Can mainstream media be trusted? We’ve all heard the accusations of “fake news” being bandied about, and attacks on journalists seem to be de rigueur for politicians these days. It’s true that there have been media scandals in the past, such as phone-hacking in the UK. Most recently, in the United States, several journalists for CNN have just resigned after an article they worked on was retracted. Does it follow, however, that mainstream media in general is therefore untrustworthy?
As the European refugee crisis intensified, distrust of journalists also seemed to increase. For example, a study commissioned by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung from 2015 showed that a majority of Germans felt that the media did not present a true picture of the refugee crisis. Yet 39% of the adult population also found that the allegation of a Lügenpresse (“lying press”) propagated by the anti-immigration Pegida movement was somewhat offensive.
The same pattern has been repeated throughout Europe; confidence in the media fell across the continent in 2015, as this Eurobarometer survey shows. But what does it look like today? Is the credibility problem faced by journalism even greater today? And are the media really as manipulative as some believe (including some of our readers, for example here and here)?
The Schwarzkopf Foundation, as part of its “Understanding in Europe” project, has collected questions and comments from pupils from across Germany. We’ve taken these questions and put them to EU politicians and experts to get a response.
First, we wanted to know whether confidence in the media has really been falling. We spoke with Kim Otto, Professor of Economic Journalism at the University of Würzburg, who together with his team analysed the questionnaires of the Eurobarometer study scientifically. Have Germans lost trust in the media?
So, according to the empirical data we have, this is a phantom debate. […] There are many surveys that ask people about their confidence in the media. If you ask about trust in the media, then you get relatively negative responses. But if you ask about trust in the press, radio or TV, you get relatively positive responses. We have long-term data from 2001 to 2016, and for every year in Germany we have a representative question: “Do you have confidence in the press, in the radio and on television?” And never before has confidence been as high as 2016. That means people trust the traditional media, but not the Internet. And when I ask about trust in the media, many respondents also think automatically about the Internet and the information on the Internet is very untrustworthy.
Next up, we had a question sent in by a German student asking about how independent the media really are, particularly those reporting on Europe. To get a response, we spoke to Julia Bönisch, editor-in-chief of sueddeutsche.de. What would she say?
There are many media that report independently and neutrally on Europe. I think you can trust all the big media. People often perceive such media as manipulative […] We are considered a rather liberal left-wing newspaper, in contrast to the FAZ, which is rather conservative. Because of this perspective, we evaluate events differently, but that does not mean that we report manipulatively. On the contrary, we also try to separate clearly between news and opinion in our paper. News is about reporting only what has happened. Analysis is then made in special columns, which are also marked as comment. This opinion can be followed, but you do not have to. Even if one disagrees, it is always worth reading such pieces, because they stimulate thought and it is good to deal with other opinions.
To hear a different opinion, we also talked to Tabea Rößner, a member of the Bundestag and a media spokesperson for the Greens.
In Germany, the media insist that they are independent. Media are not sponsored by the state, which means they do not get money from the state. It is clear that journalists and politicians are always in dialogue. And journalists, too, have, of course, political opinions. That’s why we say in Germany that we want a diverse media landscape. Especially because of the historical experience of National Socialism, in which media were a mass propaganda tool. Therefore, we have a public-law broadcasting system that must reflect the diversity of opinion within society. And public broadcasting is financed independently, as all citizens pay for it. It is therefore not dependent on state funds, because then there is the risk of partial reporting […] Therefore I believe that we have a very good system in Germany to ensure a lack of state control.
Next up, we had a student question about the phenomenon of Donald Trump, who prefers to use Twitter instead of give interviews to journalists. The question was: Do we still need media if politicians can spread their message directly over the Internet? We wanted to hear an answer to this from journalist Julia Bönisch.
Of course, politicians, just like companies, communicate directly with users, viewers and consumers. But you also need people in between to curate or even challenge their statements. […] For example, journalists can create connections and show what was said just a few years ago and how politicians’ opinions have changed. These are tasks that only media can perform. Politicians will never draw attention to such things. And that is why I believe that media is indispensable to democracy and to an informed discussion by society about politics.
And what does the chairman of the German Association of Journalists, Frank Überall, say?
So I think the role of the media as curators is very important. The individual opinion of a politician is of little value if one wants to understand a situation correctly. For this, one needs different opinions and one needs them concentrated in one place and professionally presented, weighted and analysed. This is what journalists do.
You can of course sit down and join the opinions yourself. You can also sit down and bake a pie every Sunday. Sometimes it is more convenient to go to the baker.
Do you trust the media? Do you believe they are trying to manipulate you? Or do these accusations of “manipulation” and “fake news” come from people who simply have a different political attitude? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to politicians and experts for their reactions!