Especially among conspiracy theorists and amateur media critics, this thesis is widespread: Journalism must be neutral, and if an article isn’t, the journalist hasn’t done his job properly. A huge misunderstanding. I have been working as a journalist for almost 20 years and have a press card from the German Journalists‘ Union. In this text, I do away with the myth of neutrality.
„Say what is“ is the slogan with which DER SPIEGEL has been advertising its media for a few years now. Perhaps this misunderstanding that journalism must always be neutral under all circumstances is due to this. The other day I published an article in a Facebookgroup, that I have written about a cause I was involved myself. A friend wrote: „Please stop calling this an article, there is nothing researched or journalistic in it. (…) It cannot claim neutrality.“ That left me baffled.
First, the definition of the term: The demand to no longer refer to my blog post as an „article“ is of course outrageous nonsense. What else could it be: a movie? A theatre play? A poetry slam? No, an article is a piece of text published somewhere. Even a text in an advertising brochure can be an article. Then: The accusation that my article has nothing „journalistic“ about it sounds crass at first, but on closer inspection it turns out to be a blizzard. To deny an article „journalistic“ would be like denying „bakery“ to a bread at the bakery or „judgy“ to a court decision at the judge – a meaningless phrase. Regarding the research process: Being involved in a cause means that the author isn’t neutral anymore. In this case, the involvement is the research itself; this is called „investigate“. Subjective articles are absolutely okay, they are published as comments or features.
Media and forms of representation
Because in journalism, just like in books and films, there are different forms of representation or genres. Only two of these genres promise neutrality: Firstly, the report, for example the weather report, which simply reflects facts (the exception is the experience report, which has precisely the reflection of personal experiences as a unique selling point). Secondly, the news, for example the breaking news, which in any case consists of only a few sentences. All other journalistic forms of presentation classify, weigh up, the author gives his opinion or an entire editorial team takes a stand on a topic, for example in an editorial or election recommendation.
So how does a journalist select the sources and opinions that he or she incorporates into his or her article or television report? In a journalistic education you learn that in a good article different opinions or perspectives should be expressed. I usually take this into account when I am writing a text – not because some censorship authority controls it, but because it usually makes my articles better. However, I do not include every opinion that exists on a topic in my articles. When I write about the 75-year end of the Second World War, I know very well that there are Holocaust deniers. But the opinion that the Holocaust never existed has no place in my article, because it does not enhance the text. Similarly, in an article I would write about Corona, the opinion that Corona was bred by Bill Gates would have no place.
Do you need a media licence?
What disturbs me most about the discussions with the self-proclaimed media critics is that they often regard their own half-knowledge as the ultimate truth, instead of asking the experts who know their stuff – the journalists and the media scientists – for their assessment. This is analogous to how conspiracy theorists without a medical degree currently try to tell virologists how to do their job. The tonality in the above-mentioned Facebook group was not: You’re a journalist, can you explain to us what the difference is between an „article“ and a „text“? Instead, the tonality was: You as a journalist should know that you can’t call something like this an article. Years ago, a colleague once suggested introducing a media driving licence, without which one is not entitled to consume certain media. Perhaps not a bad idea: just because you can read texts or watch videos does not mean that you are able to classify them.
Cover picture: Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash