What are the facts about journalism

Local journalism

Udo Branahl

Dr. Udo Branahl was Professor of Media Law at the University of Dortmund until his retirement in 2011. He is also active in the training and further education of journalists and has published numerous publications on press law issues.

Rights and obligations

Local journalists have the same rights and obligations as all journalists. The environment, however, especially the distance relationship, is often different. If a local journalist makes a mistake, the next day the injured person may be at the desk in the editorial office. If, on the other hand, local journalists want to assert themselves in order to obtain information, they do so with those employees of offices and authorities that they themselves have to visit as private individuals. These framework conditions must not affect the democratic mandate of the press.

In terms of press law, the decision as to what may be published and how is always a process of weighing up - in favor of the rights enshrined in the constitution. The central question behind many of these decisions is: What legitimate interest does the general public have in the information?

It is important for every journalist to only disseminate information the truth of which has been carefully checked beforehand. A report is only "true" if the facts communicated are correct and the presentation does not give a false impression (& copy Photocase.de/Foto Graf)

The local section of a newspaper is supposed to inform the audience about all processes that happen in the community and the surrounding area and that are important for the reader [1]. All the information that he needs in order to be able to make rational decisions as a citizen or in social life is important. For this reason, good local reporting includes comprehensive and critical reporting on local political issues of all kinds and in all areas, including local economic, cultural and sports policy. The reader also has a legitimate interest in information that helps him to find his way around society, to shape his personal life in the professional, social or private sphere. The “public task” of the local press includes reporting on the range of cultural and sporting events as well as on economic development and information that is important for the reader in his capacity as a consumer.

Law and protection

Information is essential to accomplish this public task. Journalists talk to informants, do research and have to weight the information, select it according to its importance and sort it so that in the end an informative, understandable and true report is published.

The legal system provides them with a number of special rights so that they can fulfill their social task unhindered: With regard to the collection of information, these include the right to information and the right to refuse to testify. The right to information under press law obliges all authorities to answer inquiries from journalists truthfully and completely, unless justified confidentiality interests of the state, affected companies or private individuals conflict in individual cases. The information can therefore be refused in order to protect state secrets, trade and business secrets or privacy. For example, information about the personal circumstances of individual welfare recipients must be refused.
  • On the other hand, a head of the authorities disregards the right to information if he threatens a publisher not to provide its employees with information in the future if an unpleasant article appears in the newspaper.
Journalists also have the right to protect their informants by keeping the identity of the information provider to themselves. The "journalistic right to refuse to testify" is intended to ensure that this important source of information for journalists does not run dry because the informant has to fear disadvantages such as disciplinary proceedings or dismissal.

Special rights in the dissemination of information apply above all to the protection of honor and data protection.

Honor protection

The "public task" of the press includes the dissemination of facts (assertions of fact) and expressions of opinion (value judgments) that citizens need to know in order to be able to form their own opinion. A contribution to the formation of public opinion may also contain harsh or even polemical judgments. The question of how a certain issue is to be assessed should be open to public debate and not decided by courts. Freedom of expression finds its limit in cases in which matters of general importance are discussed, only where it is no longer about the matter, but only about insulting the opponent (vicious criticism).
  • For example, the utterance: "I can no longer see your stupid face!"

Protection of privacy

Every time he reports on people, the journalist encroaches on their right to informational self-determination: he disseminates information about the life of someone else. And in principle everyone has the right to decide for themselves which information about their life they shall make available to third parties. The data protection laws protect this personal information and only allow it to be passed on in certain cases. Here, too, it is a matter of weighing up the protection of the individual and the general public: Does the public interest in information predominate?

Over the course of time, the courts have developed a number of (rule of thumb) rules for this consideration. The so-called "theory of spheres" applies to word reporting. According to her, human life is divided into different areas ("spheres") that enjoy different levels of protection:

"Public sphere"

There is no protection against truthful reporting if you address yourself to the public, i.e. appear publicly, give a public speech or write a letter to the editor to the local newspaper.

"Social sphere"

This is about the behavior of a person in publicly accessible places, at work or in cooperation with others. The requirements for reporting to be permitted in these cases are low. A simple public interest in information is sufficient to justify this.
  • For example, a local newspaper can report on a local event (shooting festival, theater premiere, etc.) which well-known personalities were present without having to ask permission from those affected.

"Privacy" is more strictly protected, that is, the area in which the person concerned is allowed to believe he is not being observed. Spatially, this applies, for example, to your own apartment, your own garden, but also to lonely beaches. Objectively, it concerns information about private life in the broadest sense, i.e. information about family matters, income and financial circumstances, membership of associations, religious communities and the like. Information from the private sphere may only be disseminated if the general public's interest in information is so great that the protection of the person concerned has to take a back seat.
  • It is basically none of the public's business at which bank and with which sums a prime minister finances the acquisition of his private home. The situation is different, however, if there is a suspicion that he has received particularly favorable contractual terms due to his professional position or he is providing untrue or incomplete information to parliament or the public.
"Secret sphere"

This includes all information which, by law or its nature, must be kept secret. These are, for example, diary entries or the content of tapped phone calls. Such information, like information from the "intimate sphere", may only be disseminated in rare exceptional cases when there is an "overriding public interest in information".
  • If a newspaper receives the transcript of a bugged telephone conversation that two local politicians have had with each other, it may only publish this if significant misconduct was agreed in the conversation. Example: Shortly before the next local elections, the mayor and the leader of the majority faction in the council agree to deceive the local public about the actual financial situation of the city so as not to jeopardize their own election chances.