Editor’s Note: This is a personal narrative and commentary about German public radio, and multiculturalism therein, based on my experience in the last years. I offer my observations, suggestions, and hopes, perhaps to prompt further thought or consideration from journalists and newsreaders alike. Warning..this is a long one!
“You have no idea what you are talking about, Luka*.“ The small Greek colleague pushed a harshly dismissive comment toward Luka, incensing something primal in the latter. I had not yet met this colleague, after all I was just considered a Praktikant, an intern, a visitor, a stranger and kept more or less to myself unless prompted. I sat at the back corner of the meeting table in a German editorial meeting.
“How do you know what I have an idea about?” Luka shot back in his thick accent—Bosnian or Hungarian, I wasn’t quite sure. The other members of this multi-cultural editorial staff shifted their eyes nervously, some chuckled, not sure what to do. I stopped moving all-together, frozen in a pose for observation: my posture slouched, my chin buried in my hands, my eyes fixed. A discussion about refugees from Eastern Europe quickly turned heated.
“You don’t know what the refugees need. You don’t know who they are, or what they are doing.” The Greek colleague looked sure of himself, almost taunting the situation to escalate. A soft winter light shone in through the windows behind me, and story ideas pinned to a tack board fluttered slightly.
“How dare you say I don’t know,” Luka growled while rising from the table. His hands emphasized each point as his voice grew more forceful and hurt. “You don’t know what it is like to leave a country as a refugee. To leave everything you know. To leave your family and friends. How dare you. I know. I lived it.”
One of the more respected editors, a German with Turkish heritage, urged calm in the two. They shouted at each other for a few more minutes before moving to another part of the building. Someone told me Luka had personal issues he was dealing with, probably making the discussion more than it needed to be. I, for one, was shocked and intrigued to see such emotion in a German editorial meeting. I was shocked that an issue could have escalated so quickly, and intrigued to know how this passion was put into journalistic practice.
I was still relatively new at this small, immigrant-focused broadcast unit but this scene hearkened back to earlier times in US media, when cigarette or pipe smoke lofted through newsrooms, and colleagues pushed each other to get a better story, better angle, better attitude.
But this outburst of raw emotion was an exception, and not the rule in my experience with German media. In my time at broadcasters big and small—as a self-described guest journalist—meetings and stories felt stale, and unenthusiastic. That is not a condemnation of the state of journalism in this country, but rather my interpretation of a system that has let its own workers, managers and listeners accept what need not be accepted: mediocrity.
Journalists are built to endure the best and worst our society can produce. We in the news business are paid to read/interpret/investigate/experience tragedy and triumph within calibrated limits. The latest realities of war must be relayed in just 5 minutes of air time. A complicated piece of legislation must be decoded and explained in no more than 30 column inches. A scientific break-through must be distilled into a 90 second TV package. Living these realities in short, powerful bursts is tiring—to truly capture the essence and relay that essence to an audience requires an immense devotion from the story-teller, who often reflects and transmits a piece of him or herself in each report.
I was taught and am still mentored by journalists who champion a rogue spirit to the news business. Stories are meant to be told clearly, accurately and concisely. When someone won’t talk, find someone who will, and then give the first person one last chance to tell his or her side of the story. Confirm information—sometimes people manipulate the truth or out-right lie. These ideas are not really secrets, but rather tenets of a back-to-basics approach to journalism. After all, journalists are serving the public interest, not their own egos.
With these principles instilled so deeply in me it is no surprise that transforming into a Praktikant was so unsettling. In working at two regional public radio networks combined with previous experience with Germany’s national broadcaster Deutsche Welle, my reality was always the same: despite my resume, introduction letter, and personal interaction with colleagues and managers, my self-designation as “Guest journalist” never stuck, and I was always placed in the category of intern.
Regardless of what status or professional grade I think I should hold, on the surface this intern-designation makes sense: many journalists in Germany are not trained formally in journalism. Many journalists study law, or social science, or any other subject for 5-10 years before seeking an opportunity at a broadcaster. These opportunities could take the form of a Praktikum (internship in the American sense: little if any pay, little responsibility, little incentive to excel), a Voluntariat (a 2-year paid position in which one learns the trade in the hopes of receiving a contract), or a limited contract. The vast majority of workers in the German public media system are hired on these limited contracts becoming freelancers with regular, scheduled work. These limited workers (called Feste-Freiers, or regular freelancers) have little job or income security, and often work hard to prove their worth—not out of pride for the job or loyalty to the company but out of fear of being dismissed without a contract or pay check.
