M100 Young European Journalists Workshop 2021
“Reporting in Crises and the Crisis in Reporting”
10 September – 2 October 2021 (3 weekend modules, online)
Crises are a stress test for journalism. On the one hand, the uncertainty caused by crises increases the need for orientation and information. Thus, the COVID-19 pandemic was accompanied – not only in Germany – by a rapid increase in media consumption, both in terms of access and subscriber numbers to digital offerings and in the ratings of news and special programmes on TV and radio. At the same time, however, the crises of recent years have highlighted the weaknesses of the media system and the resulting problems in reporting. As a result, although trust in the media is increasing in countries like Germany, at the same time a growing number of people are dissatisfied with the reporting. In addition, media hostility and violent attacks on media representatives are on the rise, and there is a growing tendency for governments of all stripes to exploit crises to curtail press freedom and freedom of expression.
The aim of this year’s M100 Young European Journalists Workshop (M100YEJ) was to shed light on the craft and challenges of the work of journalism work in times of crisis. Alternating between practical inputs and theoretical reflection, the participants discussed the causes of current crisis phenomena as well as possible approaches and strategies for a resilient journalism in the service of democracy that is successful both economically and in terms of content.
The seminar, conducted in cooperation between the M100 Sanssouci Colloquium and the IfM and funded by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation and the National Endowment for Democracy, took place online in three modules between 10 September and 2 October:
MODULE I: Starting the Journey: Outlining Common Challenges and Common Goals
Friday, 10 Sept. 2021 (2 to 5 pm CET) – Saturday, 11 Sept. 2021 (10 am to 3 pm CET)
The first module was all about getting to know each other and consolidating knowledge among the 15 participants who joined from 10 countries. After the opening of the seminar by workshop leader Edith Michaeler (fjum_forum for journalism and media, Vienna), Sabine Sasse and Leonard Novy, Martin Kothé, the regional office director of east and southeast Europe from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, welcomed the participants with a motivating opening speech in which he emphasised the importance of functioning, crisis-proof journalism and well-trained journalists.
Wolfgang Blau, former editor-in-chief of ZEIT Online and now a fellow at the Reuters Institute at Oxford University, then gave a keynote opening speech. Blue’s focus was on the challenges that climate change poses for journalism, whereby it is in the nature of the climate crisis that these cannot be considered in isolation. Just as all areas of our lives, our society and our economy are affected, it is important to integrate this holistic perspective into editorial work instead of only in sections such as politics, science or business. Anything else would be a “disservice to our readers and listeners and, as the public is now becoming increasingly aware, would ultimately damage the legitimacy of journalism itself”, Blau said. The climate crisis is a systemic or “transversal issue that in any case affects, challenges and significantly changes every single vertical or sectoral branch of journalism”. Therefore, every journalist in every country should be enabled to “competently consider climate aspects in every story he or she works on”.
Blau also highlighted the characteristics of journalistic crisis reporting that proved particularly problematic in the case of climate change, such as the “emphasis on events over processes: Of course, climate change is a process, but news organisations need an event, they need a hook”. Much of climate journalism, for example, “reads like reporting on cricket in a football country – in terms of how much prior knowledge is assumed and how much jargon is used. And that’s a problem and one more reason why climate journalism shouldn’t just appear in the science section”.
Following the discussion, participants shared their assessment of the achievements and shortcomings of reporting in their respective countries. There were clear differences – for example between Russia and the Western European countries – when it came to the role of the media during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also similarities. All participants were united by the conviction that it is particularly important in times of crisis that people are informed factually and comprehensively by the media. Everyone saw the dangers posed by disinformation on the major platforms in particular, but also by “horse race” journalism.
In the first module, the participants worked out the basics for cooperation among themselves and for their own publications, which were to form the conclusion of the workshop.
They collected initial ideas and jointly formulated those topics that seemed relevant to them in the context of the topic “Reporting in Crises and the Crisis in the Reporting”. In guided discussions, they formulated and elaborated aspects of the topic and developed initial theses in group work to break down the general topic and develop and present their own solutions.
Didactically, it was important to stimulate the exchange among the participants. A space was created that made it possible to integrate the different previous experiences and perspectives of the participants. An open discussion was encouraged, which turned out to be very fruitful and lively due to the different biographies and places of residence of the colleagues.
Working groups were formed which, based on the previous experiences and the inputs from the workshop guests, were to examine the following topics in more detail by the end of the workshop: “Mental Heath of Journalists: A key factor for resilient media” / “Independent Media: How to guarantee a free press” / “Fake News”: How to cope that threat to journalism“.
MODULE II: How Do We Get There? An Agenda for Resilience in Journalism
Friday, 17 Sept. 2021 (10 am to 3 pm CET) – Saturday, 18 Sept. (10 am to 3 pm MEZ)
Strategies and instruments of a future-oriented, credible and resilient journalism were the focus of the second seminar module. Under the title “A New Mindset – The Media House of the Future”, M100 advisory board member Mathias Müller von Blumencron (formerly SPIEGEL and Tagesspiegel) reported on the current challenges of large media houses, but also on the role conflict in which many journalists find themselves today: “Another important lesson we need to reflect on when thinking about ourselves is how to draw the line between activism for a good cause and trying to remain unbiased in reporting”.
Roland Schatz from the research company Media Tenor emphasised the central journalistic principle of “honest news selection and honest representation of what we find as journalists” and reminded us for whom journalists work: All those “who trust us to be their eyes, ears and hearts when they don’t have enough time”. A central cause of the “fundamental crisis in journalism”, he said, is that many media outlets have “given up” on their audiences. “We no longer listen so much to those who depend – to some extent even with their lives when it comes to reporting – on journalists.”
