You are allowed to lie to newspapers

Future of the newspaper: "Good local journalism is needed more than ever"

Interview with journalism researcher

It doesn't have to be printed on paper - but journalism researcher Nikolaus Jackob from the University of Mainz considers independent reporting on site to be indispensable for democracy. In an interview, he explains why fewer people distrust the media than expected.

The Mainz journalism researcher Nikolaus Jackob considers regional media to be indispensable even in the digital age. They don't have to be printed on paper, but they definitely have to be relevant to local citizens.

The deputy BNN editor-in-chief Claudia Bockholt spoke to the communication scientist about the wishes of the readers, the mistakes of the editorial staff and the polarization of society. Jackob says: Anyone who concentrates too much on social media gets a list and fails to recognize the true distribution of opinions.

Dr. Jackob, supposedly journalism is in a crisis of credibility. Was everything better in the past? Did viewers trust a news anchor like Dagmar Berghoff on ARD even more?

No. There has always been a certain proportion of the population, especially on the political fringes, who also distrusted the ARD Tagesschau. But at the time this was not discussed in that way. Today, due to the multitude of media, we also experience a polyphony, which facilitates the dissemination of alternative narratives. What the so-called social media are today was the regulars' table until the 1970s. There, too, things were articulated that are now considered unacceptable. Back then, too, there were Nazis and Communists who clearly deviated from the democratic line. Just think of the more radical sections of the student movement of the 68s or the earlier right-wing radicalism.

Have we become more sensitive, not to say: politically correct?

Sure, but the main difference is that there are many more people who can participate in debates online. It acts as a loudspeaker and allows relatively small groups to be heard.

There are surveys that come to the conclusion that reporting on the refugee crisis, which is in part uncritical, has cost the media a lot of trust.

Our regular surveys tend to come to the opposite conclusion: trust in the media has not fallen, but has risen continuously since 2015. Also in 2020, i.e. in the Corona year, the proportion of those who have a high level of trust in the media has increased. The traditional media, including the daily newspapers, are more than ever a source of reliable information. They give many people orientation and security, especially now in the pandemic. On the other hand, the hard core of the suspicious has shrunk slightly.

More than ever, the editorial offices have the impression that they are being criticized and that they are being attacked from many quarters.

Journalists are starving too much on social media. This means that the actual dimensions are out of sight. If you get a hundred critical emails in response to a comment, it also means that maybe 90 percent of readers have no problem with it at all. Perception is distorted, especially in editorial offices. Even if you reach 10,000 people with one post, that is still a long way from the majority.

Analyzes show that five percent of all users on social media create 50 percent of all comments.

We do not have our own data on this. But I suspect that the relationship is even more blatant: Only a tiny fraction of society generates the most traffic - and with it the hatred, agitation and lies that are spread via Facebook & Co. We must also not forget that the average German population is over 50 years old and that many of them rarely use the Internet. This is one of the reasons why the daily news and newspapers still have high user numbers. Those who concentrate too much on social media get a list and fail to recognize the true distribution of opinions.

How should publishers react to this media change?

Contrary to some ’gloomy prognoses, I also see great opportunities for traditional newspaper publishers. However, you have to master the transformation into the digital age. In concrete terms, this means that the editorial staff shouldn't chase after the issues that are being blown up in the Berlin bubbles, but rather deal with the real concerns of their readers. Who else, apart from the local newspaper, takes up the issues that concern the local people: What happens next with the day care center or swimming pool? Which roads are being built or where are building areas developed? This is the reader's world. Not the exaggerated excitement when politician B reacts to politician A's insignificant statement. Most people don't care about these cerebral debates.

Do you see the daily newspaper as a reliable source of information and practical help in life?

Exactly. There are so many topics that lie idle on site and can be taken up by journalists who primarily see themselves as service providers. Because that is another imbalance that worries me: that journalists no longer differentiate between news and comment. They not only look at a lot through their political glasses, but also want to impose their worldview on the citizens. This is particularly evident on television. You can tell their opinion from the correspondents' facial expressions. Even after the first sentence, the viewer knows which message should be conveyed to you. This creates a great opportunity for local and regional newspapers: it is they who actually deal with local problems every day. They confront the politically responsible with real concerns and convey the answers to the citizens. This is how newspapers enable discourse. You are therefore an important pillar of a democratic society. They are the bridge builders and promote understanding for one another. But that costs effort, time and money.