At the top of the food-chain are Festangestellt, or full-time, vested employees. Once a person achieves this stage in life, social worker protections make it almost impossibly difficult to fire someone. The result of this job security is often apathy and a massive drop-off of productivity in the newly-vested workforce. And because workers as freelancers are/were not nurtured as members of a corporate family, and loyalty runs thin, the end-product for the listeners is not always listener-focused, or in the best interest of the organization’s brand.
A person like me, therefore, does not exist in the German system. I am in my mid-twenties; have worked for public radio stations in the US for a solid 5 years; have a degree in Journalism and Mass Media; have contributed to international broadcasters; won awards; and I have a family. A colleague once guessed I was 38 years old, based on these details, and I laughed. But with a German mindset this is plausible. If a person studies for 16 semesters, has a year or two as a Praktikant, a 2-year Voluntariat, and then has 5 years as a reporter, this person would need to be 35 at least. Most Germans—and Americans as well—are waiting even longer to have children, pushing my colleague’s guess even higher.
As I said, I don’t wish to condemn a system that I have only observed peripherally, but my observations and off-the-record discussions with colleagues do nothing but further my curiosity as to why workers accept these realities, and how this is affecting news coverage. Even more curious is how many of my German colleagues are amazed when I tell them the American system is—while by no means perfect—another way to do business. The status quo need not continue.
I had just moved to a new desk and into a new office in West German Public Radio. I moved desks nearly every day. There are not enough places for everyone, and I was only allowed to be there as some staffers had scheduled vacations.
I tried to glean as much as I could, learning how meetings worked, what the process was for getting something on-air, what people do all day. While sitting in meetings for 3 hours a day I began to wonder how many of the editors were trained journalists. There were questions I would ask about the news values of a story, or about the use of sound, but many editors’ comments were reduced to emotional feedback or disagreements with opinions expressed in the story. These frustrations were bled onto the reporter, as if the reporter manufactured the realities portrayed in the story. In my new office, at my new desk, with a new office-mate, I finally decided to ask in still-developing German:
“Hi, uh, a quick question for you, sorry if this is impolite: How many of the editors here are actual journalists? How many have been trained in journalism or radio?” I knew it was blunt, but I was too frustrated and confused to water the question down with subtlety.
My colleague smirked and took a sip of water. She looked quickly at the door, and then back to me. “Why do you ask?”
“Some of the discussions we have at meetings don’t feel like newsroom discussions. We don’t talk about news values, or what the listeners want or need to hear. Some times it feels like each editor in there is an activist and only pushes their own message or special interest group.” I knew I was putting myself on the line. I had only been with this broadcaster for a few weeks, and I was asking uncomfortably blunt questions. This colleague had explained things to me before, even letting me shadow her while producing the noon-time program. I hoped she knew my questions were not malicious.
“Well. Not many. Not many of these editors are journalists at all…in fact I am one of the few, and I just transferred from another outfit. You are right that these meetings are not true news meetings. Usually whoever is loudest wins, and their interests get on the air.”
One of the most animated editors was Italian, so every day she worked the program contained a heavy Italian presence. The shows covered immigrant issues, produced by a mostly immigrant staff, but story selection often had less to do with breaking news (though not entirely disregarded of course) and more to do with what a given editor wanted to hear. And with a rotating staff of freelance editors, there were times when the entire editorial team changed from one-day to a next, meaning story possibilities were re-hashed and decisions were re-made. One day I was the only person who had been at work the day before, and had to act as a relay between decisions made the day before and present time.
Having a “Praktikant” be the only link between editorial teams was only happenstance, and I can only guess there would be no communication on any other day. I almost didn’t speak up at these meetings as I felt this must be an oversight that I am the only one who knew what was spoken of the day before. After all, my worth was considered marginal by many of the staffers. I commented on an immigration debate one day, and produced a commentary for air, but interest in my contributions quickly dropped off. My German was decent, but at that time still fairly basic. One day I wrote and turned in a commentary for a series called Neulich. (Recently) I needed to write an observation in diary form.
