Ralf Arnold, translation by S. Robinson
At the beginning of the already memorable year 2020, a term forced its way into public and private consciousness, which should increasingly determine and overshadow all of our lives: The “novel corona virus”, also called SARS-CoV-2. The name was officially announced by the WHO on February 11th. After that everything happened in quick succession.
At first I saw the pictures of Chinese people with masks only in the Tagesschau (the flagship evening news program by ARD, one of the two main public broadcasters in Germany; S.R.), which was not an unusual sight, but soon corona also reached our newsroom.
On the day when the first suspected corona case surfaced in our region, I was urged by our news chief to use it as a “lead story”, i.e. as the first report in the next news program.
At that time I was already extremely skeptical and found it excessive to use a mere suspected case as the lead story. However, I couldn’t escape the general excitement around me and put the message on “one”. But a bad feeling remained and that should intensify massively over the next few weeks.
A dynamic set in that seemed unstoppable.
More and more suspected cases, then confirmed corona cases, at some point the first death in Germany, some time later the first in our region. And more and more I noticed that not only colleagues, but also people in my private environment let themselves be infected by a vague fear and even panic.
Not that I dismissed the deaths, the so-called “corona deaths”, but didn’t we have many deaths in every flu epidemic, especially among the elderly? I checked our archives and found that we had only a handful of reports in three months during the 2018 flu epidemic. More than 25,000 people are said to have died of the flu at that time.
The now famous Johns Hopkins University dashboard was quickly featured on all television and online news. The so-called “new infections” were simply accumulated on this. It became clear to me that the graph with the constantly rising curve contained more psychological effects rather than factual information. In this way the curve could never sink again, in the best case it would stay horizontal. But that didn’t seem to bother anyone.
Part of the basic training of a journalist is that he never reports figures without meaningful reference. He must always provide comparisons, references and proportionalities so that the viewer / listener / reader can contextualise the information. I stuck to it for many years, and it seemed a matter of course for other journalists too. However, I saw this basic principle practically vanish into thin air in the first weeks of the pandemic. Absolute numbers, always only absolute numbers, without any meaningful reference.
To this day, people like to say that the USA is the country most severely affected by corona, with mere reference to the absolute numbers of infections and deaths, regardless of the size of the population, to which the numbers are rarely put in relation.
An ominous alliance
Our newsroom also adopted all these counting methods with a sleepwalking naturalness. Everything that was communicated by the health authorities, the district administration and the regional government was adopted and reported without questioning and without doubt. Almost all critical distance disappeared, and the authorities became supposed allies in the fight against the virus.
I have to point out, however, that I have never been called or written to directly by politicians to influence me in any way. There were only the usual press releases from the ministries and offices, which are of course written from their point of view. Nor have I been pressured by superiors, at least not directly. The whole thing is far more subtle, as will be shown.
March was the start of the first restrictions: major events were banned and soon after the first lockdown was imposed. Almost all journalists of the “mainstream”, so the so-called “leading media”, including my editorial team, seemed to immediately develop an ‘inhibition to bite’ towards politicians and the authorities. Why this uncritical reluctance among journalists?
I can only explain it to myself that particularly the pictures from Bergamo and New York also put the experienced editors and reporters into an emotional state of shock, even if they might not admit it. But they, too, are only people who are afraid of illness and death, or who worry about elderly or sick relatives; this was repeatedly an issue in conversations with colleagues. They rallied around the government, the RKI (Robert-Koch-Institute; the German equivalent of the CDC; S.R.) and the health authorities, as if one really had to stick together now to combat this dire, external threat.
You couldn’t throw a club between the legs of those in charge, who were having a difficult time already, by fundamentally questioning their measures – that was how the attitude seemed to me.
In our conversations, too, it was said more and more frequently that “the government is really doing a good job”. Most were firmly convinced that the lockdown and the restrictions of our fundamental rights were necessary and certainly only temporary. I heard only a few skeptical voices.
And then there were the TV interviews with politicians. Esteemed journalists, who in conversation with politician XY eagerly nodded and verbally agreed when they presented their assessment of the situation and made their demands. I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears!
What was the motto of the legendary television journalist Hanns-Joachim Friedrichs?
You can recognize a good journalist by the fact that he does not make common cause with anything, not even with a good cause; that he is everywhere, but doesn’t belong anywhere.”
