These last weeks have been turbulent ones in the world of German journalism. In early December, the SPIEGEL revealed that its star reporter, Claas Relotius, had been publishing fraudulent and falsified stories on a large scale over the last years. The 33-year-old cited an internal pressure to “be the best” as his main reason for lying in his articles, in articles such as the interview with the last Die Weiße Rose– survivor Traute Lafrenz (Die Weiße Rose was a student-led resistance group in Nazi Germany), and in articles detailing the struggles of refugees and the lives of brainwashed children in ISIS. Relotius has given back the prizes he was awarded for outstanding journalism, and the SPIEGEL has published a multitude of mea culpa-editorials, but the damage is done and irreversible.
Relotius’ actions, the actions of a man who, by all accounts, including his own, has been struggling with significant mental health problems, have resulted in right-wing populist-groups rejoicing in what they view as confirmation of a widespread Lügenpresse in the German media landscape. It is now the responsibility of any and all forms of news outlets, including student-led online journals such as this one, to firmly counter these arguments.
In a way, Relotius is symptomatic of many of the issues we currently face in society, both here in Germany and worldwide. As a young, male reporter he felt pressured to compete, to prove himself, and the only way he thought he could do so was by conjuring up narratives founded in fiction rather than fact. A friend of mine commented that perhaps the type of journalism Relotius was known for, the emotional editorial, or Reportage, was part of the reason that lines became blurred. That may well be true, especially considering the blatant emotional manipulation present in much of modern-day reporting, both in conservative and in liberal media. In a way, I would argue, the emotional ploys of far-right media outlets have perhaps necessitated a more emotional approach in liberal reporting. In addition to this, the ability to access almost everything online impedes and facilitates falsifying articles at the same time. Another important factor is the neoliberalist tendency of focusing on the individual in reporting. Of course, we are to blame for this as much as mainstream journalists themselves, as we are only capable of caring, it seems, if we hear the stories of individuals rather than groups, because it is only then that their humanity becomes apparent to us.
If recent reports are to be believed, it now seems that Relotius may have been driven not only by the desire to keep producing top-notch journalism, but also by personal greed: He is accused of embezzling donations intended to help orphans in Syria. If this turns out to be true, then this, too, is symptomatic of today’s focus on individual gain and well-being rather than the well-being of society as a whole.
Critical thinking and reading abilities are more important than ever at a time like this; the ability to question not only information that supports our world views, but also information that challenges it. We need to embrace critical thought and become more critical of our own beliefs and opinions. Otherwise, we run the risk of believing people like Relotius and, by extension, supporting right-wing propaganda ourselves.