My story was simple, but I thought it compelling. On a reporting trip to Bremen a colleague met me for dinner and offered to drive me back to my hotel. “Where is it?” she asked.
“Near the main train station,” I said. My colleague’s voice urged caution.
“Be careful. There are Turks there. That is really dangerous at night.” I didn’t know how to take the comment, but I thanked my colleague and was curious to observe the area near the hotel. I didn’t see anyone. The next morning I looked again, and I did see some troublemakers—punks. These German punks, with mo-hawks and leather pants, confronted passers-by and “asked” for change. The pedestrian, now surrounded by 3 or 4 punks, gives money, and walks quickly away. Funny, I thought, the Turks don’t seem to be the problem here.
I turned in this story to an editor, and hadn’t heard anything about it for a week and a half. I found the editor one day and asked if I could do anything to speed the process along. “No. You know what, it would just be too much work to edit your commentary. Let’s just forget about it, okay?”
Making it to Air
The expectations for an over-worked, under-paid, ambitious, and self-motivated American journalist are immense. In an American newsroom public radio reporters (and more and more, all journalists) are expected to be and appreciated for being Jacks or Janes of all trades—do a little of everything. In a single morning a reporter might need to write newscasts, edit and refine sound-bites, schedule or conduct an interview segment for air, fix a broken computer system, and host a program. These responsibilities are compounded with the never-ending task of finding interesting or vital stories to tell, and producing long-form, sound-rich features—the life-blood of American-style public radio broadcasting.
I did all of these things and more at my last post in the US. I tried to make it a point to be involved with as much as I could be, to learn as much as I could from as many people as I could. Sometimes I would ask the engineer how something worked, just in case I was expected to fix it one day. I liked that role and would’ve welcomed the chance to bring this mindset, and my broad set of skills and experiences, to a foreign broadcaster.
By experience and research I tempered expectations though. A friend told me simply most journalists are not given the opportunity to write and produce content in German. American “Praktikants” are novelties for a newsroom, perhaps outlets for discussions on controversial US policy or practice. But it is hard to be considered a colleague or someone ready to report and put the necessary energy into a news story…in German.
The Immigrant Perspective in German Media
“You’re right. You are absolutely right,” a colleague at Bavarian Public Media replies to my analysis of the German public media system. I tell him journalists in the US ascribe to the “employment at will” philosophy, along with other industries—an employee is a full-time employee until he or she or the employer decide the relationship has run its course.
“That is truly amazing. We don’t have that kind of security. It is terribly difficult to fire someone. Even when they have nothing to do.” He begins to relay the story of an editor, recently retired. This editor is part of the staff for an inter-cultural magazine, but years before he had his own program. He, an Italian, produced a program pegged at Italian immigrants, and as far as I could understand, the program was produced and moderated in Italian.
Though this Italian editor had just retired, and received his coveted “Retiree ID card,” his most recent years were less than intense. As the story goes, after the Italian program was canceled, the editor was moved to the inter-cultural magazine staff. He kept his office, kept his status as a “Festangestellt” or a full-time employee, and kept his interest in the Italian communities he once covered. But in terms of work-load and the expectation of this senior staffer in a new role, details were vague at best. In the end he coasted, not really producing anything for the final year(S) of his career.
“What can we do with someone like that?” My colleague asks. “He is Festangestellt. We can’t fire him—that is too difficult. He was just allowed to sit there. What could we have done?”
“Send him to Italy?” I say. Why not send an editor from Italy, who specializes in the issues of Italians, to Italy. It wouldn’t have to be a permanent placement, maybe just a few months at a time, and then the editor could produce documentary-style examinations of Italians and Italian immigrants.
“Wow. That would have been a great idea. Why didn’t we think of that?”
I don’t know.
In each of my placements in public radio outlets I was more or less welcomed to observe and work alongside multi-cultural editorial staffs. Though the extent to which these staffers had training as journalists was questionable, their skill-set and potential was—at least in my view—unbelievably valuable. In a nation still realizing the effects of the ambitious guest worker program of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, journalists should be jumping at the chance to tell the stories of all nationalities effected by the program, chiefly among them the Germans, Turks, Italians, Spaniards and Greeks.