There was nothing left of this guiding principle, and very little in the way of tough and critical inquiries. But even that didn’t seem to bother anyone, yes to not even attract attention.
A decay of reporting language
In the news of all the leading media, including ours, important, little words like “alleged”, “supposed”, “apparently” suddenly died out. For example, the Tagesschau said that Twitter wanted to delete “false information about corona” in the future. There is clearly no “alleged” or “supposed” as an addition, because it is assumed that Twitter can judge without any doubt what is false and what is correct information in terms of the corona virus (or in general). Which of course is absurd.
Sometimes I made my colleagues in the newsroom aware of such things and sometimes even earned a nod of approval, but often just a helpless shrug.
In this day and age, news need to be short, easy to understand, and interesting. We have been trained to do this for many years. This has a lot of advantages, namely the ease of understanding on the part of the consumer. But there are also significant disadvantages, namely that the news are written more and more simplistic. Deeper connections and backgrounds or complicated differentiations are increasingly disappearing. The trick is to shorten and leave out.
From early summer, one could increasingly observe the phenomenon that the corona virus and the measures against it were equated in the media. For example, it was said: “Because of the corona pandemic, the municipalities are collecting significantly less taxes” or: “The WHO fears that the corona pandemic will plunge one and a half million more people into poverty.”
This is wrong, because not the pandemic, but the lockdowns have this effect, regardless of whether they are justified and appropriate. By ignoring this distinction, however, the anti-corona measures of the governments are being turned into something inevitable and without alternative and are no longer called into question.
The cause and therefore the scapegoat is always the virus, not politics.
This practice also crept into our newsroom. Advice from me was kindly noted, but nobody really took it to heart. I had the freedom to formulate this differently, but again nobody seemed to notice the small but subtle difference.
It is also often said that Covid-19 patients in the intensive care units “have to be ventilated”. Have to? They are being ventilated, that’s the fact. The attending doctor has to decide whether this is really medically necessary, and this question is quite controversial. There are a number of well-known experts who warn against intubating too quickly. So here too, as a journalist, you should remain neutral.
The dreadful number of “new infections”
In spring 2020 I began to increasingly question the counting method of the RKI and thus also of the government. I pointed out to my superiors that all numbers such as the “new infections” reported daily or the “R-value” were basically worthless if we did not relate them back to the number of tests performed. They took note of this, but thought no further verification or inquiries were necessary, because the trend of rapidly increasing numbers could not be misunderstood, regardless of how much was tested, it said.
The number of so-called “new infections” rose from week 11 to week 12 from 8,000 to 24,000. At the end of March, the RKI announced (after multiple inquiries by the online magazine Multipolar) that the number of PCR tests had almost tripled from 130,000 to 350,000 during the same period. The relative increase in new infections was thus far less than the absolute. There had been no “exponential increase”.
When the number of “new infections” continued to fall in early summer, the politicians still constantly conjured up the risk of the “second wave” if one were to ease the efforts – that is to say, the restrictions contrary to fundamental rights. In fact, most of my colleagues also agreed with these fears, while to me – who was no less of a medical and epidemiological layperson – it was pretty clear that there would be no second wave in summer, but an even bigger in autumn / winter because that is when the number of respiratory diseases routinely increase sharply. It was easy to foresee.
The whole issue of the PCR tests and the alleged “new infections” has to this day not been questioned by the leading media. Although over time there have been more and more studies and statements by virological and epidemiological experts harshly criticising the PCR test and its particular use, hardly any of it has penetrated our mainstream bubble. The CT values that were probably far too high in the tests, which give ample room to possible manipulation, were not an issue at all.
I suspect a lot of my colleagues haven’t even heard of it.
In general, the terms continue to be mixed up in this context. Even after ten months of corona, many colleagues still do not seem to know the difference between the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the lung disease Covid-19. “Infected” (that is, those who have tested positive) are often equated with “sick”, regardless of whether they have symptoms or not.
The term “recovered” is also adopted uncritically by the authorities, although it implies that those affected were actually all sick, which is highly doubtful: On the one hand because there is most likely a proportion of false-positive test results that should not be underestimated, and, on the other hand, because many “infected” people do not develop any symptoms at all and it is therefore very dubious to call them sick.
Selective perception and herd instinct
In the meantime, all kinds of regulations have been introduced in our broadcasting corporation: mask requirements, physical distancing between desks, many colleagues have moved to home office, disinfectants everywhere and so on. This and the regular, ominous-sounding situation assessments by the management, of course, still exert a psychological influence and pressure on every employee. A subtle fear is built up here too, whether intentionally or unintentionally. There is literally an invisible threat in the air that is difficult to shield yourself from.