In his session, journalism expert Alexander Sängerlaub also emphasised the central role of a free press for democracy, but pointed out that the way the press performs this role needs to change. “Constructive journalism” would offer a solution to this, as it would give more power to readers, listeners and viewers than other forms of journalism. Constructive journalism has nothing to do with positive journalism, he said. “It’s not about being positive about the world and denying that there are bad things, but rather about showing the whole perspective.” Being constructive means showing that there are also solutions. Modern journalism has a variety of new forms of production and presentation at its disposal that should be used in this sense, such as digital knowledge architectures: “This means that we can travel through time with the help of data because we can see how things are developing or changing or whether things are getting better or whether it works as a society to solve certain problems”.
Following on from this, entrepreneur Sham Jaff (“What happened last week”) shared her experiences and her view of “entrepreneurial journalism”. For her, it is essential to look at news from two different perspectives: from the journalist’s point of view and from the news consumer’s point of view. Journalists find it difficult to understand news as what it (also) is: a product. But good journalism needs people “who think about how to produce appealing and financially sustainable media products” and distribute them. Jaff itself has been highly successful in developing a newsletter that provides in-depth information on topics related to international politics and carried out strategic brand development and target group analysis for it. She shared her knowledge and tools with the participants of the seminar and motivated them to work on their own if in doubt.
At the end of the second module, the group discussed initial findings from the seminar. Here the conclusion was drawn that the independence and “capacity” of journalism is exposed to a variety of threats. The main focus is on structural issues (funding and business models, government interference in press freedom). The individual situation of journalists is rarely considered, and when it is, it is usually about the (precarious) economic situation of (freelance) journalists, not about the psychological challenges that their work (and new challenges such as fake news) entails. The group decided to take up this dimension for further work.
The guests’ inputs and the topics described above also served to broaden the participants’ own perspectives and assumptions and to incorporate the individual theses formulated in each of the working groups on “Mental Health of Journalists”, “Independent Media” and “Fake News”. The participants then presented the theses discussed in small groups in the plenary session to colleagues from the other groups who had been encouraged to give further input on the content.
Based on this, possibilities were worked out on how the contributions should finally be presented, published and presented. Concepts on storytelling and form design were presented and agreed with the colleagues on the respective contribution ideas. The group decided to form text contributions (interviews, explanations, reports – as text – on the platform www.medium.com and to create a video which is published on M100’s YouTube channel (“Trying to understand what independent media is”).
Based on the two modules, the participants worked out structures for their contributions and researched the intended topics. They also met outside the workshop framework on various networks (Zoom, WhatsApp) to coordinate results and further procedures. M100 served as an enabler and provided the necessary infrastructure. This set an important anchor for further cooperation in the network.
MODULE III: And Now? Transferring our Knowledge & “Masterpiece”
Friday, 1 Oct. 2021 (10 am to 3 pm CET) – Saturday, 2 Oct. (10 am to 3 pm CET)
In the third and final part of the seminar, the participants looked at their self-chosen and, in the opinion of the group, often neglected focus in discussions about crisis journalism: Crises are therefore not just concepts or material for academic discussions, but moments that people experience first-hand. Journalists experience them directly; the challenges that individual journalists face in his or her work often go unnoticed. These are real dangers, but also and above all the consequences of populism, fake news and disinformation, from which violence against journalists often arises. In the Netherlands, for example, 80% of journalists said they had experienced aggression on the job in 2021. The group decided to make this topic the subject of a blog. To this end, central issues were discussed in this part of the seminar with Brigitte Alfter, Director of Arena for Journalism in Europe and lecturer at the University of Gothenburg. Alfter, who combines journalistic practice, entrepreneurial activities, teaching/training and academic research in her work, encouraged the participants in their focus and referred once again to the existential challenges facing journalism and, consequently, democracy.
In the third module, the participants also worked on the contributions that would eventually be presented as their “final papers” on medium. The contributions relate to two topics: “Mental health of journalists” and “Is independent media under threat”. The contributions include interviews, commentaries, analyses and background information on the chosen topics.
In a concluding discussion, the results of the work were presented and commented on by both sides. In particular, the process of working together in the workshop and in the working groups was positively emphasised. “Resilience in journalism” was thus not only perceived as a theoretical concept, but also experienced practically through the work as a team.
Conclusion: The climate crisis, the coronavirus pandemic, the problem of fake news, freedom of the press and many other issues that affect journalists in their daily work were discussed. At the end, the participants elaborated on a central theme that is hardly ever spoken or written about in this context: the importance of mental health for journalists. This is a widely underestimated and rarely noticed problem that also has great significance for the quality of journalism. Journalists working on crises or in crises are often exposed to high stress factors. They experience stressful things and work under stressful conditions that affect their health. On top of this comes the problem of low and irregular incomes and the associated existential fear. All these factors that impact and affect the mental health of journalists can no longer be ignored – be it in Ukraine, Macedonia, Italy, France, the UK or Germany. Only healthy, resilient journalists can produce quality work and support democracy in the long run.
The expert, interesting speakers and the variety of aspects discussed in the seminar were rated positively. This led to a deeper engagement with the topic among the participants and broadened their knowledge about journalism. It was also emphasised that the workshop underlined the importance of international networking and communication, that there are many commonalities between different cultures and that we are stronger together.