Thomas Faist, a professor at Bielefeld University, summed up the guest worker situation in Germany concisely, when I spoke with him in late 2008. “It really is true, that in the 1960s and still in the 1970s labor migrants were looked upon as labor power, not as fathers and mothers and children,” Faist said. “It’s not labor migrants anymore it’s real people, with real needs.” These real people, with real needs, should be the ones covered extensively by German journalists, especially by journalists with the skills to communicate and interpret cultural differences from these communities.
And in many broadcast teams across the country multiculturalism is often a spoken priority, but not as focused on as it perhaps could be.
The “Hochhaus” of Bavarian public media is an impressive tower of glass and prestige in Munich’s center. On clear days the Alps are visible, snow-capped and inviting on the horizon. On the twelfth floor of the Hochhaus sits André, gesturing wildly while speaking a language I am told is Hungarian. André nearly matches my 6-foot height, and is impressively trim. His short, but cleanly combed, salt-and-pepper hair, along with the shading of a thin mustache hide well his 60 some years of life. He is always modestly, but professionally, dressed.
I mentioned André to a few colleagues during my time at Bavarian public media. I explained that I shared an office with an amazing person who spoke 7 languages. It was amazing to hear him on the telephone flowing seamlessly from English, to German, French, Italian, Hungarian, or maybe some Russian. Being raised in Belgium afforded him exposure to Flemish and Dutch as well. “Who?” my colleagues said.
“André,” I said. “He works with the inter-cultural magazine.”
“Sorry. Don’t know him,” they said.
It is not surprising that someone like André wasn’t well-known. Many reporters rarely mix with other editorial staffs unless assigned. With a broadcaster like West German public media, or Bavarian public media, which has 6 stations offering 24-7 programming, the staffing and editorial structure tends to become (necessarily) compartmentalized. And with so many workers being freelancers with varying schedules or assignments, getting to know everyone in one’s own division can be difficult, not to mention one of the other thousands of workers in the organization.
Someone like André should be sought-after and fought-over in internationally- or culturally-focused newsrooms, especially in Europe. Journalists try to learn their beats by experiencing life within a particular coverage area, but sometimes a person must turn to a wiser co-worker; someone who has visited hundreds of unique locations and speaks a half-dozen languages would have to hold indispensable worth for a listener-base craving insight and information.
I mentioned once to André I had considered a trip to Namibia to explore former colonial Germany. I had read the German-language is still spoken by a deteriorating minority, and German place-names, street-signs, and history are still visible and open for observation. I had considered writing a story about the lost German colonies, and what role the German culture and subsequent world political history played on this part of the world.
“I have been there.” André said nonchalantly. “It is true German can still be found, but it is a dangerous city. Sight-seeing outside of the city is great though.”
He was there?! I thought. Amazing.
Despite the existence of people like André and the potential they hold, there is an internal struggle in German media outlets to understand what they want, in terms of covering the country’s immigrant communities. The fact something like Funkhaus Europa, or any other inter-cultural news magazine, exists shows the powers-that-be realize immigrant communities need to be remembered in forming a comprehensive media strategy. I definitely think the complete absence of such coverage would be infinitely worse than the current situation.
Immigration is an uncomfortable topic in Germany, as it is in many countries around the world. Switzerland for example has an increasing minority population because of favorable asylum policies, and being a member of the Schengen Zone. The US is coping with a porous border with Mexico and rapidly changing demographics. In Germany, though, denial or neglect were the official strategies toward integration or immigration political rhetoric. Swiss author and playwright Max Frisch summed up the consequences of guest workers similar to that of Thomas Faist in Bielefeld. “We asked for workers, but we got people instead,” Frisch wrote. Many in the German political establishment expected guest workers to leave after the “Economic Miracle” completed its revival of German business. It was an poorly communicated expectation, however, and many immigrants established themselves as permanent residents in a booming German economy. Though most of the original guest workers did in fact leave, those who stayed brought their families and friends to start a life in this new land of opportunity.
Germany is a land of immigrants, now. Millions of immigrants live and work in the country and can claim no other place as “home.” There are of course legitimate concerns with these populations, chiefly among them abuse of the social welfare system and cultural and linguistic integration into society at-large. These concerns, along with the continuing aim at helping different cultural groups to interact and better cooperate, are a perfect justification to employ diverse staff to tell diverse stories, and truly offer a comprehensive, in-depth examination of the new German reality. Giving these issues and these communities the attention and resources they deserve cannot be achieved through satellite means—that is, peripheral additions to a news structure. For example an outlet may have 6 stations, three of which offer regular news coverage or features, and issues of immigrant communities or other cultures is relegated to a small out-lier.
