In Germany, the term «fake news» is used almost for everything that went wrong, says German journalist Annette Leiterer

Photo by Olena Zashko

In Ukrainian

Old political slogans once shouted at demonstrations in Germany have started a new life and new meanings. The so called migrant crisis together with the fake spread crisis resulted in a situation where a German reader sees no longer any difference between an unintentional error in media and the fake news. Annette Leiterer, editor-in-chief of Zapp media magazine, tells MediaSapiens about new challenges faced by German media outlets.

She says that there has been remarkable criticism about the journalists’ work over the last three years. The phrase “Lügenpresse” – lying press – was once used by the Nazi back in 1930-ies about the foreign and liberal media who refused to publish nationalist and anti-Semitic pieces. Now this phrase has taken a new lease of life. It was used by marchers demanding from media to tell the truth about migration crisis in Europe and in Germany, in particular. Another phrase “Wir sind das Volk” – We are the people – was used during the protests in 1989 in GDR followed by demolition of the Berlin Wall and reunification of Germany.

“Now the meaning of these words has changed, now they mean: ‘You have to listen to us, - Annetta says. – You are like the establishments, that doesn't know anything what is important for us.  So, you must go away.’ And the same people who shouted «Wir sind das Volk» are now shouting «Lügenpresse». It was just easy to scream (laughs - MS). It's a hot word.”

These slogans are often used by right radical unions, PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (Occident)) is one of them. They accuse media of withholding of all problems caused by mass migration of refugees. As a matter of fact, when in 2015 Germany open its borders to the refugees, the media covered this decision of the government in positive way mainly – the expert claimed that media didn’t fulfill its function of ‘criticism and control’.

Zapp deals a lot with the analysis of today’s journalism problems, the causes of readers’ and viewers’ dissatisfaction with present German media.

The TV-magazine has been working for over ten years. It makes part of NDR company (Norddeutscher Rundfunk – Northern German Broadcasting), that in its turn is a part of ARD, the German association of public broadcasters. ARD is the largest broadcaster consortium of Germany.

Annette Leiterer was invited to Kyiv by NGO Detector Media, and together with another German journalist Gemma Pörzgen she had a training for regional journalists “Journalists’ operation in crisis: German experience”. We had a chance to have a closer chat with Annette after the training.

About polarization and fakes

The refugee crisis in Germany launched a discussion if the country was ready to host such a tide of newcomers. This gave rise to the popularity of right radical parties who had negative feelings about the government’s decision to open borders, and undermined trust to the journalists’ work: if the media covered the situation in unbiased way or they just retransmitted official messages? So, what was the role of media in German society polarization?

In way, media even triggered polarization, a little bit. For example, if we talk about phenomenon of refugees, two different pictures were shown. One of them is this warm welcoming of refugees, the other is protestors who were almost violent against refugees. Violence against refugees was a big topic. This was polarization in media.

It is clear when you write an article about something, there are two sides of it. In one way, you can be proud of welcoming culture, in the other you show another part of Germany, how angry people are. But maybe that part of people who didn’t decide yet whether it is good or bad that so many people are coming to Germany, they are not really represented.

There's a well-known theory that social media increase radical attitudes among its users - so called «echo chamber» effect. In your opinion, social media have something to do with polarization in Germany?

I can hardly tell.  This is a very different question, I think it depends on where people consume news. But what I think is that many people are looking into their echo chambers. As journalists, it's our duty to inform all of them and to try to get through to them. But I can't say exactly what percent of our readers or viewers are in those «echo chambers».

Prague Security Studies Institute discovered undermining of European and democratic values as one of central goals of spreading propaganda and fake news in Eastern Europe. What is the goal of spreading fake news in Germany?

When fake news about refugees began to spread, we looked into details. It was information and descriptions on what wrongdoings they did, how they raped, how they stole.  Those news were not true, that was just spread. But the main topic was: we don't want refugees here.

Recently we had a very interesting interview with a person who work for specific organization also spreading fake news in their interest. For instance, they try to tell people that there's a plan not to tell when a child is born whether it's female or male, because our government wants to tell people there's no gender anymore. This is absolutely nonsense. But they have a little editorial room where they discuss what they are spreading next, and we made an interview with someone who was there.

So, there are so many topics for fake news, I wonder how many they are. I'm sure there's some fake news trying to tell people that European idea is a not good idea. But it's one of many.

