Sales figures are decreasing, criticism of the media is increasing. To what extent are journalists still important for informing the population?
In November, Spiegel celebrated the 100th birthday of Rudolf Augstein, the magazine’s founder. In the interview, the deputy editor-in-chief of the political magazine, Dr. Melanie Amman, about the situation of the media in Germany, what differences there are compared to back then and whether journalists can learn from influencers.
The Spiegel was founded 75 years ago by Rudolf Augstein. What challenges were there back then and what is different today?
Maybe Der Spiegel had it a little easier in the post-war period in 1947 than it does today, people were thirsty for information. The democratic Federal Republic did not yet exist and the media landscape was still being developed. Augstein experienced a real onslaught, people literally ripped the expenses out of his hands. Interestingly, the young Spiegel shared a problem with today’s world: the high price of paper, which significantly increases production costs.
And what challenges do you see today compared to back then?
At that time there was a basic trust in the media, particularly notable after the Nazi dictatorship. This is an important difference from today. When Augstein went to prison as part of the “Spiegel affair,” people even demonstrated for Spiegel. One can only hope that people would still take to the streets for us today. We experience the opposite often enough. People are demonstrating against us or agitating against democratic media. This is the central challenge of our time, to counteract this loss of trust and the anger that some people have towards us.
Where is the reputation of the media today compared to back then?
Digitalization has created an immense diversity of news sources, which contributes to the fragmentation of the public. When it comes to sources, there is no longer a distinction between quality media and what generally appears on the Internet or on social media. This makes it increasingly difficult for us to get through to these people. Although the media remains a central authority in society, they must find ways to strengthen their transparency, credibility and integrity.
Can this even still be possible? Can media still win this battle?
The battle for media credibility is still in full swing. I don’t want to give up hope that reason or truth will prevail. Another problem is that opinions are disconnected from research and facts. The Internet is in itself a great asset for freedom of expression, but opinions too often replace information.
Related to this: As deputy editor-in-chief of Spiegel, how do you experience the culture of debate in Germany? Do emotions, alongside opinions, play a bigger role than before?
Yes absolutely. Social media rewards the emotional post, the response is much greater. The more opinionated you are, the more intensely your followers will react. This is an unfortunate development because people feel that they are being rewarded for bold theses. This sets off a spiral in which some people go crazy and in turn emotionalize other people.
There is an accusation that the media is colluding with the state. What do you think?
I see a growing distance between politics and the media, and also mutual frustration. So politicians are angry at us journalists. The feeling that we are treating us unfairly – and that also exists the other way around.
Many people see a break between the media and the population…
The corona pandemic marks a break between the media and parts of the population. The way we reported on the pandemic sparked outrage, incomprehension and anger in some circles. People perceived this virus and its dangers very differently – including us journalists. Looking back, I have to say: We weren’t able to please many people, and we also made mistakes during the pandemic. We were wrong, just as the government and scientists were wrong. My impression is that this rift deepened later. I’m still a bit at a loss as to how we can fix this, how we can successfully approach the people who no longer trust us. We can probably only counter this with transparency about our work and with honesty.
Even that is often not enough.
It really depends on who you’re dealing with. But I fear that in many cases, even if the relationship can be repaired, there will still be mistrust or disappointment in us. That’s why we’re being tested even more than before. Even if people are reconciled again, the mood can quickly change and we lose it again.
What new paths must the media in Germany take in order to reach people who no longer listen?
Media in Germany must constantly reposition and invent itself in order to reach those who no longer listen. It starts with social networks; a million people follow Spiegel on Instagram alone. It is no longer enough to publish our investigative research and exclusive news there in the traditional way; we have to translate it even more for these platforms. Younger users in particular don’t come to us; they want to be picked up and convinced. The balancing act is to keep readers loyal to us without constantly thinking about what positions might irritate or scare them.
Social media is flooded with influencers with their own agenda. Do journalists still have the function of gatekeepers these days?
Rudolf Augstein had this function. With the Internet, journalists have lost this task. Maybe that’s not so bad after all.
But are there things we can learn from influencers?
To a very limited extent. It’s a different style, it’s a different kind of work. But where we still need to improve overall is how we prepare content in a more appealing way for these networks without setting off the outrage spiral. We also regularly discuss this with young influencers.
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