Someone like André should be in the heart of news production. Instead of having 13 editors with diverse backgrounds produce two 2-hour programs which offer some news value to under-served communities, perhaps it would be better to integrate these editors into the decision-making or planning process directly, and make all news divisions more culturally learned?
Integration on a basic level
As I mentioned Germany is still coping with its identity as a country of immigrants, and part of that coping comes in the form of how native-Germans interact with Wahldeutscher, or Germans by choice. Germany sometimes has trouble interacting with itself, with regional identity often trumping any sense of national pride. The segment of the German population with the strongest personal identity lies probably in Bavaria, and many Germans from outside Bavaria often resent such pride in identity. (Truth be told: Badeners, Kölnische Jecken, or Hesseners also pride their personal identities, though to a lesser extent.)
This German problem with identifying itself as a united people, as opposed to regional identities cobbled together, has caused an equally complicating problem with immigrant populations. Though someone may live in Germany, have German passport, or have a German-sounding name, one may still not earn the designation as “German.” For someone who left Germany during or after one of the World Wars there is the title of Aussiedler, or settler. For a German citizen with some other ethnicity in their background are called, understandably, Deutsche mit Migrationshintergrund, or Germans with an immigrant past. For minorities just living in Germany they are designated by culture (Turks, Italians, etc) or in some, fortunately seldom, cases simply Ausländer, or foreigners. These designations make it nearly impossible for an immigrant to become a full-fledged, and un-questioned German. This is a barrier to integration. Add on top of these designators an imperfect or incomplete knowledge of German language and/or German culture, and integration seems nearly an impossible task.
Interesting, too, is the fact that among these varying immigrant groups there seems to be a hierarchy which allows some groups to receive more benefits or social assistance from the State, for better or worse. A Russian “Aussiedler” for example who wishes to be repatriated will be given dozens of hours of language training and consultation from government agencies. These benefits are worthwhile and welcomed by these individuals who fled in time of war. Many of these Aussiedler are Jewish, and the integration measures are seen as justified and necessary on multiple levels. But experts I spoke with said other immigrant groups receive much less. One observer told me a typical resident of Germany with Turkish heritage, for example, receives fewer hours of language course availability, and guidance from official government channels. It seemed, this person told me, that there was a conscious or unconscious partitioning of immigrant groups—some receive more, and some receive less.
That there could be categories of immigrant did not really surprise me. In the United States, for example, certain migrant communities were targeted for discrimination: the Irish in the Northeast, Chinese in the West, Hispanic in the Southwest. And with a complicated history scarred by war, self-discovery, tragedy and triumph, an educated observer should expect nothing less than complexity.
What did surprise me were the segments of the population that receive the cultural “benefit of the doubt.” Americans for example—with the exception of political discussions involving US foreign policy over the last 10 years—are often given a special status in Germany. Americans speaking imperfect German may not be as strongly criticized as Turks who speak imperfect German. With the occupation of Allied forces following World War 2, there was a forced but peaceful exchange of cultural identity with West Germans.
One could argue that many German residents with Turkish heritage have been in Germany for years, and thus have no excuse for not learning German. Americans have little professional incentive to learn German to function in a globalized world, and are often not expected to learn it. This argument seems plausible, until one flicks on the television and gets a look at Bruce Darnell.
I was introduced to Bruce Darnell at first by accident. In an attempt to understand and enjoy more German entertainment, I tried to watch a diverse set of programs. In this search for culture I found Switch! Reloaded, a sketch-comedy program which often parodies staples of the German programming guide: the nightly news magazine, the corny variety show, and Heidi Klum’s Germany’s Next Top Model.
An unnaturally poised comedienne with flowing blond hair, saucer-like eyes, and a high-pitched squeal of a voice poking fun at Klum was interesting, but my attention shifted more to her portrayed side-kick. The white, German comedian in black-face spoke slowly and deliberately. Though I am not an expert German-speaker, his syntax seemed forced, and I didn’t know why. Flash forward a few months and I found my answer. In watching Germany’s version of American Idol I saw a black man speaking in German with a curious syntax. He sat as a jury member alongside TV legend Dieter Bohlen, and even threw a few sharp, but still awkwardly-worded jabs at Bohlen.
