Why Are Mass Media Losing Relevance?

How can the public perform, when there has long been a second public, when above all, the conspirational sets the tone?
Hans Leyendecker

The brawl about the Voice of Germany was about allegations that its Chinese service had become a mouthpiece of Beijing’s propaganda. There is no final result of the investigation yet – several thousands of older news articles are apparently still under review -, and the Liberal Democrats seem to consider the Chinese service’s coverage angled until proven otherwise.

But in general, the discussion goes into a different direction at the moment. Erik Bettermann, the Voice of Germany‘s director, demands more funding. Without that it would be impossible to compete with other international services, and to provide quality journalism. Not so much to make sure that the Voice doesn’t get politically hijacked, but for its relevance in general.

Money isn’t everything. But even accurate translation from German into Chinese by professionals takes time. Fact-checking takes time, too. The Voice is different from commercial mass media in that it gets public funding and in that it speaks many languages, but its main task is to keep people informed. Without being a reliable (and comprehensive) source of information, it doesn’t matter what its charter wants.

Newspaper circulation in developed countries has declined, with consequences for the papers’ funding. Just at a time when more professional staff would be needed to compete with information sources from the internet, the papers’ budgets are getting squeezed.

Hans Leyendecker is one of Germany’s rather few investigative journalists. In a speech to Netzwerk Recherche (inquest network, roughly translated) in April 2002, he pointed out that most information that the media got about the terror network (this was a bit more than half a year after 9-11) came from intelligence services, where disinformation was part of the business.

Nevertheless, readers and spectators were bombarded with alleged revelations. There was a race for the placement of exclusive inanities with the aid of news agencies. Horror scenarios were to generate attention: fear of fear sells.

(….) Increasingly, media refer to other media which don’t know anything either. Something that could at the most be speculation is presented as fact. For a long time, there has been that mainstream named self-reference by communication scientists. Media refer to media, and that becomes news once again.

So these are some reasons – probably the main reasons – why the mass media are losing relevance. One might say that they deserve it. But I believe that what we would get if everything went from paper to the internet would be even worse. I don’t expect solid information for free. If I still get some, so much the better.

Blogging is usually the last thing I need for information. I’m not saying that it offers nothing. But it offers me rather little, even compared to the mainstream. I think there are blogs that are worse than mine, but unless I’m translating something from Chinese that hasn’t been published in English elsewhere, I don’t feel that I’m doing something really useful. It’s more for my own pleasure than for the pleasure (let alone information) of others. Above all, many blogs seem to express the distrust that the bloggers feel towards the mainstream. It looks like an answer to the mainstream, but generally looks conspirational to me itself. Sit down in front of your computer with an important and controversial issue on your mind, and try to find reliable information on that issue from the blogosphere. Good luck with that, and see you again next year.

China’s media situation is different from ours. Any blog might become real added value so long as it writes about stuff that the mainstream isn’t allowed to report. Zola with his Nailhouse coverage is one example. At the same time, commercial newspapers in China are probably having much better business than Western ones. With all the hype about China now being the biggest internet country, it’s easy to forget that most Chinese people do not have access to the internet, and that of those who have, not everyone will climb the firewall. And Zola is also one example that a citizen journalist’s scope in mainland China is limited after all.

What would it take to increase the relevance of the mass media? What would it take to help the public perform better? Independent, trustworthy research, and much more investigative journalism. It’s hard to tell where commercial papers should get the funding from, especially as they will only be trustworthy when their editors are sufficiently independent from the financers.

But in the end, journalism that moves away from self-referential coverage will pay off. Newspapers may become a great investment once again.

18 Responses to “Why Are Mass Media Losing Relevance?”

  1. Today’s media problems are obvious. Authors are paid by the number of words, so making less effort to produce the same wordcount pays off.

    Furthermore, a phenomenon of cheap newspaper is taking over the better media. It’s about omissions that change the meaning.

    Example of the German Spiegel about Edison Chen:

    I don’t want to analyse this in detail, read for Yourself. In the article nothing is said who is witness and who is defendant. However the wording implies that Chen must be the suspect. In reality Chen is in front of the court as a witness and nothing else.

    Spiegel said nothing false, but they choose a wording that makes the reader get a totally wrong conclusions. This article of Spiegel really pissed me of, and I’m about to put in in the same shelf as Bildzeitung.

    But then, what is left to read in Germany’s media? Ah yes, we still have JustRecently 🙂


  2. … who is just as self-referential. But thanks anyway. 😉


  3. Another nice example: “Obama´s choose Portuguese Water Dog for White House” by the International Business Times blog which quotes from People Magazine which quotes the first lady herself. That’s news, huh?


  4. Nothing ideal either, but I’d recommend heise.de as an additional source of info.


  5. Indeed, there is Heise. I read that one on a regular basis.



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