The Search

Mission 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 foundation upon which our society is built. Nothing would work without trust. We must trust police officers, paramedics, firefighters to protect us. We must trust our fellow citizens to treat us in a peaceful manner. We must trust judges to pronounce fair judgments. We must trust politicians that they will govern in our names according to the best of their knowledge and in good conscience. We must trust journalists that they will inform us honestly.

These responsibilities are founded on central values: police officers, paramedics and firefighters offer protection. Politicians and judges serve to maintain order. Journalists seek the truth.

Truth is a complex thing. It is difficult to get a firm grasp of. Even when we think we know it, it might turn out tomorrow that we were mistaken. That is why nobody should maintain that they have a leasehold on the truth. Even the smallest occurrences can affect our interpretation, despite us having observed them keenly. A movement of the hand can at the same time be a shove or a friendly clap on the back. There is no truth.

And yet, how can journalists, despite this, be bound to the truth? In likelihood, they can never reveal the entire truth. However, what reporters can do is search for the truth. They can complete photos by adding facts. They make visible what others would prefer to leave in the dark. Journalists look inquisitively at the powerful and, with their reporting, force the powerful to explain their actions. But the press can only fulfill this remit if people place their trust in it.

Trust rests on us talking to one another, and modern means of communication are making that easier than ever before. Social platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram make it possible for both organizations and individuals to reach thousands, if not millions, all over the world at a click. Never before was it possible to send messages so fast and so far. The dream of conversing worldwide is within reach.

This requires that we listen to one another, of course. At the present time, however, many people appear to be talking over each other’s heads on the Internet, resulting in the so-called filter bubble. Many people only read comments by people who confirm their own opinions. Opposing opinions are perceived as dissonance and faded out.

This affects journalists mainly when they publish unpopular truths. A lot of people prefer to avoid being  confronted with uncomfortable facts. The Internet makes it possible to read other reports that don’t take the truth all that seriously. When this happens, even the best arguments and facts come to nothing.

A lot of trust has become lost in our society today. When officials are on duty, their actions are filmed with a skeptical eye and they sometimes even have to fear being attacked. Citizens feel less safe and less secure. Politicians are insulted, threatened and sometimes even attacked. This is a situation also faced by journalists, and they also feel that their integrity is being questioned even more. The US President Trump refers to them derogatorily as “enemies of the state”. Many people doubt whether journalists are keeping them fully informed.

In reality, there are of course bad journalists, just as there are bad lawyers, police officers and doctors. However, there is a difference. Unlike other professions, the journalist’s profession is not a protected one. In Germany, anyone can be a journalist. Article 5 of the Basic Law guarantees freedom of the press, and this means that anyone can freely express their opinions in word, text or image. It is good that that is so. But there are journalistic standards. Journalists must critically check official truths. They must uncover abuses. They must allow all of those involved to have their say. Bad journalists break these basic rules. They do not deserve trust.

For good journalists, this is where the chance lies to win back trust in their work. They must show that their work is a skill that has to be learned. It is a qualified occupation. And anyone who has a command of the necessary skills here is a good journalist. It requires transparency: journalists must make the foundations of their work visible.

The digital age offers unique opportunities for this. Journalists can make visible their research methods on their online platforms. They can explain the topics they have chosen to write about. They can present their attitudes and standpoints and, by doing so, protect themselves against the notion that their articles are underhanded attempts to force political opinions on their readers.

We must not forget, however, that journalists are only human and human beings sometimes make mistakes. When they make a mistake, reporters must explain how this came about. In this way they can plausibly show that they intend to do their work better in future.

Journalists can more easily take on responsibility for their work when it is published online. They have always stood for their work with their names in their reports, articles and comments. Now they can also show their faces. By doing so, the lay the foundations for something that has always been the basis of an open society: telling other people our opinions face to face. Using comment functions and personal blogs, journalists can enter into direct contact with their readers. And they can listen.

In the Internet era, the individual journalist is a coracle on the ocean. Large corporations and public authorities with big legal departments can therefore easily intimidate them by threatening to take legal action, thus silencing them. Journalists need support to defend themselves in such situations. In times past, newspapers and media brands mainly enabled the dissemination of journalists’ work economically and logistically. However, it is now becoming increasingly important for them to cover the backs of their journalists so that they can be bolder, less compromising and less comfortable for others in their work. It is even more important that they make sure they have diversity of opinion within their publishing houses. That also generates trust.

No matter how open, however, there is still one secret that journalists must protect: their sources of information. This must be protected at all costs. And this means differentiating more clearly in the language we use between providers of information and other sources. Journalists must reveal their sources, but not the names of individuals who provide information.

Only if this is guaranteed can trust find its way back to the light. What whistleblower can trust a public authority or a company to listen to him and his doubts? Those in positions of responsibility very often are not interested in remedying abuses. Because often enough they are also to blame for such situations. After checking information, journalists must report what they know, because they have an obligation to the truth.

Everyone will profit from this new network of trust. Thanks to quality journalism, whistleblowers can trust that they do not have to pay a very hard price for revealing information about abuses. Journalists can trust that they will be protected in their work and not prevented from doing it. Citizens can trust that good journalists can make their contribution towards the search for truth by researching facts, establishing links, revealing backgrounds and describing circumstances.

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.