After a little research I discovered this person was Bruce Darnell, a former American military man-turned-fashion-model. He had worked in Germany since the 1980s and lived in the Netherlands. He had built his brand over the last 20 years as being an unabashed American. His accent in German was obvious, his errors distracting. And yet he had been a host on television for many years, hobnobbing with some of Germany’s top entertainers. His staple phrase, which he turned into an endorsement deal with a mobile phone company, was a poorly constructed sentence in German. “Das ist der Wahrheit,” he said. That is the truth. The problem with this sentence was fairly simple: Wahrheit takes another (feminine) definite article in German: “die” instead of “der.” It didn’t matter—the Germans wanted more. Darnell eventually got his own short-lived TV show in Switzerland and, along with his appearances as a variety show juror, he released his own cologne and perfume.
To say the least I was confused. I had reported on guest workers and integration issues in Germany and had always heard Germans want immigrants above-all-else to learn German. I was told language is a key to integration, and that communication was one of the most vital pieces to the immigration debate. Was it because Bruce Darnell is American, that he wasn’t expected to learn adequate German? Was it an act?
I found a professor at the University of Cologne who tried to answer my curiosity with science. Psychology professor Ulrich Schmidt-Denter had just completed a study of identity issues in Europe with a special focus on Germans.
“How is it that Bruce Darnell is accepted in German society but Turkish immigrants with as-much or a little more German ability are unaccepted?” I asked.
“It is clear we Germans don’t have the same language sensibilities as, say, the French. There it would be totally unthinkable that someone not speak perfect French and be on TV,” he said.
“It is about status,” his grad student assistant added. “Entertainers have a special status in Germany.” The two psychologists explained to me that entertainers are held to different standards than workers at the widget factory, or students in the school. They said Germans are less concerned about language skill on television if it helps pass the time and makes them laugh.
“When you ask me about sending my kid to a school where (a large number) of students don’t speak proper German, it is not about sensibilities when I say it just won’t work,” Schmidt-Denter said. Communication on a day to day basis with a co-worker or classmate is much more important than entertainment shows.
The more I looked, and asked, for other such performers, the more interesting characters I found. There was Roberto Blanco, a Caribbean singer-turned-Munich resident; or Graham Bonney, the British oldies singer whose songs are still peddled on late-night TV commercials; or Chris Howland, another British actor and singer who starred in some of Germany’s Heimat films.
All of these older performers, as far as I could tell, spoke German with heavy accents, but often made few grammatical or syntax mistakes. Bruce Darnell, on the other hand, was at times, for me, hard to understand at all. It seems foreign performers had to speak worse German, and make more mistakes to entertain the locals, while immigrants were expected to learn German faster and more efficiently.
I also found examples of accepted imperfections in sports. The former coach of FC Bayern-München Giovanni Trapattoni lost his cool at a press conference and ended the meeting with an emphatic “Ich habe fertig.” Depending on who you ask this could translate to “I have ready” or “I have done.” His intended meaning was “I am finished.” Despite these minutes of nearly incoherent German phrases, the coach is still a legend and punchline among Germans. Likewise FC-Bayern is still a premier team, though only a handful of players are actual Münchners, or Germans for that matter.
While writing the feature for West German public media I wanted to portray a curious reality—this difference in status and acceptability of language skill among Germans and their immigrants. But through the editing process I was urged to add more details about specific entertainers, or add less about the immigration debate and more about why Germans like foreigners on TV.
Integration is still a very uncomfortable topic in Germany. Only recently did the German government begin a concerted effort in educating and communicating with immigrant communities. Only recently, too, did German politicians admit the country was one of immigrants. It was a major feat that the leaders here acknowledged the changing demographics, and thus would have to change the dialogue on domestic policy—welfare, language instruction, paths to citizenship. As with any huge undertaking these reforms, and a better relationship with immigrant communities, can and will not happen in a year’s time.
It is because, and not despite, of these complexities in the evolving German identity and the realities of everyday life that German newsrooms should be tackling the big issues head-on. This undertaking will require some soul-searching, and may echo a heated debate among American journalists on the differences between civic and activist journalism.
