The first finding is surprising. Not that journalism plays a role in fiction, but that the profession plays such a conspicuous role. Frank Überall, Federal Chairman of the German Association of Journalists, analyzed how journalism is portrayed in a recent study entitled “How the Press Behaves”.
In 51 books that were number one on the “Spiegel” bestseller list from 2019 to 2021, he found 1,700 passages in which the authors discussed journalists and journalism. Under the titles “Victim” by Jussi Adler-Olsen, “The Light” by T.C. Boyle, “The Anomaly” by Herve Le Tellier, “Origin” by Sasa Stanisic, “About People” by Juli Zeh, but also “Home” by Sebastian Fitzek or “The Ninth Arm of the Octopus” by Dirk Rossmann. The specific investigation of the Above all, bestseller literature has shown that “journalistic media are still seen as relevant, despite all the social prophecies of doom that are sometimes heard,” says Überall. In a good third of the fiction, journalism is presented as incidental media consumption, in two-thirds journalism, journalists and journalistic products are driving elements of the narrative. Want to say, if perhaps a bit exaggerated: no fiction without journalism. (Daily) newspapers are given disproportionate importance here, while in reality the readers mostly consume television, the Internet and radio.
Incidentally, quotes from real or fictitious media are often sprinkled into the lines and pages to increase the relevance and credibility of the story. What is less discussed: professional status and financial situation of the industry, also the increasing violence against journalists, their romantic relationships or unhealthy professional life are of no greater importance. What runs through fiction like a red thread is that the image of journalism conveyed is predominantly negative . Journalists are happy to be told what and how they have to report. Everywhere notes that “dubious and sensationalistic research methods are particularly important”. As T. C. Boyle writes, The Light, “You know how newspapers are: they’ll do anything for a story.”
When it comes to gender relations, journalists are almost on par, but the picture conveyed in fiction is anything but diverse. In any case, the finding that “in the understanding of the role of the portrayed journalistic characters, the attitude as salesman outweighs that of critic and controller” is not very pleasing for the profession. The investigative journalist, who researches against all odds, is the extremely rare exception; the heroic role is truly not granted to the fictitious journalist.
Especially in dialogues of fiction, journalists – especially in dialogues – are often referred to with derogatory terms, “albeit with swear words rather than animal names”. How gratifying, isn’t it? Other results from Frank Überall are not gratifying at all. As far as the quality of journalistic work is concerned, the bestselling authors are by no means afraid to outline a sloppy profession in which misconduct is the order of the day. “It can be attested,” writes Überall, that “the German Press Council would have a lot of work if it had to deal with contemporary fictional characters in journalism.” On the basis of the rules of professional ethics as laid down in the press code, a large number of complaints would probably have to be made.
And yet, concludes Everywhere, the authors do not portray the journalists as “boomen” as a whole, but actually provide realistic descriptions of a tense profession. It sounds like a word of comfort. And Frank Überall still has one wish, and that’s what the DJV national chairman says: “It would be helpful if, after many years, a systematic investigation of the working conditions of journalists working in the real world were tackled again.” Very true, but the bestselling authors do not have to take on this task. That’s where media sociologists come in.