Does the DU correspondence include journalism

The reporter as a swindler

Time to come to terms with: The "Spiegel", the Relotius case and journalism

By René Martens
03.02.2019 •

The Republic of Kiribati, which consists of more than 30 atolls, is a symbolic place for the consequences of climate change. The archipelago in the Pacific Ocean could no longer be habitable by 2020. The former "Spiegel" reporter Claas Relotius was apparently indifferent to the generation issue of climate change and the everyday life of those most affected by it. There is hardly any other explanation for the fact that Relotius pretended to have researched on Kiribati for a "Spiegel" cover story on the topic, which was jointly contested by several authors and which appeared at the end of November 2018.

"According to the flight bookings, Relotius still flew to Los Angeles as planned on July 10, 2018, but did not take the booked onward flight to Kiribati. Relotius canceled the motel booking for Kiribati at short notice by email, ”wrote the“ Spiegel ”on January 24th. The bookkeeping of the house is also "no travel expense report from Kiribati, not even from a later point in time".

This research on our own behalf is part of the most extensive publication of the "Spiegel" to date on the misconduct of its former star reporter. The article, which is freely accessible on "Spiegel Online", includes test results on texts by Claas Relotius in 28 cases. The Hamburg media company made public on December 19, 2018 that the journalist, who has received multiple awards, is a fraud. The work-up time had begun. What happened, what could happen, will have a long-lasting effect.

Symptoms of a Structural Problem?

Now Relotius has not only given - more than once - the impression that it has researched in places where it has never been, at least at the suggested time. He has also falsified quotes for years (including from Traute Lafrenz, the last survivor of the “White Rose” resistance group fighting against National Socialism), he invented people, telephone calls or even a forest (in an article about the American town of Fergus If, a text that was taken up relatively often in the reporting on Relotius) and he has given real people other names or assigned them made-up biographical details. Last but not least, he has changed or dramatized information taken over from other media.

A central question in the debate about Relotius is: Are his forgeries symptoms of a structural problem? Hans Leyendecker, for example, once an editor at "Spiegel" and the "Süddeutsche Zeitung", says no. In an interview with the media magazine “Journalist” (Issue 1-2 / 19) published by the German Association of Journalists (DJV), he says: “The damage caused is great, but it would really only be huge if it wasn't for one Would act on an individual basis. I can't see that at the moment. "The culture journalist Georg Seeßlen takes the greatest possible counter-position in the February issue of the monthly magazine" Konkret ":" The crime of Claas Relotius, like the crime of all counterfeiters, was getting caught. Because every counterfeit, as long as it works, is an essential part of a semantic-economic system, and if it is exposed, it exposes this very system. ”The art forger, for example, continues Seeßlen, exposes the art system and the seller of counterfeit brands exposes the trademark system .

To answer the question that has just been touched on, it is helpful to take a look at Relotius' style, among other things. A report by him, which was published in 2017 under the title “How ISIS turned two children into an attacker”, begins like this: “Four minutes before Nadim, a child with reddened eyes, grabbed the trigger on his vest to get in with nine and a half kilos of explosives to tear death, the muezzins of Kirkuk shouted over loudspeakers in all quarters of the metropolis for evening prayers. ”The introduction to a text published in 2018 about a woman who allegedly travels through the USA to watch executions reads similarly:“ On one late January evening, with the moonless sky over Joplin, Missouri, a petite little woman leaves her house to watch a man she does not know die. She locks the door, turns the key three times. ”The“ Spiegel ”now describes both texts as“ falsified in essential points ”.

Pick-up journalism and methods of marketing

With reference to the moonless night and the key turned three times, Simon Drescher, Sebastian König and Mario Gotterbarm, two rhetoric scholars and a Germanist from the University of Tübingen, write in the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung” (FAS): “Such superfluous, that means no further meaning supporting details generate a reality effect. ”The term“ reality effect ”in turn goes back to the French philosopher Roland Barthes.

Thomas Assheuer puts Relotius' style in an article for the weekly newspaper “Die Zeit” in a larger context: “For a long time, cultural scientists have been observing a change in the function of journalistic texts. Journalists try to no longer just describe reality, but to tell it - in such a way that the text creates a closed world into which the reader can immerse, which picks up and embraces him. The technical term is ‘atmosphere’ ". Claas Relotius "perverted" this technology.