Civic journalism is an aggressive, but still hands-off, approach at a story. Reporters produce in-depth stories deconstructing some complex topic to the benefit of the public. A civic journalism project may explain the true implications of a school bond vote, for example. A series of stories could explore who will be affected—students, teachers, residents—and how. Another series may explain the financial aspect, the political implications, or even just explain why the initiative is on the ballot at all.
Activist journalism is much more dangerous for a journalist who wishes to retain some semblance of balance. With activist journalism the reporter(s) take sides, and through reporting, shape the debate about a topic. There are examples of good and bad activist journalism. A good example was seen in South Carolina, when a newspaper and TV station teamed to understand why a certain part of town was crime-ridden, and why politicians had not made safety a bigger priority. The journalists reported with the premise in mind that what had been done before was wrong, and something had to change. It worked, and the public rallied behind the cause, ultimately leading to a cleaning up of the neighborhood.
An example of activist journalism hurting a cause came in Phoenix in the 1970s. At that time lawmakers were considering building a subway system. A wealthy family owned the newspaper at the time, and did not want downtown Phoenix plagued by construction for months while the system was built. The paper pushed anti-subway stories and editorials leading up to the vote, eventually pushing public opinion against the measure. Phoenix didn’t get its first-and-only light rail line until 2009. What causes might be “good” or “bad” is a subjective decision, highlighting just how dangerously political activist journalism can become.
German public media organizations have a great chance to use their resources and staff to produce stories and series that would do the public good. It has been 50 years since guest workers started flowing into the country, and the public debate is still sluggish. Journalists have the ability and responsibility to inform the public on issues pertinent to them and the world around them, not just when it is convenient. Having an editorial team of Germans with an ethnic background is great, but how many of these cultural ambassadors are being tapped to produce spots or features for the regular newscasts? In my experience of the compartmentalized editorial structures of these organizations: not often. I am not pushing German journalists to adopt activist journalism wholesale, without regard for ethics or professionalism. But there is a tremendous potential here to raise the bar in what makes it to the public.
Staying Relevant in the World of Tomorrow
I have had a lot of time to think and learn about this German public media system, and I am sure I have much more to learn. I have tried to use my time to continue to understand what it means to be a public radio employee in Germany in comparison to the US. I have had on- and off-the-record discussions with colleagues and observers to hear the thinking and reasoning from within, and then offered my observations from outside.
The reliance on interns and freelancers has kept a precarious feeling in the air—there is a lot of worker mobility and unsureness in a place funded by the people to serve the people. In my opinion people are less likely to take risks when they are on unsure footing. Why should a freelancer produce a controversial report on immigration policy, or terrorism, or homelessness, and risk triumph or failure? Perhaps one would think they could get a better job or a more stable lifestyle from taking such risks, but there is a chance such stories would just be rocking the boat and not garner benefits. And there are a thousand other freelancers who were here first, all hoping for a full-time contract.
A colleague told me about a freelancer uprising in the 1970s in Germany. Public media employees in Bavaria went to management and demanded better pay and full-time contracts, which would have created a system more akin to the US model. My colleague’s anecdote ended only to say freelancers never followed through with their demands, and there isn’t the organization or desire to stage such a protest in present times.
A common complaint by public broadcasters in Germany is about money—namely, there isn’t enough of it. Public broadcasters are funded by underwriting (commercial sponsorships regulated in length, style and language) and tax dollars. Each resident of Germany possessing a TV or Radio must pay the tax. The largest regional public broadcaster is West German public media in Cologne. Its thousands of employees in Cologne are spread out among a half-dozen buildings in the city’s historic downtown, including a massive radio complex. Though the organization is currently working on a project which would bring all staffs under one roof, the amount of unconnected real estate to operate 6 radio stations is amazing, and seems unnecessary. In Phoenix 4 or 5 commercial radio stations operate on one floor of a building downtown. Public broadcasters in the US also complain about money, but their funding sources are not as stable or plentiful as those for their German counterparts. US stations rely primarily on listener donations and grants, and secondarily from underwriting or contributions from license holders (like colleges.)
