Who deserves coverage, and how much? Who or what are we legitimizing with our words? How do we share unbiased information without spreading ideals opposite to our own?
As a journalism student, I am often confronted with the question of whether or not to cover something or someone. The debate in New York City newsrooms typically centered around Donald Trump’s tweeting habits; here in Germany, I find that the the question shifts towards coverage about the newly established Parliamentary presence of the Alternative for Germany, or AfD.
The AfD is a right-wing populist and nationalist party whose platform focuses on hard beliefs of against Islamic immigration policies accompanied by Nazi-reminiscent calls for the restoration of ‘German culture’ (To read these shocking statements for yourself, I recommend you check out this interview with the AfD’s co-founder Alexander Gauland in The Atlantic). In the recent German elections, the AfD received 12.6% of the popular vote, and for the first time since World War II, it has been granted seats - and thus, a real and legal voice - in Parliament. This distressing result has left political leaders reeling. What, exactly, is the correct course of action for dealing with this new, unwelcome guest in Parliament? Der Spiegel introduces us in one article to some of these reactions, which range from ignoring AfD leaders in the elevator to changing policies to making policy adjustments to keep AfD leaders away from classified information. But every action has a reaction, and political leaders must cautiously strategize to prevent the AfD from gaining more power, or from drawing more attention to itself by playing victim.
This process of calculated decision making is not unique to political leaders; journalists share it as well. The best journalist has been taught to seek out (or create) ‘newsworthiness’, which often falls under the categories of sex, conflict and violence. They have been taught to work toward justice and to give everyone a voice, especially minority groups. However, these golden rules must be written and read with footnotes of unintended consequences. Any third party welcomes news written about them - both good and bad - as free publicity. Widespread and skewed media coverage often gives authority where it isn’t due. As I Google “AfD”, I find the party is alarmingly popular in both German and international news. Pages and pages of articles are currently discussing AfD leaders, statements, tactics, timelines. The intentions of this type of journalism are often to understand and criticize the party in a way that garners opposition towards it. But is this immense emphasis truly doing so?
For example, in Lincoln Steffen’s essay “How I Made A Crime Wave”, the journalist recounts the demands of his editor to cover more local New York City crime stories in order to surpass the amount of crime stories available in the recent issue of their competitor. The competing paper noticed this, and as a result worked to cover even more crime stories to try to stay on pace with Steffen’s paper. This tug of war continued and in the meantime, as smaller papers worked to keep up with this emerging ‘trend’, and they too began to over-cover crime in the city. Suddenly, New Yorkers were witnessing the most crime in decades, and had never felt more unsafe. But in reality, the number of reported crimes remained statistically the same. Even moreso today with the increase of social media, journalism has immense power in shaping public perception, interest, and even participation. Journalists must therefore act tactfully in political writing, with thought given to difficult questions: Who deserves coverage, and how much? Who or what are we legitimizing with our words? How do we share unbiased information without spreading ideals opposite to our own? We must weigh the costs and benefits of creating an uber-aware society, or at least be self aware of our role in the political and personal lives of our readers.
Keeping this in mind, I wonder if something like a “Kindness Wave” could be initiated in the realm of German news. What if papers began aggressively competing to print the most positive news, like examples of Turkish and German cultural integration, or students and organizations helping refugees? If the AfD could no longer make it to the front page, what would that do to their platform?