The internet differentiates between media

An interview with Jürgen Kaube, publisher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, about quality journalism, media literacy and what makes a good newspaper.

Mr Kaube, the deluge of information on the internet poses many challenges, not just for media users but also for creators of media – to filter it, make it comprehensible to the reader and differentiate news from fake news. How do we recognise the truth in this day and age?

You can only do that on a case-by-case basis. There are areas where science is the first port of call – with the caveat that it isn’t always easy to understand. But when it comes to the media, truth is a very big term. I would suspect, for example, that if several newspapers or perhaps also television and radio stations reported something on a particular topic and in a similar direction, then that’s a clue that it’s probably true. In fact, it’s about believing the bearer of a message because they are objective and neutral. Or at least seem to be.

Should we also check for a second opinion when it comes to the news?

Basically, yes. It’s important to seek second opinions, to be critical with ourselves and the world and to look at events in a differentiated way. But unfortunately, we simply don’t often have the time, even to find out whether a particular event took place somewhere in the world. That’s why you need to be able to rely on your sources – and it’s best to have a range of them. Sometimes it is just opinions, details, or individual figures that need to be verified. For example someone claims that there were about 50,000 people at a demonstration. But the police say there were only 20,000. In that case, you can consider whether it makes a difference. Is the figure of 50,000 merely exaggerated, or does it constitute a lie? It’s not the same thing.

Can you elaborate on this idea?

There are a whole range of intermediate stages between truths and lies. For example, it could simply be a mistake: negligent, yes, but also understandable. Perhaps someone just filched the information from a different source without checking it, perhaps out of convenience, or it was intentionally made up. Those are all different shades of grey. And I would see it that way across all media and all opinion-makers. There is no reason to assume that a blogger on the net knows more or less about something than the editor of a newspaper or a news anchor. One thing is for sure, regardless of the medium, and also in our personal lives: if someone tells me something, and I don’t know them, I need to think about why I should believe it.

Well-researched facts, truthfully prepared – the definition of quality journalism is pretty clear so does it even need to be elaborated?

Generally, a form of communication doesn’t get better when you explain how you mean it. It’s usually quite the opposite. You can’t win someone’s confidence with just one article or a single edition of a newspaper. You need a track record for that. Upholding certain standards. Which isn’t to say that we maybe shouldn’t have printed certain articles in hindsight. That’s no different to working in a bakery and ocasionally baking a cake that isn’t so great. But that doesnt mean you should demonise the entire profession. Trust has a lot to do with observation. The longer I’ve been following a medium, the better I am at ascertaining how reliable it is.

Today’s media are increasingly caught between two worlds: traditional journalism and digital real-time information. How will this trend continue?

If I want to know how my football club did in the first round of the Cup, then of course I’m going to check an information service on the internet. That’s not something that a newspaper is going to do better, even though they also have live tickers these days.  But providing instant information in the style of a news agency – like “a rocket just went off in North Korea” – has never been the strength of newspapers. Even though they had to do that back in the day too. The shift to online is certainly having consequences. So, of course, you have to ask what to print instead. That is undoubtedly one of the many effects of the internet: it means the media types have to differentiate themselves. What belongs where and who should do what?

How would you define the concept of news in this context?

With a lot of real-time news, one could rightly question the practical benefits of being informed immediately. For example, when Christian Lindner from the FDP comments on the refugee policy from Mallorca. That kind of time pressure doesn’t really exist with such issues. In the case of wars in the immediate vicinity, relevant local issues, and also in the case of weather, it’s something else. The question is also how quickly and often everything needs to be updated.

What would you say are the strengths of a daily newspaper?

Researching and writing things you might not expect. Suprising the reader. And sometimes yourself. To explain what is happening in a comprehensible way. This is happening at a much slower pace and is much harder to understand in the sciences. Here, the term “stimulating” is key for me. It can be applied to all topics: Brexit, the diesel scandal, dioxin-contaminated chicken eggs, football clubs. Stimulating ideas and texts are a newspaper’s strength.

