by Miriam Bunjes and Christiane Schulzki-Haddouti
“There shall be no censorship” says the German Basic law in Article 5 postulating freedom of expression, arts and sciences. There are – nevertheless – topics that do not make it in the news: Patients in need are left alone in hospitals, because social long term insurance is not paying for special assistance, there is less severe juridical punishment for the rape of disabled people and there is an environmentally friendly alternative to the soil and ground water polluting brake pads customary in the trade – topics, that over the years, have affected many people in Germany but have not been covered by the media. Why?
Compared to the USA, there is less concentration of publishers. Whereas the US-American media system is predominantly free-market liberal, the German media system possesses a strong public service broadcast, which was established after Second World War – expressly to convey press freedom. The press market is more and more concentrated in ownership, private broadcasting is by now the stronger pillar in the broadcasting system and is as regards content dominated by entertainment. Nevertheless: There still is a multitude of products, ownerships, topics and analyses. Therefore an all-encompassing influence of the government and related groups does not seem likely to be the dominant reason for the under-representation of certain topics in the news.
Instead, there is another severe problem which is obviously linked to under-reporting: In general, research is not regarded as the basic quality of journalism in Germany and therefor has a rather low significance in work routine and training in publishing houses, journalism schools and universities. This bad habit is on the increase because of the ongoing economical media crisis especially in the newspaper business. Less editors are supposed to produce more content. Producing crossmedia products displaces research in the work routine: there are more articles with less sources especially in local papers, the media closest to the population. The loss of quality leads to not reporting: Less obvious, because not promoted, stories are easily overseen, there is no manpower for background stories, research with an open outcome is regarded as a luxury. This, of course, makes journalism vulnerable to the Public Relation strategies of any kind of interest group or – drastically verbalised – to censorship.
One of the aims of the German “Initiative Nachrichtenaufklärung” is therefore to watch and analyse developments in German journalism that lead to a structural under-representation of topics in order to correct and improve media news coverage in publishing houses and raise a public debate about economic and ideological structure in journalism and journalism education. We want to show leaks and problems in established media and encourage journalists and publishers to publish the left-out and therewith gain as much publicity as possible.
Reflecting the reasons for not-reporting should help to identify problematic structures that can also depend on the journalist as a professional individual, on awkward work-routines, problems in the journalism education system, work ethics or on the nature of news and news selection itself. By analysing the unreported you also gain knowledge about the reported – an therefore about the state of German journalism.
In order to offer a broad view this essay takes a look at the TOP German stories published by the Initiative Nachrichtenaufklärung from 1997 to the recent list of under-represented stories in 2009. What kind of stories do German media fail to cover over the years? What does that say about the German media and last but not least: What are the consequences for our work for “Initiative Nachrichtenaufklärung”?
Up to today, the “Initiative Nachrichtenaufklärung” (INA) has published an annual TOP 10 list of silenced news topics. The INA was founded in 1997 by the communication scholar Peter Ludes after he read about Project Censored in the USA. The founder´s motivation was: Structures that lead to the under-reporting of specific news exist in German journalism as well. Because of the wide variety of causes for not publishing stories the INA chose its name – Nachrichtenaufklärung, News enlightenment, in English. Under-exposed news should be spot-lighted. Whenever a list of under-reported news stories is published the reasons for under-reporting are discussed as well – in order to criticize the media constructively.
The news stories are carefully checked by journalism and media students at the universities of Dortmund, Bonn and the Macromedia college Hamburg. Within the seminars, the main facts are validated and discussed as regards their relevance for the German population and their presence in German media – the INA is also a means to teach research, an under-represented subject in German journalist education. News stories that turn out to be true, that affect a great deal of people and, at the same time, are not adequately covered by the media are presented to a jury every year. The jury – with currently 11 members – consists of journalists as well as scholars in order to ensure a holistic view on relevant topics. The jury meets annually and discusses the research presented by the seminars.
Proposals for relevant but silenced news stories come from citizens, NGOs, scholars, journalists and various interest groups. We get more or less 150 proposals a year – basically after publishing our Top 10 list. After publishing we get a lot of attention from the media, but still the initiative is unknown to many Germans. Meanwhile many journalists have started researching the left-out stories – which means, after some time at least some of the stories are not left-out anymore.
