Why does the media ask so much

German conditions. A social studies

Jürgen Wilke

Jürgen Wilke was Professor of Journalism at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz until 2011; Prof. h. c. Lomonosov University Moscow (2004), corresponding member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (2005), visiting professor at the University of Washington (Seattle, USA) (1993, 1999) and the Universitá della Svizzera italiana (Lugano, since 2001), chairman of the German Society for Media and Communication Studies (1986-1989), President of the History Section of the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) (1996-2000).
Main areas of work: media structure and media history, news, international communication, political communication.

Media fulfill fundamental functions in the political system. It is expected that they will inform the citizens, contribute to the formation of opinions through criticism and discussion and thus enable participation. At the same time, the media themselves pose problems.

Functions are services that institutions or organizations contribute to maintaining society or its subsystems. A distinction is made between "manifest" functions, i.e. those that are conscious and obvious (such as information, advice), and "latent" functions that are unconscious and / or cannot be observed directly (such as self-affirmation; flight from reality). The media fulfill functions in both respects. They serve to solve problems, but in turn pose problems themselves.

The role of the media in politics

Media fulfill fundamental functions for political systems. This is especially true for democracies. They are expected to inform the citizens (accurately), to contribute to their opinion-forming through criticism and discussion and thus to enable participation. According to a formula of the Federal Constitutional Court, the media are both an intermediary and a factor in public communication and are intended to create a diverse opinion market.

To what extent the media actually fulfill these functions is a matter of dispute. As long as they could be controlled by censorship and other measures, they were subject to the dominance of political rule. However, as a result of expansion and increasing importance, the media have increasingly stepped out of their subordinate role.

On the one hand, there are indications that the media are gaining more and more influence on politics. Political decisions, it is argued, are no longer made according to the political logic of the subject, i.e. depending on which means require certain purposes (e.g. in health policy, social policy, foreign policy, etc.); The decisive factor is rather the media logic with its attention values. In addition to the production of political decisions ("production policy"), their communication to the public ("presentation policy") has become increasingly important (Sarcinelli 2009). It is not enough to pass a law, for example on health reform or a new building project. Rather, these decisions must also be "sold" with communication measures (press conferences, press releases, interviews, talk show appearances, etc.).

That is why there is talk of a "mediatization" of politics and of a "symbiotic" relationship between politics and the media. Sometimes the media are also referred to as the "fourth estate" and added to the three classic state powers (legislature, executive, and jurisdiction). This equation with the constitutional and democratically legitimized powers by the will of the people is problematic precisely because the media should be state-free. At best, in a metaphorical sense, one can use the term "fourth estate" to underline the power of the media. Others today go so far as to speak of a "mediocracy", even a "colonization" of politics by the media (Meyer 2001). In Germany, at least so far, this seems exaggerated and fails to recognize that within political institutions (e.g. in the Bundestag and in the parties) negotiations and decisions are still made according to political priorities. Elsewhere, however, the process described is more advanced. For example in Italy, where Silvio Berlusconi, a successful media entrepreneur, became head of government.

The instrumentalization of the media by political actors

Nevertheless, in this country too, the political actors are trying to assert their power over the media system. The classic route via media policy (regulatory policy) only offers limited options because of the guarantee of freedom of communication. There are few of these because of the guarantee of freedom in the press, and most likely in (public) broadcasting. Public relations and political PR have become all the more important. Departments and personnel for such tasks are common today at government, party and organizational levels. In addition to the conventional journalistic media, they are now also making use of the Internet. Election campaigns in particular are strongly geared towards the requirements of the media today, for which own media-experienced consultants, so-called "spin doctors", are employed who "spin the threads" in the background. Examples of this are the United States and, in Europe, Great Britain.

The problematic effects of the mass media

It is also critically discussed whether the media give an accurate and reliable picture of reality and whether they adequately reflect the spectrum of opinion of society. There are doubts about this because of the selection of information according to attention-grabbing event characteristics or so-called news factors. These include personalization, political or cultural closeness, preference for celebrities and elite people, including elite nations. The preference for scandals, conflicts, damage and accidents, i.e. negative events, is particularly problematic. That is why one has also accused the mass media of being to blame for disenchantment with politics and a negative worldview. They contribute to an alienation between citizens and the political system and weaken trust in the competence of political actors. This in turn could lead to a decline in voter turnout or to a migration to protest actions.

The choice of news is also influenced by the profession and the personal characteristics, attitudes and opinions of the journalists. Many of them not only want to provide information, but also to criticize. In general, journalists tend to emphasize or play up information that is consistent with their convictions, but to downplay or suppress information that speaks against them ("instrumental updating").

Perspectives for further media development

The political functions of the media in Germany (as in other countries) have not remained untouched by advancing commercialization. "Infotainment" and "tabloidization" describe the trend towards mixing information and entertainment. While this was already present in parts of the press, in street-selling newspapers such as the "Bild" newspaper and in the so-called "rainbow press", it has now also found its way into television. And not only for private broadcasters, in news programs as well as in other formats of so-called "Reality TV". On the contrary, tendencies towards tabloidization can also be observed on public television.

How can the problems of the political fulfillment of the media's function as described above be countered? Certainly, manifestations of the mediatization of politics can hardly be reversed. And postulates alone, be it to politicians, journalists and media users, will not be of much use. Nevertheless, the decisive factor depends on the behavior of all three groups. The political actors themselves are asked to what extent they submit to the dictates of the media and their formats. On the other hand, journalists are called upon to uphold their professional standards and to understand their roles in a democratic manner. This also requires not just passing on the messages of public relations and PR, which each pursue their own interests. The competition of the Internet and the related economic problems (see below) harbor the risk of a loss of professional journalistic quality. "Blogging" or a platform like Wikileaks have become a challenge for conventional journalism. Today anyone can spread information, make comments and assessments on the Internet. However, the question is how reliable and trustworthy they are.