A month ago, Germany announced an investigation of the spread of fake news. What are the first results of this investigation?

There's was a leak about this report and it says that there's no proof for this influence. But investigators still think that there was an influence. They just cannot prove who and how.

American media watchdogs distinguished a few common types of fake news spread in the USA. Are there any specific features of fake news spread in Germany?

We have also different types of fake news. Sometimes it's just a quote. The quote isn't true but from a real person. Sometimes there's something true in the news but the whole background, motivation is changed. Take for example «The Lisa case». Lisa was away for night, but everything else wasn't true. I'm not really sure if there was any propaganda plan to use this. 

Eventually, we have the same understanding of this term. What the problem is? In Germany, the term «fake news» is used almost for everything that went wrong. Even if media say «Ok, we made a mistake, we're sorry for that», this is anyway called the fake news. But actually, it's not fake because there was no plan for using it. Fake news is always designed for some purpose.

About fact-checking and hate speech

In recent years, the term «Lügenpresse» re-emerged in Germany. What was media’s reaction to these allegations and is it still an issue? Does it undermine the media credibility significantly?

I'm not sure what was first. Was it loss of trust? What changed many people on the streets that way, shouting  «Wir sind das Volk», that was really important before the Wall came down. But it changed a meaning a little bit: today it means «you must listen to us». These shouts mean: «You are like the establishments, that doesn't know anything what is important for us.  So, you must go away». And the same people who shouted «Wir sind das Volk» are now shouting «Lügenpresse». It was just easy to scream (laughs - MS). It's a hot word. I'm not sure that everyone who shouted out there really figured out the real meaning of it and where that word had come from.

Media tried to explain, tried to be transparent. There's media who have been transparent all the time. But there's no one who has easy solution for this loss of trust. There's more than one reason for that. So, it's not easy to solve this problem.

What are the most efficient ways to stop the spread of fake news, taking into account the experience of Germany?

The thing is that it's not decided yet. We have a big discussion now who has to do it. Should Facebook do it by themselves?

Facebook announced the changes to the algorithm to improve the formation of its news feeds. They also added notifications to unreliable content in the USA.

Yes, but would it help? We knew about some fake news circulating on Facebook.  We tried to report Facebook about it but nothing happened. Some people got their accounts blocked because other people reported to Facebook that they spread fake news. But they didn't. We could prove that everything was Ok with those accounts.  Facebook does not show transparent mechanism of blocking people or content. We only know about hundreds of people working in Germany on that. But nobody came with clear information what they do, how they do that. This is a blind box.

There are some separate fact-checking organizations in Germany. Now it's developing to a bigger organization. But here's one problem. There are people who shout «Lügenpresse». Now even if «Lügenpresse» themselves say «this is fake news, this is a lie», I'm not really sure if this is the effect we want.

There are so many people now talking to each other about how to solve this problem, who should do that. There's First Draft community, different media organizations who try to put it together, to do this job, but it's not decided yet, it's not really concrete. But this process is developing now. 

This is challenging. But we have web site called Mimikama, based in Vienna, and they are really good in fact-checking,  identifying what is fake news and what is not. If you see something on social media and you have a doubt if it is fake news or not, you can go to Mimikama and get it checked.

What groups of people are most likely to believe propaganda?  

It's always been a problem in journalism if you talk about groups in general. I don't like talking about journalists in general. I don't like talking about people who get «Hartz IV» - a kind of social support from the government for unemployed. So, I don't really want to talk in general about those who believe in fake news. I’ve heard what was really shocking: in Germany, there are people who are very educated, academics even, start thinking that journalists’ work’s is not worth to be paid for.

I think it's a prejudice to think that this is only people who are not educated believe in propaganda. It would be very simple to say something like that.

Is there such a phenomenon as hate speech in German media?

There were some terms used that can be considered like that. After September 11, there was this cover of «Bild»: «Die Terror-Bestie». «Bestie» means a wild animal. It was to speak not about a human being, even if he did what he did. This is an example of the case that happened long time ago and there were discussions about that. But there are some things that are forbidden. I will not say that it has never happened, but it's not really common in our media.

About ‘corruption’ in journalism and native ads

How political elites influence the media in Germany?