In addition, television screens are running in the newsroom and in other offices, on which reports about corona are broadcast almost continuously.
Everywhere reporters, pictures from intensive care units, running texts with the latest, ever higher numbers – it is almost impossible to avoid this influence. In addition, there are the newspapers and agency reports that also constantly report on corona, here a study, there another apocalyptic warning from a politician, and again and again sad individual stories which are particularly highlighted.
Although we continue to have daily conferences, now mostly by telephone, right from the start – at least during the conferences in which I participated – the current narrative of the national and regional government was never fundamentally questioned, namely that we have an extremely dangerous pandemic that can only be controlled, or at least slowed down, by tough government measures. Why is that?
Everyone probably knows the effect of “selective perception”. For example, if you or your wife are pregnant, you will most likely see more and more pregnant women on the street. Or if you fall in love with someone who drives a certain make of car, then you suddenly discover that make of car, in the same color, permanently on the streets. This effect also occurs in journalism.
Years ago, for example, there was a serious incident in Germany with several attack dogs biting a three-year-old girl to death. At that time there was great shock, a political discussion about the consequences was set in motion, a “character test” for dogs and stricter rules for dog owners were demanded, the media reported about it for days and weeks. And at the same time, suddenly more and more cases of dog attacks were reported. Sudden reports of even very minor incidents came from the police.
One would have thought that all dogs in Germany, like Hitchcock’s birds, would have agreed to meet for a general attack.
What happened? The general perception had become sensitised and extremely focused, on all levels. A dachshund bit someone in the calf in the park, they immediately reported this to the police and reported the owner, the police immediately passed the report on to the press, which turned it into a news report, although it was ultimately a triviality.
Due to the alarmed attitude and the narrowed perception of all those involved, however, the triviality that would normally have fallen under the table was given an oversized significance. And the readers, listeners or viewers noticed and thought: “Not again! This is piling up now.”
The same effect can of course also be observed in crime reporting. The media user can get the impression, for example, that the situation in the country is getting worse and more dangerous and that you can hardly dare go out in the streets. It might very well be that the pure statistics show that the total number of violent crimes continues to decline. That contradicts the subjective impression, but strangely enough, hardly anyone calms down. The pictures and reports of individual fates weigh far more than the sober numbers.
You can guess what I’m getting at.
In my opinion, in the corona crisis we are basically experiencing the same effect in a global, completely exaggerated and downright paranoid dimension. And that affects just about everyone: the common man, the police officer, the journalist, the politician and even the doctor and the scientist. Nobody is per se free from it. Unless he breaks free and dares to think for himself and think outside the box.
But there is a widespread journalistic herd instinct. Most journalists look at the daily newspapers that are delivered to the editorial office every day. And of course these are all newspapers that are mainstream: Welt, FAZ, Frankfurter Rundschau, Süddeutsche [the leading national papers; S.R.] and the regional newspapers.
In the evening, one watches “heute” [the evening news program of ZDF, the second of the two main public broadcasters in Germany; S.R.] and the “Tagesschau”, followed by the relevant talk shows, from Anne Will to Maischberger [two of the leading talk shows; S.R.] Mainstream almost always dominates there too. Real critics of the corona narrative are, with rare exceptions, categorically not invited.
Still, most of the journalists I know are of the opinion that the discussions there are quite controversial. But they do not notice – for lack of comparison – that these controversies are only fig-leaf discussions. It is only discussed when and to what extent the measures should be relaxed, but the corona narrative itself remains untouched.
All of this is not to say that there is no disease or death, but the perception of this is downright neurotically excessive. There are many reports on the Internet from the last few years that describe completely overcrowded hospitals, intensive care units at the limit and overburdened crematoria. With appropriate media support, one could have caused great panic in the population back then.
Another effect is that the media now also present their journalistic content online. There it is easier and faster for everyone to access than would be the case with hardcopy newspapers and broadcasts on radio or television. This means that this content can be easily copied and adopted.
As long as it is not personal, lengthy reporting or comments, but “only” news reports, it is easy to copy-paste these into your own reports, at least parts of them. Again and again you can find almost identical formulations and messages from different providers. Even if one does not copy-paste, one is tempted to orient oneself at the selection of topics by colleagues from other leading media.
