Interviewer: Juliana Rosas
Photo: Dairan Paul

On March 25, the German professor and researcher Susanne Fengler was in Florianópolis and gave the inaugural lecture of the semester 2019.1 of the Postgraduate Program in Journalism (PPGJOR) of the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC), entitled “Media and migration in Europe”. We took the opportunity to hold a brief interview. Fengler answered questions about the research projects she coordinates and participates in Europe, such as the European Journalism Observatory (EJO) and Media Accountability and Transparency in Europe (MediaAcT). Also on the agenda was the theme of the lecture, migration. On this subject, without mentioning the words Holocaust or World War II, the researcher points out the guilt that her country carries on such events.

Rogério Christofoletti, UFSC professor and coordinator of objETHOS, remembered that this concept – media accountability – is a deployment on Claude-Jean Bertrand’s ideas on this particular subject. Bertrand is a French author that, in Brazil, we know from two books in particular: Media Ethics and Accountability Systems and An Arsenal for Democracy: Media Accountability Systems. We asked the researcher on the evolution of the concept.

We also wanted to know her perspective on the scandal involving a journalist from a renowned German magazine, Der Spiegel. Fengler reported that the revelation was pointed out by American journalists. Here in Brazil, we found out about this fact mainly through the material published in El País. Perhaps in Germany there were previous indications of American journalism that did not reach us, at least not in the Portuguese language. Indeed, in his piece for El País, the Spanish journalist based in Germany, Juan Moreno, collected several information in the United States involving made up stories by journalist Claas Relotius for Der Spiegel.

Prof. Dr. Susanne Fengler is the director of Erich Brost Institute for International Journalism; co-director of MERCUR Graduate School of International and Intercultural Communication (SIIC); editor of the book series “Kompaktwissen Journalismus”. Her research interests are International Journalism, Comparative Studies, Media Journalism, Political Journalism, and Economic Theory of Journalism. More on her work and projects can be found here. Next, the interview.

The European Journalism Observatory (EJO) is a network of independent non-profit media research institutes in 14 countries. It aims to bridge journalism research and practice in Europe, and to foster professionalism and press freedom. Could you tell us a little bit more about the EJO and your participation in it?

It is a research network and also a network of 15 European journalism institutes. We have websites, I think now, in 12 European languages – from English to Albanian. The idea is to exchange interesting results from our communication researches to make journalists aware of those results. And also to make researchers in others countries aware of the results. It is an European platform from us communicators in journalism research. Some people find interesting studies from other countries there. They also find some interesting debates about media, media quality and media criticism. Because in many countries participating in the EJO, like Albania, Ukraine, Romania… They do not have observatories, press councils or media criticism in the mass media. So these websites like EJO are the only platforms to have a discussion about media quality.

Regarding the MediaAcT project, a research about, among other things, collecting data on media accountability, could you tell us if there was an advance in this concept (accountability)? From the project’s results and experiences, could we tell if Europe and part of Africa developed concrete practices to make the media more transparent?

We studied the perception of journalists on media accountability instruments in 40 Europeans and Arabic countries in this MediaAcT study. So we could really measure (let’s say “measure”) how they perceive those instruments. We found a clear divide between western and northern Europe media on one hand side, where you have many instruments of media accountability. But in southern Europe and eastern Europe, we found very little or almost no instruments of media accountability. This is because sometimes they are too heavily influenced by the government; or because media takes political sides and they don’t feel responsible for the general public but to some political ideology. But they don’t perceive themselves as representatives of the public.

We do see very different media accountability cultures across Europe and we are now working on a global handbook of media accountability, where we compare the concept of media accountability in the western setting with media accountability concepts in countries with restricted press freedom. Because even in those countries you do have some form of media accountability. It is either the private press criticizing the state press or, like in Russia, you don’t have press freedom but there is some debate about media quality and social media. So in authoritative regimes or repressive regimes you do find some form of accountability. We wanted to diverse and de-westernize the debate about media accountability because so far it is a very westernize debate.

Since we are talking about accountability, we recently saw the Der Spiegel scandal, involving a series of fake and made up stories. How do you think the magazine handle the scandal? Was it in a responsible and accountable way? How was the reaction on German and European media on this particular case?

I think once the scandal came to the public, because the US (United States) journalists discovered or pointed the discrepancies, Spiegel treated very seriously, but actually, it needed critics from outside to start the investigation. Spiegel has a very strong position on the German media market, it’s like the critical magazine and so it’s very hard to criticize Spiegel among journalists. I mean, they are really, really good, it’s an extremely good team of journalists, but they also make mistakes. It needed this criticism from outside the country to start the investigation.

I think Der Spiegel acted very fast. One might say they overreacted, because they investigated and reinvestigated on the stories written by that particular journalist, Claas Relotius, and it turned out there were some fake parts but not everything was fake in his stories. The first impression that we had is that he was faking every story and in the end that was not true. I would say they kind of overreacted a little bit, but to protect the image as a concerned newsroom. And I can fully understand that.

Your lecture was about migration and you mentioned the German chancellor Angela Merkel. Do you think the migration policy will change once she leaves office? And could you tell us if the mainstream media in Germany took a side regarding this situation? Do German journalists present themselves pro or against migration or do they just cover the facts?

I think definitely the politics of Germany, foreign policy, also internal policy, will change when she is no longer chancellor, because we simply don’t know what comes afterwards, if the conservative college will stay… I mean, there will definitely be a change of government at one point. Because it’s a very unstable coalition in the moment between social democrats and Christian democrats and it’s probably not a coalition which will work on for years. And then, you don’t know which party will be in the government and we simply don’t know at the moment what will happen.

That certainly also affects migration. Probably the next government will become more restrictive in terms of migration policy than Angela Merkel is, because she has a strong impact on it.

And very recently the public debate about migration was more open towards challenges and negative sides. It took quite a while, because in the beginning, the media took a very positive perspective on migration and it was very careful to point towards cultural problems, economic problems and so on.

I would say that in Germany, journalists also feel their responsibility for the public debate and for not rejecting foreigners, because we had this very specific history, the very specific guilt that we carry, as Germans. And from that guilt has grown this feeling of responsibility. I think it’s a very good element of German culture, that we are not superficial in that sense and that we really try to care about people. But it’s also connected to a lot insecurity, how to deal with problems. It was a learning process, I would say, for newsrooms to be more open about it.