Since 1997, the INA´s jury named 121 under-reported stories. After a topic analysis it becomes obvious that there is a trend in not-reporting: Almost 14 percent (13,6%) of all TOP-stories are stories about economy. We used 16 categories in total: Economy (13,6%), International Affairs (11,7%), Police, Military & Intelligence Service (11,4%), Democracy (9,1%), Data Protection & Security (8%), Social Affairs (7,6%), Health (6,8%), Technology (5,7%), Ecology (5,7%), Corruption (3,8%), Media (3,8%), Future (3%), Justice (3%), Europe (2,7%), Political asylum (2,3%), Atomic energy (1,9%). Multiple Choice of category was permitted.
Topic Analysis of INA Top Stories 1997 – 2009
The economy as such is, of course, not under-represented in German media: There are books for stock-market reports in almost every newspaper, stock-market quotations are even part of the evening news and local newspapers inform their readers about new regional investments. What was left out over the years were the more complicated and controversial stories: Pharmacy industry infiltrates patient organisation blogs with surreptitious advertising in 2008 – a topic demanding extensive research. In 2009 the jury nominated with “Church finances not controlled” another complicated topic, which is – like almost every INA-topic -inconvenient to work on because it is controversial. Most of all: The stories were not current in a way an event is: Like the finance crisis, which developed over years mainly uncovered by global media, those topics describe a problematic condition. As journalists tend to overemphasize topicality they focus on short-term aspects such as events, regardless whether they are staged or real. Therefore the media lacks a holistic perspective, journalists seem to have lost track of long-term consequences for society: Their analysis – a fundamental task of journalism in democracy – is constantly neglected over the years.
Complex and controversial correlations are left-out as well when reporting about international affairs (11,7%) and democracy (9,1%) – fields that dominate journalism in general. But programs and articles are predominately filled with current quotes and actions of the political elite – that German laws violate an UN Convention as regards forcing people into psychiatric clinics (TOP 1 in 2009) is missing in German media as well as news coverage about the European Union`s progress towards becoming a military Union (TOP 5 in 2004).
Permanent candidates on the INA TOP-lists are as well stories about social affairs (7,6%) and health (6,8%). The current TOP 1 gives a striking example: Half a million people in Germany are dependent on professional carers in their daily lives. But when they go to hospital they have to do without help. In clinics with severe shortage of nursing staff behaviour requiring additional care time is treated with tranquilizers. The state of affairs is known to politics but the law passed is insufficient. There has never been a public debate, because there is no media coverage – though the story is relevant to a huge number of citizens as regards future demography. At the moment the aggrieved party is without a powerful lobby with professional public relation strategies – an alarming reason not to report.
Left-out are also topics in fields of technology, ecology, civil security, corruption, media, future, justice, Europe, political asylum, police and atomic energy.
multi-factoral reasons for under-reporting
Why does it seem so difficult to report about complex and controversial topics and how come journalists tend to overlook topics concerning old, poor or sick people? Studies show that journalists predominantly have an elite family background (cf Ziegler 2008, Weischenberg 2006) : Almost every journalist comes from a middle class family and is friendly with other journalists or economic and political leaders. That can induce a limited view on society even though the individual and professional intention is different as social co-orientation narrows professional awareness.
In order to explain the reasons for under-reported news in general there are several factors to consider (cf Schulzki-Haddouti/Bunjes/Jacob 2009). Digitisation of news for instance has changed many rules of the media game. Barriers for publishing are falling, the media are losing their gatekeeper functions (cf Bruns 2005, Neuberger 2005, Meier 2007). Young users and heavy readers increasingly turn to online media and ignore the content bundling of traditional providers (Kolo/Meyer Lucht 2007). A de-territorialisation of communication space overcomes the traditional range of coverage. Ads revenues are declining as clients invest in online advertisement which is no longer controlled by publishing houses. In this process traditional mass media is struggling to learn the new emerging rules for decentralised and networked online publishing.
Consequently time and money seem to run short. As ad revenues are declining, many news organisations reduce their staff and engage less free-lance journalists. Consequently,journalists have less and less time for research (Weischenbert 2006). Editorial staff has been re-organized at various newspapers in the last few years as an answer to economic pressure. A recent study showed that the establishment of new newsroom models does not necessarily co-relate to better journalistic quality (Grittmann 2009).
