. The verdict as to its value is cast within seconds. And because there is no checking of facts on the Internet, legitimate inquiry spreads at the same rate as conspiracy theories, and with the same claim to veracity.

And unlike the first four estates, the fifth estate is not expected to explain itself, nor is it subject to any professional rules. It usually remains anonymous, its strength is incalculable and its impact is substantial.

In light of the vehemence with which public debates now escalate, the forces of enlightenment in the fourth and fifth estate ought to band together – against the people generating scandal in the media and on the Internet.

For journalists, this means: Don’t exaggerate. Your role has changed. In the past, journalists were responsible for scandalizing. They had to express their outrage publicly, because no one else was doing it. Today the indignation already exists, and a substantial portion of the public wants journalists to provide for stability in public discourse, more so than they have in the past.

For the players in the social media sphere, this means: Accept your responsibility. You wanted it. Now deal with it. One approach could be to rethink anonymity in public discourse. Perhaps it was the right thing in the early days of the Internet. It allowed anyone to take a stab at expressing himself in the public sphere. This is why it is time to ensure that all players in the fifth estate show their faces in public discourse.

This is already the case on Facebook, and many people on Twitter use their real names. But on platforms like YouTube and in the comment sections of online media, almost everyone chooses the cloak of invisibility. Experience shows that viewers and readers who state their names want to be part of the conversation, even when they rage. They want what idealists of the digital world always wanted and still want – dialogue.


This is an abridged version of an essay that first appeared in Die Zeit weekly newspaper. To contact the author:

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