I will be studying German pressthink in Berlin this summer.

What are the common sense ideas about the role of the press that almost all German journalists take for granted?

4 May 2018 5:53 pm 11 Comments

In 27 days I fly to Berlin to spend June, July and August as a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy. I have never lived in a European city, so this will be a new experience for me.

I am posting here a description of my project, so that people with suggestions can share them, either by using the comment section, by talking to me on Twitter, or by sending me an email, hopefully with Berlin! in the subject line. Here’s my project:

I want to answer this question: What is German pressthink and how is it changing? In order to show what I mean, I need to explain that term, “pressthink,” which is my invention. It is also the name of my blog. I define pressthink as the common sense of the journalism profession, the ideas that journalists share in common about their work, the meaning and importance of that work, and the way it should be done— or should never be done. You could also say that pressthink is the assumptions journalists make about what “good” journalism is, and how to do good for society through journalism. Sometimes these are less-than conscious.

Up to now my writing has been primarily about American journalism and its pressthink. So, for example, I have analyzed “he said, she said journalism,” and what I call the View from Nowhere because these are practices that reveal how American journalists think. In the summer of 2017 I wrote about how asymmetry in the two-party political system is almost too much for American pressthink, which can’t handle it.

During my stay at the Bosch Academy in the summer of 2018 I want to ask German journalists, editors, publishers, scholars, activists, and politicians: what is German pressthink? What makes it distinct? How is it different from American pressthink? What are the common sense ideas about the role of the press that almost all German journalists understand and take for granted? Where did those ideas come from? What pressures are they under? What is uniquely German in them? A lot of American pressthink has been broken by Trump. It doesn’t work very well any more. Has anything like that happened in Germany? Is German pressthink evolving? Is there consensus among German journalists about what “good” journalism is, and how to do good for society through journalism? Or is that breaking apart?

I will investigate these questions by talking to people and trying to make sense of their answers.

Update August 31. I have now returned from Germany. My first attempt to write about what I learned was published in German translation by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), one of the big national newspapers in Germany. Here it is in English. (Reactions from German editors here, in German.)

These are the 53 people I interviewed in and around the German press. The list includes editors and reporters, freelancers and trainees, product managers and start-up founders, journalism professors and scholars of German politics, newspaper publishers, heads of public broadcasting companies, directors of journalism non-profits, journalism bloggers, activists trying to change the press in Germany— and the Danish ambassador, who is a keen student of the German media and a voracious consumer of it. The complete list:

Ferda Ataman, board chair, New German Media Makers (Neue Deutsche Medienmacher)

Günter Bartsch, director,  German Association of Investigative Journalists (Netzwerk Recherche)

Markus Beckedahl, founder of Netzpolitik.org

Michael Brüggemann, chair of Communication Studies, University of Hamburg

Yermi Brenner, freelance journalist, Berlin

Kai Diekmann, former editor of Bild

Thorsten Dörting, managing editor, Spiegel Online

Daniel Drepper, editor-in-chief, Buzzfeed Germany

Patricia Dreyer, news editor, Spiegel Online

Michael Ebert, editor in chief, SZ magazine

Sebastian Esser, founder and publisher, Kraut Reporter

Alexander Fanta, writer and reporter, Netzpolitik.org

Alina Fichter, member of chief editorial staff at Zeit Online

Jannis Frech, researcher, Journalism and Communication Science, University of Hamburg

Cornelius Frey, co-founder, Opinary.com

Michael Hoffman, Habermas scholar, Florida Atlantic University

Andreas Kluth, editor-in-chief, Handelsblatt Global

Tanit Koch, former editor of Bild

Kai Kupferschmidt, Berlin-based correspondent, Science magazine

Sina Laubenstein, project director, New German Media Makers

Anette Leiterer, chief editor ZAPP at Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR)

Mirco Liefke, PhD candidate, Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, Institute of Sociology