Public relation activities are gaining influence in newsrooms. A study have shown that editors tend to publish public relation material without further questioning (cf Haller 2005, Lilienthal 2009). The main reason for this is that journalists have had to reduce their research-time as they have to fulfil more and more tasks that are not genuinely journalistic but organisational.
As mentioned above, research as journalistic routine is not a core module in journalistic education as the curriculum of most institutions focuses on production methods. Many trainers take research competences for granted and therefore do not reflect research methods.
In respect to society and politics journalism has lost quite a few privileges in the last few years. Various new legal regulations have weakened the protection of whistleblowers and research material (Schulzki-Haddouti 2008). More and more actions for injunction are filed to suppress unwanted publication. Compared to the U.S. law the new established German Freedom of information act knows many exemptions. Many requests are not answered, the process of proliferating state documents is prolonged and is consequently made more expensive (Redelfs 2009). Recent changes in copy right law have weakened the copy right holders in favour of publishers.
Another thing must not be kept quiet: The INA does not choose topics from a representative sample. We get the topics from NGOs, individual scholars and citizens and off the Internet. That can lead to a serious bias, because socially committed institutions and persons tend to be very active for initiatives like the INA. There can well be under-reported but relevant news in different fields with a less committed lobby.
Much under-reported news could be found in the internet or the blogosphere, but we seldom receive appropriate proposals. On the one hand the blogosphere is simply too large to be monitored by a handful of students during their semester. If they tried they would have to apply specific filters for the aggregation of under-reported news. But how should these filters be developed and matched with mass media reporting? The danger of neglecting specific topics would be still eminent as these filters would be presumably based on historic findings and could therefore have a blind spot as regards current and future developments.
Finally, we have to admit: The INA is still not a professional working organisation. There are research courses at the mentioned institutions where several teachers co-ordinate their work. But there is no professional watchdog realising the steady and continuing management of our initiative. Due to this lack of professional organisation we have not been able to improve our existing network of experts in order to obtain more proposals and to widen the perspective of our regular issue providers.
Our present main and pragmatic aim is to support the field of research in education. We are convinced that this is a key competence of journalism today and tomorrow. In this sense we want to open up towards the further education market to reach more journalists in publishing houses.
As regards digitisation, we have to rethink our ways of gaining proposals for under-reported or as we say in German “neglected” news and as well our way of communicating our annual findings. We could implement certain research filters in order to find relevant news based on our Top 10 topics in the last thirteen years. Meanwhile, we have to reach out offensively into society to obtain not-previously-thought-of topics. One method could be to push our existing network of supporters and experts via open social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn or privately managed networks like Mixxt – and, of course, continual curation. We have to consider though, that our small organisational and financial foundation would not support these efforts right now as supporting social networks demands a steady and reliable committment.
We also have to rethink our annual publication routine. Is it advisable to publish our findings once a year when it gets harder and harder to get public attention and support? Can we maintain our network if we do not curate it on a regular basis? Do we have to find new formats like dossiers beside our Top 10 list? And, if so, how can we organise and implement these new formats in a professional way?
We are still convinced that these measures would be worth-wile as the above mentioned factors continue to professional reporting deteriorate – something, which is so essential for a vivid democratic society. But there is still a long way to go.
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Miriam Bunjes works as free-lance journalist since 2007. Before, she was editor at the “tageszeitung” She is responsible for INA research seminars at the Technische Universität Dortmund and is member of the INA jury since 2007.
Christiane Schulzki-Haddouti has worked as freelance journalist since 1996 and as a researcher for socio-technical issues since 2007. She has been member of the INA Jury since 2000. She was responsible for research seminars of the Initiative Nachrichtenaufklärung (INA) at the Technische Universität Dortmund, Germany, from 2002 to 2005 and has been responsible for INA research seminars at the University of Bonn since 2005. She is co-founder of the Whistleblower Netzwerk e.V. in Cologne, Germany. She blogs at http://blog.kooptech.de, and her website can be found at http://www.schulzki-haddouti.de.
Published in: Peter Ludes (Ed.) (2011): Algorithms of Power – Key Invisibles