Media Frenzies, Bird Flu and Locust Alarm

December 3, 2005 • Ethics and Quality • by

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, December 03, 2005

The fourth power under scrutiny: how journalists (also) pursue their own interests

With the media sector in crisis, journalists like to think of themselves as victims of “economisation.” However, they turn a blind eye to the fact that they, too, don’t always contribute to the greater good but at times act out of self-interest. Trade-offs with executives and politicians are therefore widespread. A real debate within the media and the editorial departments is overdue.

In hindsight, the events or the hot topics in Germany over the last few months have made 2005 a beastly year in the true sense. The bird flu with its associated perils dominated the German-language media, although the disease had not claimed a single victim for weeks within the immediate vicinity. Even the parrot imported from Brazil, which dropped dead in the UK, has now been exonerated.

In the months prior to that, it was the locust invasion that caused uproar. Adroitly, the head of Germany’s Social Democrats at the time, Franz Müntefering, took advantage of journalists’ weakness for colourful language and started a fake debate – mainly to please his own party loyalists – over the detrimental effect of Anglo-Saxon investors on the German economy. And then there was the unforgettable so-called “Elephants’ round table”, the post-election TV talk show where the soon-to-resign Chancellor Schröder spoke of a conspiracy against his government in an interview conducted by Nikolaus Brender, the editor-in-chief of Germany’s second public television station ZDF. According to Schröder, almost everybody who has a say in German journalism was involved in the conspiracy.

The fourth power’s tarnished reputation

Bird flu, locust alarm, elephants’ roundtable: three topics which not only represent the fundamental changes taking place in politics, business and society, but are also symbolic of a gradual change in journalism. The myth of the “fourth power” that has long nurtured journalism, particularly after Watergate, has lost part of its magic.

It was in the 1990s when the buzzword “economisation” made its first appearance. Media observers and people working in the sector were debating the damaging consequences of a changing economic environment on journalism. In light of soaring corporate earnings, publicly listed media companies and media executives driven by profit maximisation bore the brunt of the criticism. With the new millennium, newspapers suddenly faced stiff competition from the Internet. The free-sheets, in addition to a decline in ad revenue, had to cope increasingly with a generation that seemed less inclined to read. The business model of publishing high-brow journalism was – and continues to be – called into question. In both boom and bust, journalists miraculously succeeded in assuming the role of the “victims” of economisation, who never function as actors driven by self-interest. This misconception becomes evident if one takes a closer look at the media issues that have dominated 2005 from an economic point of view.

Are journalists locusts too?

The “locust invasion” of the German capital markets received such intense media coverage due to Müntefering’s unique ability to reduce to a single powerful image a complex issue, which, in fact, would normally seem rather dull to the general public. From the Bible to Nazi parlance: the expression left ample room for journalistic reasoning. For weeks, the issue was hotly debated in editorials and talk shows. Finally, the pithy words were not followed by any political action.

Although it seems blindingly obvious, it occurred to none that we might have actually been facing a locust plague in journalism for a long time. In huge, buzzing swarms, journalists descend on individual topics and gnaw everything that can be printed or broadcast down to the root. After that, they take to the skies almost simultaneously in their search for a new potential field to feast on.

Pack journalism

This is what economists refer to as the “Tragedy of the Commons”; a situation where a public good is exploited until it is of no use anymore.

In German, the expression used is the term “Allmende” (common land). The land can be used for grazing by anybody free of charge, but only until the livestock has eaten away every last blade of grass. Roughly the same picture emerges in journalism: When it is published, even the most exclusive piece of news turns from a “private” into a “public” good. The journalist who uncovered the scoop and the corresponding media outlet may get something out of it. But the moment it is published, the piece of news becomes a common good from which all editors can profit.

The people working in the media who participate in this pack journalism behave almost in an identical manner to the peasants on the common land – or to cunning investors, for that matter, who calculate the risks and want to make money with as little an effort as possible, thus surfing the wave as far as their free ride will take them.

All of us have probably watched the Twin Towers collapse dozens of times. SARS, BSE, anthrax, the donation scandal battering Germany’s Christian Democrats kept us on our toes for weeks before they were finally dealt with ad nauseam. Even more, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal absorbed Washington’s attention for several months. Media hypes are not unlike the much-cited “bubbles” on the stock market – not least because they may burst overnight.

Low-cost investigation

Despite their apparent herd instinct, many journalists still like to think of themselves as sleuths in the midst of an investigation. Frank Denton, the editor of a regional US newspaper, once sarcastically remarked that he and his colleagues are still “using as a measure of success how many heads we can hang on the wall, either for being thrown out of office or into jail”.