Sasha Lobo, author and Spiegel columnist

Boris Lochthofen, director of MDR’s Landesfunkhaus Thuringia

Uli Machold, director of product and managing editor of Upday news app

Georg Mascolo, head of investigative unit for NDR, SZ & WDR

Yascha Mounk, author and expert on the rise of populism

Stefan Niggemeier, media critic and blogger

Stefan Ottlitz (formerly Plöchinger) head of product, Der Spiegel

Jan-Eric Peters, deputy CEO and editor-in-chief of Upday news app

Friis Arne Peterson, Danish ambassador to Germany

Barbara Pfetsch, professor, Institute for Media and Communication Studies, Free University of Berlin

Dieter Pienkny, member of the programming council, Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg (RBB)

Bernhard Pörksen, professor, Institute for Media Studies, University of Tübingen

Sissi Pitzer, media reporter for br.de’s Das Medienmagazin

Matthias Revers, lecturer, School of Media and Communication, University of Leeds

Anna Sauerbrey, head of opinion, Tagesspiegel

Caroline Schmidt, reporter, ZAPP program at Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR)

Thomas Schnedler, project head for nonprofit journalism, German Association of Investigative Journalists

David Schraven, publisher, Correctiv

Sandro Schroeder, journalist trainee, Deutschlandfunk Kultur

Christoph Schwennicke, editor in chief, Cicero magazine

Wolf Siegert, Director, IRIS® Media

Johanna Sprondel, digital strategist, Berlin

Christian Stöcker, Faculty of Design, Media and Information, HAW Hamburg

Andree Thorwarth, head of editorial team at the political talk show, “Anne Will”

Sebastian Turner, publisher, Tagesspiegel

Heidi Tworek, historian of modern Germany and Europe, University of British Columbia

Vivian Upmann, manager for the board, New German Media Makers

Konstantina Vassiliou-Enz, director, New German Media Makers

Sonja Volkmann-Schluck, German Press Council (Presserat)

Stephanie Walter, senior research associate, Institute of Journalism and Communication Studies, University of Hamburg

Andreas Wolfers, director, Henri-Nannen School of Journalism (journalistenschule.de)

Anita Zielina, former deputy editor-in-chief and online director, Stern



Dear Jay, I’m already interested in your studies. Will you let me know, when you have something to publish?
Best wishes, Kristina

As a regular reader of Der Spiegel International I judge Germany to be experiencing a journalism crisis the same as everywhere. The term “Lügenpresse” synonymous with “Fake News.” Those in America that do not follow Europe may be surprised to learn nationalism, xenophobia and a right-wing resurgence is far more wide-spread and dangerous than here in America. Authentic fascists have been elected to Parliament. A Jewish exodus is again happening in Europe. Jews are being warned against going out in public in Berlin wearing a kippah. This is the story I hear. I believe there is always a whiff of Antisemitism in attacks against the media elites. Will your German peers agree? Is it just paranoia?

From Berlin here – no paranoia, this is pretty much on point. It‘s immensely scary to witness.

Politicians are trying their hardest to outdo one another with pathetic, counterproductive, inherently racist and pseudo-christian nonsense in „service of security and social peace“ these days (esp. since the AfD moved into the Bundestag), the left is weak, Merkel is tired and most of „the media“ (or too much of it) is falling for AfD-provocation time and time again. They also, for the most part, fail in terms of setting other topics and/or a somewhat reasonable tone.

Anyway, lots of interesting things going on in this regard – NSU process comes to mind or the reactions after the G20 summit in Hamburg.

Mr. Rosen, are you planning on giving a talk or presentation in Berlin?
Either way, best of luck with that very interesting project, enjoy the city!

Michael Duda says:

American, I spent my first 24 years mostly in Vermont and the last 24 in Berlin. I think you’re asking all the right questions. But to get the answers you need, I suggest hitting up a couple of sociologists and maybe a cultural anthropologist for good measure. Try to identify the German “Great Not There”; the US is still failing to deal with slavery, but Germans have an almost ritualistic compulsion to *not* hide from the Holocaust. But they are hiding something.

There’s lots going on.

My observation is that here, too, the view from nowhere is a popular default, but less as an attempt to maintain balance than due to a of self-awareness. German fiscal policy and the fetishising of the “Schwarze Null” are bizarre and deeply rooted tendencies that the majority press (public stations +3 privates) almost never question, and the large print outlets tend center Right…

Anyway, good luck!