In a changing world journalists can and should expect to do more with the same or fewer resources. Though we once only produced radio, tomorrow we may need to produce a web video or blog. If any profession should be able to handle such a change it should be radio journalism. In the early days of radio reporters had to work with clunky equipment and spotty transmission signals, especially in trying to broadcast via short-wave radio across the Atlantic. Many radio programs simulcast or transitioned to television with great success—Jack Benny programs for example, or Ed Murrow and company’s news coverage.
As professionals we need more self-confidence and ambition. In US stations a host must operate the master control studio board, as well as read traffic, weather or news. In a modern newsroom a host has 10 switches controlling potential on-air content, 4 computer monitors, and a television. It is a part of life to multi-task and radio has remained somewhat hand-made and personal, but it is also expected that colleagues and the station itself are able to continually raise the bar through skill and professionalism. Hosts in Germany are not often expected to operate so many things by themselves. There is often a, or sometimes more than one, technician to cue mics, phone calls, or features. This does mean German outlets can produce more live content, though live is often more laborious and stressful than just pre-taping something.
In my experience in German public media apprehension plays a significant role in the work experience. Interns have apprehension over learning a new system, skill or workplace, while developing themselves little status, responsibility or credibility. Freelancers have apprehension to take risks in a fluid and unsure work environment. Full-time employees have apprehension to do more than what is expected of them or to innovate or develop something which could rock their steady boat. Even listeners and media commentators are apprehensive over public media from a tax stand-point—if tax Dollars (or Euros) are funding broadcasters, shouldn’t those broadcasters be run as efficiently and effectively as possible? Many people answer that with an emphatic and expectant “Yes!”
With the exception of Deutsche Welle (which doesn’t broadcast in Germany) broadcasters don’t readily share content or burdens like they could. Each region has its own staffs creating 24/7 program schedules. This is probably a function of both practicality (residents of a particular region need information from that region) but also one of pride. As I mentioned, regional identity plays a stunningly important role in German life. Despite this it would seem natural and appropriate for broadcasters to better utilize the ARD content and correspondent-sharing model, and perhaps encourage a common morning program or news division to give a national and international overview of the news of the day, while local hosts and reporters could offer local content to a regional audience.
I think the goal of any news organization should be to create the best journalism possible with the resources at hand. At least in terms of journalism such strong ties to regional identity may be hindering the end-product for broadcasters so focused on pleasing niche markets while neglecting the opportunity to consolidate and improve German news coverage at-large. Though Germany has shown in its political structure an aversion to total centralization (the Bundesrat giving a voice to each Bundesland, and a decentralized central government) there is great benefit and potential in the idea of a national German public radio with full-time employees, both in terms of staffing and day-to-day function, but also in terms of creating a more cohesive German radio presence. Strengthening something like Deutschland Radio would be, in the long-term, a benefit for the listener and tax-payer. There is no indication an NPR-style magazine program, or BBC centralization, would not work in Germany.
A centralization of a system like that in Germany would be painful. Thousands of workers come to work each day, in each region of Germany. But the current model, I would argue, is not sustainable and is not necessarily making the best of limited but healthy resources. In a kind-of Machiavellian condemnation of mercenary power, I would argue an organization cannot consider itself healthy and secure when the bulk of its work-force is comprised of freelancers, because a freelancer is not invested or encouraged to cultivate or innovate within the workplace. The NPR model has shown it is possible to operate an international broadcaster, with regionally-focused member stations, on a modestly-sized staff and budget, while becoming one of the most trusted news brands. Many problems, issues or stories cross regional or even ideological boundaries, and would be of value to the population at-large.
This is not a condemnation of German journalism because I don’t wish the system to fail and I believe there is good work being done. I have read compelling newspaper stories, and have been moved by well-shot photos. I have listened to well-packaged radio stories, and watched fascinating and captivating TV features. And I have met some of the most intelligent and capable journalists around while working in German media. This report is a call for journalists to re-think the way audiences are (or are not) being served by the news of the day.
There is no easy formula to creating the newsroom of the future, but journalists everywhere need to think about how audiences can best be served with certain resources. Sometimes the best answer is to go back to basics, and concentrate on making one good program instead of 10 mediocre ones—never losing the public service aspect in production, while offering insightful news and information. This is no condemnation, rather a rallying cry to reflect and react.
*I changed Luka’s name out of respect for the situation, and privacy.