A perfidious framing
I cannot say for sure whether the corona virus can be proven with the PCR tests, where it ultimately comes from, how dangerous it really is and what the right measures are to be taken against it. But this not what this is about. I do not deny that there is a bad illness, that people die from it and that you have to take it seriously.
And that brings us to the next emotive word, the so-called “corona denier” (Corona-Leugner). A term that has been gaining ground since the summer and is now regularly used by the mainstream media to label critics of the government’s anti-corona measures. The comparison with the “God denier” and the “Holocaust denier” is obvious.
While the term “God denier” has long been history, at least in our society, the term “Holocaust denier” is still relevant and it is no coincidence that the “corona denier” is involuntarily associated with it. There is now broad consensus that one cannot deny God at all, but only not believe in him. The “Holocaust denier” is the only generally recognized exception in which journalists use the word “deny”. Otherwise it is a taboo, at least it should be. Quite simply because it contains “lie” (lügen) in the stem of the word and thus implies a lie.
Responsible journalists know that defendants never deny the allegations in court, they contest them. This should be the case even after a final judgment, because courts can also be wrong and lawsuits can be reopened.
The term “corona denier” is now infamous in three ways. Firstly because of the linguistic similarity to the socially ostracized “Holocaust denier”, secondly because the corona critics are generally claimed to deny the existence of the virus (which is not the case with the vast majority of them) and finally because they are also accused of conscious lying. This is not just bad style, it is perfidious and ensures that the rifts in society are deepened even further.
An equally dubious term used as defamatory framing is that of the “conspiracy theorist”. It basically says everything and nothing. It can be someone who believes in chem trails or that the Americans’ moon landing was only staged, but it can also be someone who exposes a Watergate scandal or who claims (as happened) that Iraq did not hoard any weapons of mass destruction, and who is later confirmed in his assumptions.
Basically every investigative journalist has to be partly a conspiracy theorist, because of course the rulers of this world do not want to have all their activities published and therefore keep them secret. In this respect, it is somewhat grotesque that the media adopt the rulers’ fighting term and use it thoughtlessly.
Alleged conspiracy theorists are also made fun of internally. Many colleagues are joking that they are crazies, who believe that Bill Gates wants to open a vaccination station with Hitler on the back of the moon. Or similar childish nonsense.
A negative highlight was the reporting of the “leading media” about the large demonstrations in Stuttgart, Leipzig and especially Berlin in the summer. It started with the number of participants. Actually, it is common for journalists to name both the number of demonstrators as announced by the police and the number of demonstrators as announced by the organisers (which is naturally always higher) at rallies.
On August 1st 2020 in Berlin, however, these details diverged so widely that one had to become suspicious. The “leading media” solved the problem by only naming the small number from the police and ignoring the high numbers that the organisers and participants mentioned. How high the number actually was is still unclear today, but here too the media acted against journalistic practices.
Were a few right-wing radicals and Reich citizens among the demonstrators? Were there many or were they even dominating the action? Numerous video streams showed that a large, if not overwhelming, proportion of the demonstrators apparently came from the middle of society. On average a little older, educated and from a middle-class background. There are also surveys and studies that confirm this.
Of course, you can argue about it, but in our editorial team, too, the matter was clear: the focus of the reporting was clearly on the right-wing radicals and Reichsbürger.
One reason for this can be found in the increasingly important part of online media. In contrast to newspapers, television and radio, it is possible to analyse exactly how many hits an individual post has, or how many “likes” on the Facebook pages, which are now also operated by all leading media.
As a result, the spectacular, and the supposedly scandalous, comes more and more to the fore because it promises more attention and thus more clicks. Various media critics say that almost everything in our society is increasingly being scandalised, no matter how casual. If so, then it is surely largely due to the “leading media” (including their tabloids).
A sealed bubble
Why is the “mainstream media” a closed bubble? Because they always get their information from the same, pre-sorted sources – and that is largely the news agencies that belong to the same bubble. They are like the gatekeepers of published opinion. That has always been the case, of course, but in the corona crisis it has become clearer than ever.
The major agencies mainly report on what supports the official corona narrative and what is propagated and implemented by the vast majority of governments around the world.
For example, almost only studies from around the world are reported which highlight the danger of the virus and the effectiveness of tough government measures. A Chinese study of around ten million people in Wuhan, which found that non-symptomatic transmission of the virus (almost all government measures are based on this assumption) was as good as irrelevant, did not feature in the agencies. It could only be found in the alternative online media.
