GMF digital session: How media and politics influence each another | Global Media Forum | DW | 27.10.2020
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GMF digital session: How media and politics influence each another

Covering election campaigns and the voting process itself is a fundamental part of journalism and a cornerstone of democracy. How is today's media dealing with new technologies that have radically changed campaigning?

"Lying press," "fake news" and "mainstream media:" Over the past few years, such words have become increasingly used to smear journalists. The relationship between politics, media and the populace appears to be growing ever more tense – not just in Germany, but also in the US.

Just days out from the American presidential election, DW's Global Media Forum examined the role that media plays in elections in a panel session featuring prominent journalists from both countries. The event was moderated by DW presenter Sarah Kelly. 

Preserving power at all costs

During the discussions, US journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Appelbaum expressed concern about the overall state of democracy today. Applebaum, who spent years working for The Washington Post and has taught at various prestigious American universities, pointed out that it is possible to find political parties all over the world that will no longer accept a loss of power on the basis of an election outcome.

Such parties see themselves, or at least present themselves, as the true representatives of the people, Applebaum explained. They draw a contrast with their political opponents, whom they claim only act on behalf of "the elites" or "foreigners," she stressed, painting themselves as the underdog whenever it suits their narrative:

"And one of the primary things that they [the parties] do is they seek to undermine the media, and this is done in different ways. It's done through discrediting simply – you know, it's all 'fake news.' It's not true so that the media can't hold leaders to account," Applebaum said.

All these tactics have the same goal, she added: to shut down political competition and debates. She warned that social media has intensified the situation through its ability to target users more precisely: Instead of a single election campaign slogan, there are now hundreds, each of them tailored to a respective voter bloc and its needs, she said.

Facebook: Where things reach the boiling point

Applebaum also highlighted how the algorithms used by social networks, like Facebook and Twitter, mean that users see increasingly emotional, angry and polarizing texts and images. These algorithms don't favor rational conversation and balanced arguments, she said: "What spreads most quickly is exactly the opposite, which is divisive content in the long term," which can seriously damage democratic debate.

Applebaum believes algorithms needed to be regulated: "We need ombudsmen for algorithms. We need some insight into them if we are to maintain our democratic political system."

She also argued that every social media user needs to be more aware of his or her individual responsibility. "Everyone on Twitter is a journalist, and everyone on Twitter is an editor. You are making decisions about what to pass on, what to write, what to publish, what to publicize, what to amplify," she said.

"You therefore have an obligation as a citizen to understand which kinds of news are better and which are worse and what's a joke and what isn't, and people need to be educated to think along these lines."

Read more: GMF digital session: Media and Information Literacy in the age of coronavirus

Media: A forum for opinions

Every democracy needs a type of public forum with universally accepted rules where discussion and debate can take place, Applebaum said, adding that this task has fallen historically to the media – especially publicly financed media.

But in countries where public media plays a significantly smaller role, like the US, reliance on private media outlets is greater, and they have changed significantly with the rise of social media and a new advertising model, she said.

Whereas the goal used to be to reach the largest possible grouping of people, and therefore the greatest number of potential customers, target groups are much narrower today, Applebaum said. "They need to become the paper of the right of the paper of the left or the paper of the wealthy … and this means that the public sphere has become much more divided," she explained.

"In the US, [the] US is probably the worst in this regard. You know, we have a very polarized political system. We have very polarized media," she continued, adding that this makes democracy difficult since it depends on political forces respecting viewpoints that differ from their own.

Lack of diversity - the media's next challenge?

Fellow panel participant Ellen Ehni, editor-in-chief of German public TV broadcaster WDR, underlined the important role public media plays in maintaining open debate.

She has had to confront constant claims from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, currently in the opposition, that the government is steering WDR's programming. These are false claims, Ehni said. "Our independence is very important to us … We are there for everybody. And that's our job."

She considers the lack of diversity among journalists to be the greater problem. "We ourselves as journalists are mostly well-educated, we're mostly white, and we are perhaps in danger of losing contact to the rest of the population," she said.

However, Ehni believes that a relatively large amount of Germans continues to trust the country's media. Roughly two-thirds trust media generally, while more than 80% trust public TV, she said. But, she added, she has observed a growing tendency for people to perceive the media as being biased.

Ehni additionally believes it is important to listen not just to the "loud" voices but also to the "quiet" ones – Germany's moderate majority.

Read more: The DW Global Media Forum 2020: upcoming digital sessions

This article was adapted from German.

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