So you mean reflection, basically?

Journalism has a great opportunity, if it doesnt try to simply duplicate the world. Even though that sounds rather philosophical. Basically, it comes down to journalism not simply reflecting everything that’s already there. An article that delivers something unexpected is going to be interesting. That’s what makes a newspaper good. Radio also has these strengths. And of course something like that can be done on the internet as well. Even if bloggers often underestimate that the mere size of the organisation can already make a difference. From within a structure, which is something that a newspaper has, you can operate a whole different kind of journalism, offering the readers true diversity that is hard for them to get in such a condensed form anywhere else. And that a blogger wouldn’t be able to put together on the strengths of their own research.

They simply wouldn’t have the time…

Exactly! Especially because of the abundance of information. We recently received a letter from a reader who wrote: “Okay, I’m going to go on the internet and put together my own newspaper. I’m much better informed.” But that would mean she would have to spend several hours of each day checking facts, researching and then preparing everything in a clear and comprehensible way. What’s going on in North Korea right now? Or in England? There are also topics where it’s not just a question of quickly throwing together a few facts about what it’s all about. It would be like saying, “Right, I’m not going to go shopping anymore, I’m going to grow everything myself.”

Let’s follow this train of thought, the idea that the media are not doing their job…

I don’t understand where the manifestation of this idea comes from at all. Who is going to do the job instead? The readers themselves? Why should anyone be able to do it any better than those who have been trained for it? It’s a good thing that media exist – whether newspaper, radio, television or even purely online media. It’s an opportunity to engage critically with our own reality. We wouldn’t have access to 90 percent of the world if we were just travelling between our homes, workplaces and supermarkets. We wouldn’t know, for example, what was going on in the United States or in Brussels. Of course, these kinds of things are inevitably purely media-mediated. But how else?

Should we trust a friend’s comment on Facebook more than a report in the news?

Isn’t there a huge naivety behind that? My Facebook friend said it – so I believe it. Of course, there are problems in life where I would turn to my wife or a friend. But there are many things where I know there would be no point. Like those forums on the net where you can ask a question like “How do I connect my camera to the scanner?” – then you wait a minute and then the answers start to come in. But should I do the same when it comes to political, economic or social issues? People have suddenly become distrustful not only of newspapers but even of TV channels like ZDF. But if someone on the internet tells you to treat some condition you have with sorrel, then you just go along with it? I find that strange.

When it comes down to it, is it simply a case of media competence?

Yes, and whether or not I am able to review information to form a differentiated view, to deal with issues critically. With the use of any media – whether digital or analogue – a large amount of your own intellectual work is needed. There’s no point in reading books, newspapers or a blog if you don’t think for yourself and compare.

This article was published (in German) in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung supplement “Auf die Zukunft – Das Magazin zum Innovationstag 2017” (To the Future – The Magazine on Innovation Day 2017) from 05.10.2017.

Illustrations: Dororhea Pluta

Jürgen Kaube

Publisher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper

Originally from Swabia in southwest Germany, Jürgen Kaube is a features journalist through and through. At the Free University of Berlin, he studied philosophy, German studies and art history, all romantic subject choices that he balanced out with economics. It was Niklas Luhmann who introduced him to sociology, which took him in a new direction. From 1992, Jürgen Kaube regularly wrote for German newspaper the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ). In 1999 he joined the editorial team – first as Berlin correspondent – and then moved to Frankfurt one year later. Since 1 January 2015, the winner of the 2015 Ludwig Börne Award has been publisher of the FAZ. His motto regarding quality journalism: “You can’t have good journalism without time and money.” Jürgen Kaube’s book “The Beginnings of Everything” about the development of human culture was published in 2017. He is married and has three children.

At Innovation Day 2017, with GEO Editor-in-Chief Dr Christoph Kucklick and Sebastian Matthes, future deputy Editor-in-Chief and Head of Digital at Handelsblatt, Jürgen Kaube passionately discussed quality journalism in the digital age – and received plenty of applause and laughs for his humorous observations.

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