Well, in Germany politicians do not own media (laughs - MS). There are no oligarchs who own big media organizations and can tell them how to write and how to talk about things. But we have these alternative media, and we don't know where they get their money from.  And this is not good because maybe there's someone behind them. Maybe someone gives them money, for example, to spread fake news. Nobody could prove that, but many journalists worked on that topic.

This alternative media have influence on a lot of people. Magazine named «Compact», for example. We don't know who pays for that on the background.

There are specifics in interactionbetween politicians and journalists, right?

I had a discussion about corruption in journalism about two weeks ago. This term is not often used in Germany because we all think we are not corrupt. But there's this access factor: you have to know somebody to get to know some things. You have to make friends. You have to have a relationship. And this is dangerous because you can be used.

On the one hand, as a journalist, you need to have some relationships to get to know some things before others know. On the other hand, these relationships can make you dependent a little bit in some way. You want to keep that relationship going on because someone gives you information. Every human being would hold on that relationship.

But I believe that journalists can cope with that. There are some relationships that work that way. You have to know as a journalist if some politician tells you very good story, you have to think what's on his mind, what his interests are. You have to always, always think of that question. In Berlin, we have meetings - «Hintergrundgespräche» - where politicians and journalists meet. These meetings are just to keep journalists informed, they cannot use it for publications. It's just for the background. Sometimes it's difficult to make it transparent for the public who I met and what he told. It has obviously changed in the USA. We know that journalists in Washington faced problem talking to someone just for background information.

Are there any other factors that may have influence on the work of German media, like financing or intervention of the owner, etc.? Which one is the most powerful?

Several times it was even the topic in our magazine, it is called «Schleichwerbung» - paid publications without advertising label – and it's against the law. But there's new form and it’s called native advertising. Traditional newspapers like «Der Spiegel» don't do native advertising. But they have online magazine for young people called «Bento». And they do native advertising. And some people say that this is a very good idea because now they have a possibility to make money with new online media. But how can young people learn to deal with that – to see the difference.

Another big problem in Germany is that media are losing their advertising revenues to bloggers. They get paid from different businesses and manufacturers, advertisers. And young people probably don't understand a difference between a random publication online and paid publication. For example, «Primark» works with bloggers only, doesn't give any money to media to have their goods promoted. So, bloggers write about it and talk about it encouraging people to go to shops: «Oh, I got that with "Primark"». So, media do not earn any money in this case as a partner for advertising. There is a big change.

So German media suffer the most because of this broken model of getting advertising revenues?

Their Business Model has changed.

About Zapp magazine and media literacy

You work for media magazine «ZAPP» of the public television NDR. What was the goal of creating it?

We are a little bit like a watchdog for media. It shows how the system works and how it sometimes fails. How PR gets into journalism. How journalists work in other countries and what we can learn from that. What the effect of competition is, when everybody wants to be the first reporter on events. There are some mistakes in media and scandalization that happens on and on, so we work on why these things happen.

Have you studied what is the audience of «ZAPP»? Is it a narrow circle of professionals or the audience is more wide and diverse?

Our target audience is not only journalists. We try to target at everybody who is interested in media. For instance, there are some stories about new candidate for chancellor Martin Schulz. He was all over in media, so our goal was to show what his relation to journalism was and we made a piece on that. We had a little special view on what was going on there.

We also have a Twitter account and Facebook page. We are trying to reach more journalists. So, we have not only one target, but two and so it leads to discussions. The content must be easy enough so everyone could understand, and it must be special enough so journalists would not say «I know that, it's not interesting».

Journalists like speaking a lot and they like seeing themselves in media, and this is great. Because it helps to explain their work. We are not only telling who did it wrong but we are also showing someone who did it right (laughs - MS).

How to make media to be a topic of interest to a wide audience?

You have to have good stories. It's always about the stories. It also works when you can show the effect of your story, show people who are affected by it. Besides, you have to explain why this story is important, to motivate interest of the audience.

How can we popularize media literacy among average citizens?

I can bring a small example. We have a form on our web-site so our viewers could write us. At first, we tried to answer every question personally. Why we did that like this or like that. Sometimes people wrote really angry letters.  And we were answering in a very friendly manner that maybe we had a very good reason to do that way and gave explanation. And sometimes those people angry at first answered: «Oh, I did not expect you answering my email anyway. That's very nice. Thank you very much».

But this is not a solution for all of us. It's not possible to answer everyone personally. Moreover, not everyone would write to us. So, it's just a small part.

 

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