“There was an outcry through the room, everyone was talking to me at the same time, what was on my mind,” said a headmaster, describing what he experienced privately when he expressed skepticism about the benefits of further arms deliveries to Ukraine. It is also irritating in many public debates how intensely they are conducted and how one-dimensionally positions are often taken.
Two things are revealed: the effect of those media that voluntarily get into trouble, and the need to catch up in crisis and media skills. A successful confrontation with war, pandemic and other challenges requires four stable pillars: truth, compass, professional distance and a crisis and media competent society. We have to work on that.
1. Journalism does not have to be neutral on fundamental issues, but rather take sides – if, for example, the pillars of the basic understanding of democracy are undermined, and show solidarity with those whose human rights are being violated or whose country, like Ukraine, is being attacked in violation of international law. But there is no reason to throw the journalistic principle of distance and differentiation overboard. It is precisely this principle, combined with empathetic closeness, that enables what people demonstrably expect from the media: an appropriate picture of what is happening, the background and the consequences.
That also happens. But there are also irritating side effects. A number of journalists in Germany act voluntarily like mouthpieces for Ukrainian politics. In many talk shows and media commentaries, objections to the course that Ukraine wants the West to take are almost taboo; anyone who criticizes must expect serious verbal attacks. So are some people afraid of commenting against the current? Are many media in a frenzy of solidarity? activist? Are they neglecting their actual role, their early warning function (e.g. of escalation risks up to and including a nuclear strike)? Do many forget that German politicians have to answer to the German population for their actions?
The answers to the actual intentions can only be assumed (or researched by means of comparative interviews with the people concerned). But asking yourself such questions can make you aware of imbalances and correct them. Successful war reporting is neither warmongering nor peace activism. Ukraine is morally right. That creates solidarity. However, professional distance is not a contradiction to humanitarian journalistic solidarity, but a requirement of professionalism.
2. Journalism requires a constant struggle for truth and veracity. The associated responsibility is particularly high in war, because the parties to the conflict only want to assert their own truths and engage in propaganda. It requires relevance (is information, a picture, a video correct? Can it be checked?), persistence (how do you understand this or that, how do you classify it, what further expertise is needed? Can you see it differently?) and orientation (i.e. an ethical compass) to assert oneself in the fight for the truth.
3. In order to stay on course, one must establish an ethical compass before publication, such as that provided by the Press Code, and weigh up what has to be expected and why. Most media in Germany have done a lot right. They were sensitive when dealing with images, for example of people who died as a result of Putin’s war crimes, and explained to their audience why they showed them.
4. Journalism is required as a continuous training instance for crisis and media skills. The key to a robust, i.e. resilient life, is being informed. It makes you fit for everyday life and crises. But there is a demonstrable, wide-ranging knowledge gap among the population in dealing with the media and crises, starting in the school sector (there also among the teachers). In fact, politicians should long since set a binding framework, as has often been demanded. After all, helpful initiatives have emerged in recent years: the non-governmental organization “Reporters Without Borders” explains what press freedom means and how it specifically benefits us. A number of media fact-check initiatives offer tips on how to protect yourself from gross manipulation. Think tanks such as “First Draft” (since June “Futures Lab”) are to be thanked for, among other things, anti-disinformation projects in around 20 elections internationally.
The specialist society for media education and communication culture (GMK) has developed a test that examines digital media competence, a research group has developed a news competence self-test (including a study). The “Journalism goes to school” project aims to improve news skills with first-hand information and arranges school visits for journalists and develops teaching materials.
But it also needs a continuous authority for media and crisis competence. Basic journalism is a cultural technique like reading, arithmetic and writing, and it can be learned particularly well from professionals: journalists. In times of crisis, this is more important than ever. A number of studies, most recently on the Ukraine war, show that people are increasingly inclined to actively avoid negative news because it unsettles them and because they lack prior knowledge; this is particularly pronounced among 18 to 24 year olds. The psychological effect is well known: the more you know about a difficult situation, the better you can deal with it and process new information about it. And those who know how Tiktok works are less likely to surrender to the algorithm. This is exactly where professional journalism can actively teach basic skills.
The British researcher John Hartley, who put forward the thesis in 2000 that everyone in a democratic society also needs journalistic skills, probably gave the first impetus in this direction. Digital technology has also turned media users into content producers. This also makes it clear: we all have to be able to do a bit of journalism.