The Spiegel Scandal and the Seduction of Storytelling
“Everyone who writes knows the seduction of the narrative.”
— Bernhard Pörksen in Die Zeit
The German journalism world is grappling with the implications of a shocking scandal at Der Spiegel: An award-winning, 33-year-old reporter — no, a fabulist and a fraud — named Claas Relotius made up article after article with stunning and audacious contempt for truth, as this fact-checking of his account of the rural American psyche makes clear.
German journalists are questioning Der Spiegel’s process and Relotius’ own psyche (he told his editors that he was motivated by a fear of failure) — as occurred in comparable American scandals of Jayson Blair at The New York Times and Janet Cooke at The Washington Post. But the Germans are digging deeper into the essence of journalism, questioning the perils of the seduction of the narrative form; the misplaced rewards inherent in professional awards; the risk to credibility for the institution in the time of “f*ke news;” the need for investigative self-examination in media; and more.
As best as ubiquitous paywalls and my very, very bad (sehr, sehr schlecht) German will allow [and I do hope my German friends will correct me where I’m wrong], I want to look at what the German journalists are talking about to see what lessons there are for journalists everywhere.
The perils of the story and storyteller
“A beautiful lie.” That is the headline on the essay in Zeit Online quoted above, in which Pörksen, a professor of media studies, discusses the form of the story: “What shows up here is called the narrative distortion, story bias. You have the story in your head, you know what sound readers or colleagues want to hear. And you deliver what works.” And it worked. Relotius was so well-known for his style that his magazine had a label for it: “the Relotius sound.”
In journalism, the story too often becomes a self-fulfilling creation. Early in my career at the Chicago Tribune, I watched a managing editor write a headline — complete with victim and drama — and then direct his investigative task force to go get that story. I worry when I sit in journalism classes and hear talk of getting quotes to fill in “my story,” with the emphasis on the reporter’s control of the narrative. I dislike that our process too often starts — in newsroom and classroom — with pitching a story people will want to read.