Journalism and Democracy : Letter to the German Press

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My advice to German journalists:

* Pillar five – stay cool, keep your distance, remain objective – is in obvious tension with pillar four: defend liberal democracy and stand up for the dignity of all human beings. This tension is good. Learn to work with it. Don’t trust anyone who tries to erase it.

* People who feel unheard do not make good customers for complex and uncomfortable truths. Improvements in public listening should therefore be higher on your innovation agenda.

* There’s a difference between doing journalism and doing politics. But this does not release journalists from the requirement to show good political judgment. Maybe the problem with participating in welcome culture was not the sentiment, refugees welcome, but the illusion that it could ever be that simple. That was not good judgment.

* My experience in trying to warn people about Donald Trump’s campaign to discredit the American press leads me to say this: It is not the job of journalists to „oppose“ a political party or charismatic leader. But they have to oppose a political style that undermines democracy and erodes its institutions. You should add this distinction to your pressthink.

* The principle, „treat AfD as a normal party for as long as it is possible to do so...“ is a an intelligent one. The problem, of course, is what to do after that point. I thought ZDF had a good idea when in an August 12 interview it asked Alexander Gauland about urgent issues other than the one he most wanted to talk about: refugees, refugees, refugees.

* It’s not your job, as journalists, to tell people what to think. But it is your job to alert them to what they need to think about. Social scientists call this agenda-setting. It is one of the most important things journalists do. But if the news agenda is set by the opinions of people in your newsroom, that simply isn’t good enough. A reporting agenda borrowed from the parties in power isn’t good enough, either. What if they aren’t listening? Nor is an agenda set by entertainment values, or by media stunts and taboo busting. This is another area where innovation is required- and transparency.

I will give a gold medal in pressthink to the first newsroom in Germany that goes public with its priority list for covering the news and distributing attention, its agenda. This would be a „live“ feature that anyone can access online, an editorial product, updated weekly or when something big happens. The different items on it should result from deep thought and careful research- and of course they have to both recognize reality and resonate with citizens. When critics say in that menacing tone, „what’s YOUR agenda?“ just send them the link. If they don’t like it, ask them to help you improve it. Among other benefits it would have is that the need for genuine newsroom diversity would immediately become apparent when you decide to go public with your priority list.

Users have more power

Final thought: The users of journalism have more power now. By „users“ I mean the readers, viewers, listeners. The license fee payers and subscribers. They have more power because they have more choice, because the media system is more two-way, and because populism now invites them to exit from the system, a threat that journalists have to take seriously.

When one party gains more power in a relationship, the relationship changes. German pressthink will have to evolve in recognition of that. Are you ready?

Jay Rosen

Prof. Dr. Jay Rosen was a fellow at the Bosch Foundation in Berlin during the summer of 2018. He has been teaching journalism at New York University since 1986. From 1999 to 2005 he served as director of the program. Rosen is the author of PressThink, a blog about journalism and its ordeals (, which he introduced in September 2003. In 1999, Yale University Press published his book, What Are Journalists For?, which is about the rise of the civic journalism movement during the pre-internet era. He is currently serving as „ambassador“ to the American market for the Dutch site, De Correspondent as it looks to expand to the U.S. In 2017 he became director of the Membership Puzzle Project, funded by the Knight Foundation and Democracy Fund. It studies membership models for sustainability in news. Rosen is also an active press critic with a focus on problems in the coverage of politics. On Twitter he is @jayrosen_nyu.

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