By contrast, a study by the US-American CDC, which had contrary results, was reported. Numerous studies that showed that government lockdowns have virtually no impact on the infection rate have also been ignored by the agencies so far.
For me personally in my work this means that I cannot use any studies or information that I have found by myself on the Internet, because I would almost certainly be accused of using an uncertain source. But if DPA, AP, AFP or Reuters reported the study, I would be more or less on the safe side and could report it. If there were inquiries, I would refer to the agency. This could still lead to discussions as to whether the study is credible and whether it is worth reporting, but that would be part of a normal journalistic decision-making process.
Yes, it does happen again and again that critical experts or politicians are interviewed in the leading media or that the RKI and the federal government are criticized. But mostly it’s just fig leaves and they don’t really get to the heart of the matter.
There are statements from leading editors-in-chief of the public services that say that people like Wolfgang Wodarg or Sucharit Bhakdi [two high-profile critics with an accomplished medical / research background; S.R.] are generally not to be invited to talk shows on the subject. The bubble should stay as tightly sealed as possible.
An attempt at an explanation
Again and again I wonder why almost all of my colleagues so willingly and uncritically adopt this narrative from the government and from a few scientists (selected by the government) and disseminate it further. As already mentioned, concern for your own health or that of relatives certainly plays a role. But there is more.
In the last few years, something called “attitude journalism” has emerged. It is an intellectual and moralising arrogance that I think is spreading more and more. You simply belong to the “good guys”, to those who are on the “right side”. One believes that one has to instruct the mistaken citizen.
It is no longer a question of neutrality, but of representing the “right cause”, and surprisingly often this coincides with the interests of the government. The sentence by Hanns-Joachim Friedrichs mentioned above has even been completely reinterpreted in the meantime, in the sense of “attitude journalism”.
But this is increasingly alienating journalists from a good part of their clientele.
In the 1990s, the red carpet was rolled out to us reporters, editors, and presenters when we showed up anywhere in the country. Today we almost have to be happy when people don’t shout “Lying press!” [Lügenpresse; a term adopted by the Nazis in the Third Reich for the Jewish, communist, and foreign press; S.R.]. Of course, this term is wrong and should be rejected because of its history, but we journalists play a large part in the increasing alienation.
To be fair, the aforementioned “attitude journalism” only applies to some of the journalists, but mostly to their prominent representatives. Many of my colleagues seem to be overwhelmed by the complexity of the subject. Not intellectually, but rather because there is no time to dig into these things alongside the daily routine work. Close to impossible if you still have to do homeschooling with the children in the evening. Others simply lack interest in the subject.
In any case, one reason is the fear of attracting negative attention through overly critical statements. The self-reinforcing momentum of the mainstream bubble ensures that hardly anyone wants to swim against the current. Although a good number of the editors are on permanent contracts, there is great concern about the consequences. As I can observe in myself.
A fundamental problem with the mainstream bubble is that it either ignores or suppresses what is outside the bubble or perceives and interprets it from within that bubble. And so most mainstream journalists know the statements and positions of critical thinkers like Wodarg and Bhakdi (to name just two of many) only from reports in the mainstream media, which are of course biased accordingly. Hardly anyone takes the trouble to actually draw from the numerous alternative sources.
This report is of course only a subjective assessment. Most of my fellow journalists would see it completely differently. However, I am not so concerned here with assessing the danger of the corona virus or the appropriateness of government measures. My concern is that in the corona crisis, in my opinion, journalistic standards and principles have been increasingly thrown overboard, as I have tried to at least indicate.
This in turn ensures that the media have become virtually meaningless as a democratic corrective, which in turn plays into the hands of political aspirations to power.
George Orwell is reported to have said that journalism is when you publish something that someone does not want published. Everything else is propaganda. Measured against this claim, it has to be said that the mainstream media in the corona crisis to 99 percent only deliver propaganda.
I myself have the naive hope of still being able to make a difference, in whatever way, because freedom of the press is in and of itself an extremely important asset in a democratically free society. I still believe in that.
The author has been an editor and newscaster for public broadcasting for many years and writes here under a pseudonym. He reports from the inner workings of a newsroom during the corona crisis. The article was originally published by the German online magazine Multipolar. Culture-specific explanations have been added by the translator. You can read the original in German here.
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