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31.03.2016

Interview: why people don’t trust the media

by Jane Whyatt

The refugee crisis, the conflict in Ukraine, the truth about people who claim state benefits – there is a growing list of topics and themes that readers and viewers distrust. That claim is not only based on a general sense of unease expressed in social media or everyday conversations. It has been proved by researchers at the University of Leipzig, Germany.

Kruger_Photo_900 Dr. Uwe Krüger (Photo courtesy of interviewee)

And it represents a crisis for press and media freedom. If the audience does not believe in the work of journalists - especially those working in the mainstream media - then it becomes impossible to defend their jobs and their right to criticize, which is essential to democracy.

Dr. Uwe Krüger has written a book called “Mainstream – why we no longer trust the media”, based on the research findings. It includes the startling statistic that the average German journalist spends only 11 minutes of a typical working day on fact-checking. ECPMF interviewed him to find out more:

ECPMF: What are the indicators that trust in the media has declined?

Dr. Uwe Krüger: In Germany, we have had a heated public debate about distorted news since the Annexation of Crimea in 2014 – many people complained about a Western view of the Ukraine crisis. Later on, the Greek debt crisis and the refugee crisis were big issues for media criticism. According to surveys, up to 47 percent of the population think that the media are not objective and closely follow the agenda and interpretations of the government.

The data about whether the distrust is getting worse are inconsistent: In a recent poll by WDR, 37 percent said that their trust has declined during the last year, but long-term studies show no dramatic decline. The distrust has always been widespread. But today, people express it more loudly than ever before.

In the discussion at the Leipzig Book Fair, you mentioned some examples of news reporting which readers found untrustworthy or distorted. For example, the events in Ukraine were covered in a way that you have proved to be inaccurate. Could you explain how you came to that conclusion and comment on the effect that this coverage had on public perceptions of Ukraine and Russia?

In the coverage of the Ukraine events, I observed a lot of mistakes and blind spots that all fitted into one pattern: they benefited the image of the Euromaidan movement, the new government in Kiev and their Western supporters, and they disadvantaged the image of the former government of Yanukovych, the pro-Russian faction in Ukraine and their Russian supporters. We got a picture of a fight - Good vs. Bad - instead of a more realistic picture of a struggle of “interests vs. interests”.

The geopolitical interests of the US and the EU and their supporting activities were under-reported while the meddling of Putin into inner-Ukrainian Affairs was sensationalised. Our German journalists were very sympathetic to victims of the Pro-Russians while the victims of the Right sector, the militant wing of the Euromaidan, were not that interesting to journalists. I am not surprised that many users didn’t follow the media’s interpretations and framing of the events. 

Ukraine_Protests_Munich_900 Euromaidan protest outside the Security Conference in Munich, February 1st, 2014. (Photo:blu-news.org, Ukraine Demo München (12269462196), CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Also the refugee crisis has provided some examples of distorted coverage…

In the summer and autumn of 2015, we had a media mainstream that reflected a “Refugees Welcome” atmosphere. In the ARD TV news we saw a film where celebrities appealed to the kind-heartedness of the Germans, with sentimental piano music in the background – more advertising than journalism. While about 70 percent of the refugees were young men, we very often saw families with little children on the television screen. When Hungarian police and refugees clashed at the border, Britain’s BBC in the UK and worldwide showed refugees throwing stones and kicking gates – the ARD Tagesschau didn’t show these pictures but showed how women and children fled from the police teargas. I think the intention of the journalists was good and humane – and in the 1990s we had a completely different, anti-refugee mainstream. But now many people saw this coverage as an attempt at moral blackmail: If you don’t want open borders and don’t support the government’s policy, you are a right-wing extremist, you belong to “Dark Germany” and not to “Bright Germany”.

After the sexual assaults on German women by immigrants in Cologne at New Year’s Eve the attitude of many German newspapers and TV stations towards refugees seemed to change. And the right wing groups who campaign and demonstrate against immigration shouted even louder the accusation of “Lügenpresse - lying press!”, the ultimate expression of a lack of trust. Please explain what is behind this “lying press” idea, and give your opinion on the media coverage.

The assaults in Cologne were indeed a “key event” which shifted the mainstream from a “Refugees Welcome” message into the direction of an “excessive-demand” discussion. So the media mainstream does not always flow into the same direction, it is dynamic and there is a connection to the range of opinions within the political elite.

Regarding “Lügenpresse (lying press)”: In my opinion, this accusation does not mean that the people think there are massive amounts of wrong facts in the coverage. These people, who are mostly conservative or right wing petty bourgeois, have the suspicion that the media select and weigh the news. They believe that the media do not act in their interest, do not ask their questions, do not interpret events from their perspective. The suspicion is that there are serious blind spots in the media coverage, which is made by mostly green- or left-oriented, “politically correct” journalists. Americans would call it “liberal bias”. To what extent this suspicion is justified is hard to say.

In your book you write about “media elites” and “the establishment”. What does your research tell you about how these elites work together to form the “mainstream”?

Well, there are tight social networks between high-ranking journalists and politics and business elites. There is confidential communication between them, there are a lot of informal “background circles” in Berlin and Brussels. There is common involvement of journalists and elites in associations, think tanks, foundations, policy discussion groups and private international relations councils. I think this might be part of the answer: this is why many people have the feeling of alienation from the media. On many issues there is a gap between the views of elites and the mass of ordinary people. Elites govern against the opinion of significant parts of the population. This might be justified or not – but when journalists follow the elite discourse like a shadow and cover, explain and rationalise the political decisions, then many people see politicians and journalists as a common caste that rules against their interests.

Uwe_K_book_900 Krüger's book. (Photo: ECPMF)

Dr. Uwe Krüger is based in the Journalism Department of the University of Leipzig and has worked as a researcher at Rostov-on-Don in Russia. His book “Mainstream – Warum wir den Medien nicht mehr trauen” is published in German by C. H. Beck.



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