The fact that Assheuer brings the term "pick up" into play is commendable. "We have to pick up the viewer / reader where he is" - statements of this kind have been known since the 1990s, they usually serve as justifications for flattering reporting So did Claas Relotius also stand for this pick-up journalism, which systematically underestimates the recipient?

The writer and playwright Lukas Bärfuss brings another perspective into play in an essay for the Swiss online magazine “Republik”: “A large part of the responsibility” for “the lost trust in journalism” lies with the media themselves. “The power the stories are great and dramaturgy is an effective drug. Journalism has drunk it in large gulps in recent years, it has become addicted and sick. The media thought they could attract the readers' attention with their storytelling, but they have given themselves over to the methods of marketing. "The Relotius case is" the nemesis of this development ".

It is not without irony that the characteristics sketched out by “FAS”, “Time” and “Republic” can also be found in some of the texts with which “Spiegel” worked on the Relotius case. About the crucial hours, in which those responsible for the first time approximately the extent of the forgeries, it says in the "Spiegel" issue No. 52/18: "Relotius' closest confidante in the department is the deputy head Özlem Gezer, only 37 years old a little older than him […]. In the night from Wednesday to Thursday of last week at 0.16 a.m., she sent Relotius a WhatsApp message: 'I'll be right there, and you'll be out.' She takes a DriveNow car, drives to his apartment, calls, he's coming down. It is 1 o'clock, you are in the car, you talk until shortly after four o'clock. "

What is meant already begins with the description

The three already quoted Tübingen FAS authors Drescher, König and Gotterbarm are trying to clear another misunderstanding circulating in the debate about Relotius: “A good deal of coming to terms with the Relotius case” will “consist of admitting that supposedly reports reflecting reality are rhetorical-narrative constructions ”. The latter therefore also applies to reports in which a reporter describes true to the facts what really happened. The trio of authors sums up: “Above all, it will be the most honest act in the Post-Relotius era not to propagate a discourse style that ostensibly puts the representation of reality first before any political opinion - as if opinion and reality were two separate spheres In other words: thinking and commenting already starts with describing.

Research published on January 8 by the portal “Übermedien” also shows that the case of the former “Spiegel” editor gives reason to think about general weaknesses in journalism. Similarities were noticed between the “Spiegel” report “The boy with whom the Syrian war began”, for which a jury from the “Reporter Forum” awarded Relotius the German Reporter Prize in early December 2018, and numerous (older) publications both German and international media. Under the heading "The legend of the boy who allegedly started the war in Syria", hypermedia author Boris Rosenkranz recapitulates that this "legend" began in March 2011 with an article in the US magazine "Time". The newspaper reported at the time that in the week before it was published, a group of "15 children" sprayed graffiti critical of the regime on a wall in a town in southwest Syria. The "perpetrators" were put in prison.

Longing for simple stories

In the months and years that followed, “the children's story was told in ever greater detail, in many Western media, soon also in German. In time it will be declared the origin of the war and it will be narrowed down to a single boy; a single boy who sprayed war on, ”continues Rosenkranz. The boy's name varied, as did his age and the date of the supposedly significant spraying act. Rosenkranz ’conclusion: it was" a story, a legend that got around among the people of Syria, which also had a true core, but was embellished when it was told "- especially when journalists got wind of it. The impression that there is a longing for simple stories in the editorial offices in view of the confusion of the situation in Syria - the global political situation behind the war, the heterogeneity of the groups that play or played a role in it - is difficult to dismiss.

Not all analyzes of the Relotius scandal are stimulating. Mathias Döpfner, for example, the Chairman of the Executive Board of the Springer Group, brought up a prayer-wheel-like accusation in an interview with the German Press Agency (dpa) on January 14th. "The problem with this 'Spiegel' affair lies deeper. You sit on the high horse and describe the world as it should be in beautiful, almost literary language. Attitude is often more important than handicraft, ”he said in an interview that Springer's daily newspaper“ Die Welt ”published online.

Like many other journalists from the right-wing conservative milieu, Döpfner uses "attitude" here as a negative battle term that suggests that the journalists working in his group do not stand for any attitude, but report without judgment. The statement by the Springer CEO is directed against a supposedly typical, in his opinion left-wing "mirror" attitude. The fact that Claas Relotius also wrote and falsified for media that can be located on the right (“Cicero”, “Weltwoche”) falls under the table in this argument. To associate the swindler Relotius with an "attitude" is absurd anyway. If he has one, he has not yet expressed it in the context of his professional practice.

