I recently applied for a masters degree and in my application, I had to discuss the biggest threat to journalism in my country. The following text is the original essay from my application. In these turbulent days, I thought it might be worth sharing, since it not only highlights new challenges to our profession, but also emphasises its societal relevance in the months and years to come.
It almost seems ironic to start off this essay with the questionable claim that the biggest threat to journalism in Germany is the contested notion of what is called „the truth“. Shouldn’t the truth be one of the most reliable companions of journalists and the ideal weapon to defend their reports from skeptics? Given the overwhelming mistrust in the media that has developed over the last couple of years and especially in light of the refugee crisis, one cannot help but notice that claiming to know the „real truth“ has become a rhetorical knockout argument of those criticising traditional journalistic work in their own social media forums and on the streets. To me, it has always been an incontestable part of my understanding of the world that „the truth“ remains relative, particularly when it comes to political and cultural debates.
However, as alternative media outlets such as Breitbart News emerge on the internet and self-proclaimed truth-seekers have discovered Facebook as the perfect way to transmit their enlightened messages, it appears to me that the relative understanding of the truth is somehow replaced by an absolute notion of the very same term and thereby confronting journalism in my country not only with a new challenge but with a serious threat. It has always been one of the main aims of journalists to research thoroughly and check one’s sources with utter accuracy in order to get as close as possible to what might be considered the truth. Nowadays, this approach is being criticised – sometimes rightfully, many times unfoundedly – for disguising „the real truth“ and only representing the facts that might be desirable for specific elites in the society. I most strongly oppose this criticism.
Still, the threat to journalism becomes more and more apparent: If the trust in the media as a deliverer of „fact checked news“ fades, the vacuum left behind will soon be filled with a variety of alternative „truths“. While some of them simply present a welcomed new point of view or a different societal perspective, many of them – especially in social media – are simply wrong. As I mentioned above, I believe in the relativity of truth, however, there are scientific facts that can be checked with thorough research and truths neglecting these facts have to be considered „fake“. If we as a society and journalists in particular give way to emotional truths and simplified social-media-graphics, we simultaneously give way to populist movements and figures who dangerously instrumentalize the mistrust in the media and the system as a whole for their political causes. If at some point, it becomes acceptable that an „emotional truth“ can be prioritized over a „fact-proof-truth“, our society will no longer need the media, since everyone can distribute „emotional truths“ himself, without the professionals in traditional media outlets.
In what has been called a postfactual age, facts will no longer be an accepted „currency“ on the „opinion market“. It is thus of greatest importance for us journalists to counter this threat with a sensible understanding of the cultural backgrounds framing our idea of what is true as well as a careful reflection on the representative nature of our profession.