The SearchMission is a big word. Journalists should never be missionaries. Their only mission is the search for truth. That’s what it’s all about.
Trust is the bedrock of our society. Nothing works without trust. We must trust the police officers, paramedics and firefighters to protect us. We have to trust judges to make fair judgments. We must trust politicians to govern to the best of their knowledge. And journalists, that they truthfully inform us.
But the truth is hard to grasp. Even if we think we know it, it may turn out to be an error tomorrow. No one should claim to possess it. However, to declare the truth to be impossible, as representatives of US President Donald Trump do, would be the wrong conclusion. His consultant Kellyanne Conway claimed there were “alternative facts”, his lawyer Rudy Giuliani even said: “There is no truth”. This understanding of truth is dangerous.
Trust in journalism was severely shaken in December 2018. The news magazine “Der Spiegel” announced that its reporter Claas Relotius added false facts to many of his articles or even completely invented his stories. The damage done is enormous.
All the more reason for what we – 18 young journalists from the Axel Springer Akademie in Berlin – want to address with this project (which we started before the Relotius case): The truth must guide our work. Journalists should not believe that they will actually find the one truth. But reporters can look for the truth. They complete pictures with facts. Make visible what others would rather have left in the dark. Journalists look at the powerful and force them to explain themselves. Completely objective reporting will never be possible. Trump twists this thought, however, when he insults journalists as “enemies of the people” because they interpret facts differently than he does.
In fact, there are bad journalists, just as there are sometimes bad lawyers, policemen and doctors. The “Relotius case” has painfully reminded us of this.
For good journalists, however, this is precisely the opportunity to regain confidence in their work. Through transparency. Journalists must make the pillars of their work visible. The digital age offers unique opportunities for this. Journalists can publish their research paths on their online profiles. Explain their choice of topics. Explain their attitudes and standpoints and thus invalidate the impression that they merely convey political convictions. And if they make a mistake, they have to explain how it happened. In so doing, they can make it credible that they will do their job even better in the future.
Journalists have always stood by their names for their reports, stories and comments. Now, in the digital age, they can literally show their faces and thus fulfill what has always been the basis of an open society: we speak our minds to our faces. Reporters can get in direct contact with their readers via comment features and personal blogs. And listen.
In the Internet age, the individual journalist is a nutshell in the ocean. It is easy for large corporations and authorities with large legal departments to intimidate and silence them with legal proceedings. To mess with them, journalists need support. In the past, newspapers and media brands enabled journalists to disseminate their work mainly economically and logistically. But it is also becoming increasingly important for them to support their reporters so that they can be more courageous, uncompromising and uncomfortable. This makes it all the more important for them to pay attention to the diversity of opinion within their company. That, too, creates trust.
Despite all the openness, there is actually one secret that a journalist must guard: his informants. They must be protected at all costs. In the future, we should distinguish even more clearly between informants and other sources. Journalists must disclose their sources, but not their informants.
Only then will the truth find its way to the light. Which whistleblower can trust to be heard in an authority or a company with its doubts? Often enough, those responsible have no interest in eliminating irregularities – because often enough they themselves are to blame.
Everyone benefits from this new network of trust: informants can rely on not having to pay with their existence for the disclosure of violations. Journalists can rely on being protected and not hindered in their work. Citizens can rely on good journalists to help them find the truth. By researching facts, making connections and providing background information.
Mission is a big word. No journalist should be a missionary. In the narrower sense of the word, however, it means assignment. Seeking the truth is a journalist’s assignment, that’s what it’s all about. No more, no less.