However, the fact is that the time for investigation is in increasingly short supply – not least because most media companies have cut back on their editorial spending. Hence, journalists must make do with limited resources, which means economise. Which topic deserves time and money for investigation? Will it generate a return, i.e. higher ratings or an increase in circulation? Might it not be smarter, in the end, to avoid the hassle of investigating and let the reporters of the national papers do the job? Eventually, the free rider will get a nice headline anyway – for nothing, of course.

Looking at the bird flu frenzy reveals the ‘self-interest thinking’ behind many headlines, statesmanlike commentaries and fear-mongering TV reports. Bird flu has got news value and fills countless pages because it appeals to the primal fear of millions of an invisible and fast-spreading disease. At the same time, investigative efforts are limited. Consumer advocates and health experts are ideal interview partners; news agencies provide the numbers on dead and killed animals in far away lands. The bulk of the investigation is limited to enquiring at the local pharmacy about the sales and availability of “Tamiflu”, apparently the sole effective treatment against the virus infection. Explicit or implicit thinking in clear-cut cost and benefit categories is thus not limited to investors (anymore), but is also prevalent among journalists.

Capitalism’s necessities

In light of this, the open letter published a few weeks ago on page three by Uwe Vorkötter, editor of the “Berliner Zeitung” seems all the more brave. In the letter, he wrote against the unprecedented acquisition of the Berlin publishing house by a British consortium of investors led by David Montgomery. He wrote: “maximising profits is not the aim of our work. Our editorial ambitions are on a par with the financial success of the company”. Thinking about their profession, many of those working in the media would, fortunately, subscribe to Vorkötter’s point of view.

Despite all that, a bitter aftertaste remains. Talking with a variety of different media outlets to young journalists who haven’t yet been given the key to the editorial room and are not cushioned by collective wage agreements, you hear a lot about short-term contracts and meagre pay per line. This is probably much more closely linked to “locust capitalism” than their established, fixed-contract colleagues may like to admit; capitalism they relish attacking on other occasions.

No wonder then, that many of those often outsourced freelance journalists are looking elsewhere for employers that allow them to make ends meet – and find them in the PR sector, where journalists can earn extra income. This, however, triggers a vicious circle that threatens to undermine journalism’s resource basis. The more the professional content PR agencies and departments produce to offer free of charge to newspapers, the greater the temptation for the papers to include such content without having to pay for costly investigative journalism. Cost-conscious publishing executives may use this as an excuse to cut back on other journalistic positions.

In addition, successful publishing of PR material may well lead many corporations, authorities and non-profit organisations to reflect on their own practices. To them it seems logical to scan their own ad budgets for content that might better be published using PR channels. If this catches on, it will leave publishing executives with even less ad revenue and money to pay for journalists and editors.

Trade-offs

But it is not only the line separating PR and journalism that is becoming increasingly blurry. One reason why the post-election round table was such a sobering experience was that it put the spotlight on the odd proximity between journalists and politicians. The omnipresent, if usually more clandestine, trade-offs suddenly became apparent. To those watching Schroeder and Brender arguing on live television the whole scene seemed like an embarrassing family row.

Later that night, Schröder apparently reprimanded a journalist working for Germany’s “Spiegel”. This was odd – given the fact that the chancellor only last year declared that if he wanted to make something public, he would tell it to every newsmagazine. It is no surprise therefore that “Spiegel’s” editor-in-chief Stefan Aust was furious about Schröder’s comment, since the “political animal” and media savvy chancellor lay bare the inner workings of the market for information. This has developed in the grey zone between politics and journalism.

Exclusive information – if often not really exclusive – is traded by politicians and spin doctors in exchange for attention and is leaked to a select group of journalists who preferably work for one of the leading papers or channels in order to ensure that the “pack” will pick up on the story. The lucky beneficiaries show their thanks by publishing headlines that might be a tad bigger or more positive than appropriate.

Information about disinformation

Bird flu, locust invasion, elephants’ round table are topics that show that – contrary to popular perception – journalists can, and indeed have to bear economic considerations in mind. There are, however, implications of their own work that many in the sector would like to forget about.

There is no doubt that the media are exceedingly beneficial to the public if they report fairly and without fear and fervour. Not enough attention is paid in public discourse to the costs of external effects imposed on society as a whole or on sectors or individuals by sensational reporting, the distorting of facts or insufficient investigation – which is ultimately disinformation. It is time, therefore, for a more serious debate about “Corporate Governance” and “Corporate Social Responsibility” among editors and in the boardrooms of media companies.

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