Döpfner's interview statements contain another common misunderstanding. On the one hand, there is talk of an "almost literary" style, on the other hand the company manager insinuates that handicrafts play a rather minor role in this type of writing. This is wrong in two respects: Relotius does indeed master a certain type of craft, but nothing “literary” has been in his style so far (see also the section “At the beginning” in Dietrich Leder's annual review in MK issue No. 1- 2/19).

Felix Stephan, features editor of the “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, stated there that Relotius' texts “have even less to do with literature” “than with journalism”: “They always tell the probable. But not the probable in the variant of the realistic novel, which artistically reshapes reality and creates its own world, which, on closer inspection, is insanely artificial, arranged, prototypical and dependent on thousands of coincidences and thus can never have existed that affect the audience Nevertheless, it probably looks as if it could really have happened that way. ”In other words: Relotius may be a good craftsman, but literature, that is art, has not come out of his work so far, only handicrafts - that is, trinkets, how to wear him Buys vacation spots in souvenir shops. Nice to look at, but nothing more than that.

A failure of media criticism

Rainer Hank, head of the business and finance department of the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung” and in 2018 a member of the jury that awarded Relotius the German Reporter Prize, says about such judgments: “Only those who knew better before can throw the first stone now . The other stone throwers who are now coming out of the streets are not convincing. ”This statement is part of an extensive“ attempt to explain ”the jurors, which the“ Reporter Forum ”published on January 25th. However, Hank ignores the fact that there is a third group in addition to the many journalists who did not see through Relotius and those who now claim they had always known: journalists who named Claas Relotius before December 19 never heard of. This also includes the author of these lines.

Anyone who complains that too much is being put into one pot in the Relotius debate can be countered: Of course there is a difference between on the one hand shameless inventions à la Relotius and on the other hand distortions of reality that are due to a tendency towards under-complexity. But apparently it first took a blatant occasion like the revelations of Relotius' fakes to talk about things that one could have talked about before. The fact that this did not happen is at least to a small extent also a failure of the media criticism, which the German reporting industry has apparently not had sufficient focus on so far.

A similar phenomenon can be observed with the recently revealed uncleanliness in films of the reportage and documentary series “Menschen hautnah”, which has been running on the third program WDR TV since 1996. Not a media journalist, but Paul Bartmuss, social media editor at the sports magazine “Kicker”, drew attention to serious journalistic deficiencies in two films on January 14 with a Twitter thread. Accordingly, a couple from the film "Love without a future: Secret affairs and their consequences" (first broadcast: December 15, 2016) in the article "Marriage from Reason - is it really possible without love?" Man had a different name in the second film and his wife and husband also played different roles in it than in the 2016 documentary. Bartmuss also pointed out misleading age information.

Falsified content in WDR films

With his thread he triggered internal investigations at the WDR and research in various media. In the course of this it came to light, among other things, that the author of the incriminated documentaries had booked a protagonist for “Marriage from Reason” via the website In a press release on January 18, the WDR declared another film from the series “People up close” that was delivered by the controversial author: the contribution “Secret Love” (first broadcast: November 13, 2014).

Ellen Ehni, editor-in-chief of WDR television, said on January 24th to the online portal “Meedia” that there was “no parallel between Relotius and this case”. Which is true in one respect: the author has nothing gefakes - but very much content verfakes. As with Relotius, you should always discuss what the revealed individual cases say about the system.When the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" (edition of January 22, 2019) writes about the use of the platform in the production of "Ehe aus Vernunft": "The journalist had written an advertisement after unsuccessful research", then for example the Question: What part does WDR have in the pressure to which the author apparently felt herself exposed? The general rule is: "When editorial offices come up with quota-generating topics and then look for protagonists who fit the story, expectations and reality become blurred," writes Kathrin Hollmer in the "Süddeutsche Zeitung" (issue of January 25, 2019).

So it is a question of questioning the knitting patterns that the editorial staff of “People Up Close” expects from the authors. In essence, it is about a problem that is at least similar to that in the Relotius case: because "good stories" thought up at the desk or in editorial conferences turned out to be not feasible in the planned form, help was given. The incriminated, meanwhile killed WDR author may have done that on a much smaller scale than Claas Relotius. The only remedy here can only be a new approach to issues, but self-criticism, which suggests a rethink in this regard, has unfortunately not been heard from the WDR so far.

02/03/2019 / MK

Closed world: the sky above the “Spiegel” building in Hamburg

Photo: da / MK