I think a lot of things in German journalism can usefully be interpreted as stances in relation to the legacy of World War II and to the lessons that Germans are assumed to have learned from that history. For example, if you compared the way German journalists represent Angela Merkel to the way journalists in other countries represent their heads of government, I think you would find that the German ones tend to be implicitly more careful to avoid appearing to idolise a national leader. You could connect this with things like the relative absence of German flags in public spaces, compared to the abundance of American flags in public spaces in the US.

At the same time, there is something paradoxical going on: it is as if respectable journalism in Germany is based on the assumption that, since all the right lessons have already been learned from the horrors of Nazism and everyone is tired of thinking about that subject (having had it rammed down their throats for years at school, as a German academic put it to me), not only is there no reason to mention it any more, but one can even write about the 20th century as if Nazism had never happened. This struck me recently when reading an opinion piece about the problem of fake news in Die Zeit, a left-liberal national weekly newspaper. The author is Martin Spiewak, an experienced journalist:


I’ll translate one very odd passage here, which is talking about “news competence”, a skill that enables readers to evaluate the truthfulness of news stories:

“Before the Internet age, this skill was much less important. Citizens found the relevant information each morning in the newspaper or on the television screen — ideally, filtered and processed by professional news preparers called journalists. For over a hundred years, a democratic public sphere thus came into being afresh every day.”

Can Spiewak really have forgotten that during the Nazi era, there were high-circulation newspapers like Der Stürmer that constantly published fake news about Jews as front-page headlines?

My intuition is that this paradox is somehow close to the core of German pressthink.

@Andre, you’re writing: “A Jewish exodus is again happening in Europe.” Where exactly? What are the numbers?

It is a reversal of the trend where Jews from Israel or America were moving to Europe. It’s not evenly spread across the continent. The UK appears to be least affected. France the most. The terror attacks in the last few years being the main factor. The security measures now permanently in place at synagogues, Jewish schools and kosher markets would cause anyone to think twice about staying. Let it be known that Germany’s Jewish population is much less than the UK and France overall. Attacks against Jews have spiked since the massive influx of refugees of 2015. Of course, that doesn’t mean every Jew is in mortal danger every day. But, there are many Jews that now question whether they should remain in Europe long term. These feelings are much stronger in more observant populations. Left-wing outlets, like The Guardian, are reporting on these events so I believe them credible and not just right-wing paranoia. In hindsight, using the word exodus was a poor choice. These days we should strive to be as precise as possible. Probably more accurate is that there is now a net migration of Jews out of Europe and the pace is quickening.

I’ve read lots of German newspapers while moving to Berlin to supposedly improve my German and the impression on the whole that I got from them as a 30 something person is that they are insular and to me irrelevant. Even back then I was amazed at how bad (from an experiential standpoint) German newspapers were with SZ being the only one even remotely stomachable.

Newspapers in Germany are of course still important, profitable and they fulfil a bunch of functions in society, but it seems they can do all of that without creating a package that is appealing to most people.

You’ll have to find out yourself what that means for the local pressthink, but it may be good to keep in mind that most people under 50 do not care for or read a newspaper.

Clio Tarazi says:

One of the points I keep trying to make, but goes nowhere, is journalistic solidarity. Here is a link to a press conference by the German right wing party, AFD. One journalist was told he could not answer a question and told to sit down. All the journalists in unison left the Press Conference.

Why have we never seen such an action by US journalists when Trump and his minions unleash venom towards Journalists?

European, and in general world journalists, have associations/unions that are fairly powerful in their voices. We have that silly dinner thing. Will American journalists ever have that kind of solidarity to stand up to the attacks from Trump?
None of them stood up to Trump when he kicked out Jorge Ramos. That single event was so telling: they will take anything and everything from Trump to keep their jobs. That is when my mistrust started.

(The Google translate function will give the gist)

Carol Hutchins says:

I will be quite interested in your findings. Berlin is a very interesting city, shares some characteristics with NYC. Great neighborhoods.

Thank you, everyone! I really appreciate the knowledge-sharing.