A survey recently revealed that volunteers from ARD and Deutschlandfunk would primarily vote for the Greens (57.1 percent), the Left Party (23.4) and the SPD (11.7). CDU (2.6) and FDP (1.3) are splinter parties among tomorrow's editors. Does journalism in Germany have a green-red list?

For sure. But I would not accuse the young journalists of malicious one-sidedness. This imbalance is mainly due to their environment, which shapes them. At a university you are more modern and cosmopolitan. One prefers to marry in an academic environment and is later financially better off. These educational careers, which are often very metropolitan, lead to a different view of society. In short: you often only know the concerns of the “normal” population from hearsay. It is all the more important for publishers to promote pluralism in recruitment and volunteer training. They have to make it clear to their editors that they often do not necessarily represent the majority with their point of view. Because they are not elected representatives who represent party political positions, but only mediators. Journalists should hold back with their individual opinions and points of view. They are not the actors on the field, but the observers.

What is your advice to publishers?

The publishers should give serious thought to how they can get more openness in their editorial offices. In the sense that the journalists are more neutral in dealing with topics. So also take up the concerns of people who do not necessarily belong to the worldly, progressive elites. Here the USA reminds us: The divide between right and left is also getting deeper because the media have become increasingly partisan. They conveyed the disdain for those who think differently and still do. My advice: Less attitude and opinion, but more help in life and problem solving. But above all: Don't look down on “the stupid citizen”, but take his view of things seriously. The media should separate the message and the comment more carefully. So make it clear where you represent your personal opinion, which may be desirable for orientation.

Long-term subscribers expect the newspaper to be in the mailbox punctually in the early morning. The boys, on the other hand, are largely abstinent from print. How do publishers get out of this dilemma?

Media consumption behavior is changing. But as soon as the boys start a family and have children and they go to school, they too want to be provided with relevant information from their environment. Suddenly it is important whether the gym is modernized or the tram gets a branch to its own place of residence. It is quite possible that they will no longer rely on the printed newspaper. But very much on news from their area of ​​life. They too want to know what is happening in their work environment. They keep a close eye on where new building areas are being built, roads are being built or which daycare costs how much. So she is very interested in local life. However, they are very service-minded. Here the newspaper, which offers a reliable digital portal, has an advantage. It not only provides current opening times, but also enables ticket purchases or other services at the push of a button.

But are customers also willing to pay for these services?

That is not easy. Publishers have to come up with more than just raising payment barriers. But the combination of local competence and fast digital access also creates new opportunities for participation. If it is possible to bring the questions of the people on site to the right places and to address them, then the value of this service will also be recognized. The media house offers the marketplace where problems are taken up and debated. Here the possibilities are far from exhausted. I am thinking, for example, of an app with which users can ask questions directly and articulate their wishes to the administration - moderated by the on-site editorial team. Democracy lives from participation. And publishers can offer the platform for this even in the digital age. Perhaps this does not apply to classic club reporting, which only addresses those directly affected. But all questions and decisions that affect the immediate living environment. Who apart from the local editors should report neutrally on a municipal council meeting and then moderate a discussion with the citizens?

What if politicians or administrations use the digital opportunities themselves and communicate directly with citizens via chat?

Don't worry, citizens will notice the difference. You are much smarter than some decision-makers or reporters believe. A politician can stand in front of umpteen cameras and express his opinion for hours - that is a long way from achieving credibility. That is why representatives of public life or business also need journalists who guarantee credibility through competence. Because that's the only way to perceive them. This makes the job of journalist even more demanding. As a critic, controller and mediator, this profession is indispensable. It is the personified system of observation of a society. Especially when it comes to uncovering scandals. That is why three out of four citizens are satisfied with their newspapers, as our surveys show. The fact that not everyone wants to pay for it is another matter.