Spurned accolades

October 1, 2004 • Ethics and Quality • by

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, October 01, 2004

ARD and ZDF in dispute with Media Tenor
Last week, the research institute Media Tenor gave awards to several newspapers for the diversity of perspectives in their news journalism. Public broadcasters ARD and ZDF would have received awards as well, but their bosses declined the distinction.

It is probably the first journalism award in the German-speaking region that is not granted by a jury but is based on the continuing scientific analysis of media content. Last week, the research institute Media Tenor honored several media outlets with this year’s International Media Tenor Award for Media Diversity. The prize honors the diversity of perspectives in news journalism in several categories and takes a total of ten criteria into consideration. The award ceremony was the highlight of a two-day international conference on the Petersberg in Bonn. At the conference, participants discussed the latest findings on agenda setting – i.e. who decides what is put on the political agenda in democracies: politicians and big business, their consultants and PR people, the lobbyists of non-profit organizations or the media and journalists?

Acting like prima donnas

The laureates’ conduct – probably more than the laureates themselves – gives away the different cultures of quality in journalism: Fred Kempe, editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal Europe, rushed in to accept the award personally. He also saw to it that his readership would – the very next day – find out through a big ad in his own paper that his newsroom had been awarded the Business Media Award. In contrast, the German newspapers honored – among them Die Zeit, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Die Welt, Die Welt am Sonntag and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung dispatched deputy editors or section chiefs to the ceremony. The public broadcasters ARD and ZDF even behaved like prima donnas and refused to accept the award.

This might be due to the fact that Media Tenor frequently reminds the two national TV giants of their public service mandate. In a study published several weeks earlier, Media Tenor had disclosed figures showing that sports coverage was gradually displacing reports on politics and economics from the news shows of ARD and ZDF. Even though anybody who regularly watches German TV news could confirm the impression that Media Tenor proved with its scientific data, the broadcasters cast doubts on the research methods of the institute; ARD referred to external scientific experts who – quite embarrassingly – apparently prefer, like snipers, to remain anonymous.

Help for self observation

The incident shows once more how difficult journalists and media managers, above all those in public broadcasting companies, find it to face criticism, even if that criticism is scientifically based and comprehensible to nearly everyone. Media Tenor – which this year celebrates its tenth anniversary and now also monitors news coverage in the US, the Czech Republic and South Africa – provides newsrooms that care about quality management with an indispensable tool. Month after month, the research institute supplies data to newsrooms enabling them to compare their own work with that of their competitors, thus improving their performance.

What a historical advance this amounts to can probably only be appreciated by those who until recently were “guided” by censors. On the Petersberg, it was Zdenek Velisek who accepted an award on behalf of Czech public television and who used the opportunity to emphasize how liberating it was for a journalist to deal with a scientific “watchdog” instead of with a state and party apparatus.

(Translation: Jasmin Bodmer)

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