02 December, 2014

News Media in Germany and the USA

Ever since I arrived in Germany almost 15 months ago, I've been noticing a distinct difference in the type of news coverage I've seen here versus what I was used to seeing in the United States. These differences really became apparent to me a few days ago. I recently deleted my Facebook account (something almost unheard of in this day and age), and as a result I was looking for a replacement for my online energy. I decided to download a news app onto my phone, which would serve the dual purpose of educating me about the world and filling the free time left by the absence of my Facebook newsfeed.

To start off, I looked at my choices for news to fill my new "news"-feed with. I was happy to see that I was given the option of news sources from a variety of countries. My first step was to visit the American sources and add CNN to my feed, and next I checked out the German sources and added Die Zeit Online (The Times Online). The differences between the sources were immediately obvious. About half the posts from CNN contained actually news-worthy information, while the other half was fluffy stuff like "The Best Selfies of the Week." The German source was hard-hitting news all the way. I get a similar result when I look at the websites of both of these sources. I went to www.zeit.de and the American version of CNN.com at the same time (Wednesday, November 26, 2014 at approximately 5pm), and let me give you a breakdown of what I saw:

Zeit Online
Top Story: EU politics
Story about local politics
Story about mistrust of police in the US
Story about illiteracy
Story about air pollution
Story about surveillance of users by Facebook
Story about casual sex
Top Story: Ferguson protests
Story about snow-related delays
"HBO lawyers up, plans Scientology film"
Video: "The strangest thing about your dog is..."
"Cricket star fights for his life after being hit"
"Strange case of the melting house"
Video: "More setbacks with Iran"
Video: "Fan goes home with Garth Brooks' guitar"
"Look at me! 21 selfies of the week"

And it goes on from there. The CNN stories, about half of which are videos, continue along this path of inanity to talk about movies and movie stars, college football, hotel perks, cute/funny dogs and generally things you would expect from a Hollywood-themed tabloid and not from a reputable news organization. The frustrating thing is, there is worthwhile news hidden in there, but people are probably going to click on "NEW: Putin's tiger attacks goat herd" before they click on "Report: Syria strikes kill 95 in ISIS area." (These are all real headlines, by the way, I'm not making any of this up.)

As these examples demonstrate, the approaches of the news media in Germany the United States could not be more different. In Germany the focus is on informing people about what is happening in Germany and the rest of the world, and the German sources are committed to their role as purveyors of high-quality, reliable news stories. The stories are more serious and expect a higher level of focus and political engagement from their readers. On the other hand, in the United States the focus is on "infotainment" and getting as many page views as possible. The American sources compete directly with other forms of entertainment for people's attention and have lowered their standards to include a lot of, if you'll excuse the expression, bullshit. Another quick example: back when I used to watch the evening news occasionally in America, it was routine to see a story about a cat being rescued from a tree, or a lucky kid finding some money on the ground. Even when there was a report of actual "news," it was usually things that had happened in the immediate area, like a house fire in the next town, and nothing about international politics.

Even worse than the "fluffy" infotainment is the other main tendency of the American news media: the spreading of manipulative political propaganda. Blatantly biased TV "news" networks, controlled by people with money and specific political agendas, dominate a great deal of the political discourse in the United States. The worst offender in this category is Fox News, a hard-right conservative news network whose sole mission seems to be to discredit anything President Obama says or does. Through its cast of (white) talking heads, the network disseminates a specific conservative political narrative (mainly racist, anti-poor, anti-woman and anti-Muslim) and belittles other points of view (or simply talks over the more liberal guests to drown out any opposing views). Meaningful political debate is not allowed nor is it the goal, and accurate information comes second to news anchors spreading their interpretations of political events as fact. The scary part is I'm not talking about some extremists who no one takes seriously, I'm talking about the most watched news network in America. Balancing that out we have MSNBC, the left-wing but not as extreme equivalent that leans towards more socialist policies, women's rights, gay rights and religious tolerance. MSNBC doesn't get as much attention as Fox News (meaning the videos don't go viral on social media as often) because MSNBC's rhetoric is not as inflammatory. What is lacking in American news networks are politically centrist, unbiased, widely distributed news broadcasts that report the facts about events from around the world and not some newscaster's opinions. It's gotten to the point where comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are better sources of news than the actual news networks.

This is not to say that there are no sources of serious, quality news in the United States. Sources certainly do exist, but they are not the ones that are readily available to the general public, or at least not the ones that people gravitate towards. An example is NPR, or National Public Radio (www.npr.com), but NPR has a reputation for being boring talk radio and as a result does not have nearly as great of a following as CNN or Fox News. NPR is also funded mainly by donations from listeners and occasional corporate sponsors (and also receives partial public funding), so it does not have nearly the same amount of money at its disposal as the media giants that control the mainstream news media.

In Germany it's another story. As far as I know, there is nothing like Fox News here, or at least nothing that is taken as seriously by the public. The prominent TV and radio stations are publicly funded and provide serious and relatively unbiased national and international news coverage at regular intervals throughout the day. Two such TV stations are Das Erste ("the first"), and ZDF, also known as das Zweite ("the second"). This publicly funded system of news delivery was created very intentionally to avoid just the sort of sensationalistic, propaganda-style news coverage that has flourished in America. In exchange for balanced national and world news and other high-quality programming, each German household that owns either a radio or a TV (and also recently a computer, because content is also available online) has to pay a monthly fee that goes directly towards supporting this content. (For reference, this fee is only 18 euros per month, much less than most American households pay for even the most basic TV service. Germans can also subscribe to additional cable or satellite providers if they want more than just the public channels.) Unlike in the United States, where public TV and radio are relatively unknown, in Germany the public TV and radio stations are primary providers of broadcasting to the public. And because they are funded by the public and not by corporate interests, the content does not contain the blatant biases that American news networks consistently and intentionally deliver.

I don't have first-hand experience with the news media in any other countries, but based on what I've seen and conversations I've had, I think the German approach is somewhat of an exception in the world rather than the rule. And from what I've seen I think it's an approach that it wouldn't hurt for other countries to follow.

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