Changes at Der Spiegel, soul-searching in German media

(Kay Nietfeld/dpa via AP)

A little more than three months ago, Der Spiegel, Germany’s leading news magazine, was rocked by news that Claas Relotius, one of its star reporters, had fabricated much of his award-winning reporting for the magazine. Relotius, 33, had invented sources and stories from whole cloth, claiming to have met and interviewed people who either didn’t exist or who never spoke with him. A lot has happened since then: Relotius has been charged with embezzlement, for accepting donations on behalf of fabricated sources; Juan Moreno, the journalist who blew the whistle on Relotius’s dishonesty, plans to publish a book this fall on the events; and a film version of Moreno’s book is in the works.

A commission was formed to investigate what had allowed the fraud to take place, and it’s still underway. In the meantime, last month, Der Spiegel made its first announcement of personnel changes. Two leaders on the masthead—Ullrich Fichtner, who had been slated to become editor-in-chief, and Matthias Geyer, the head of the magazine’s “Society” section, who was due to become the magazine’s Blattmacher (a sort of managing editor)—were uncrowned. Both had worked closely with Relotius—Fichtner is credited with discovering him and treating him as a protégé; Geyer ran the vertical Relotius wrote for most often. Now, Spiegel announced, Fichtner will serve as a reporter with “special tasks,” working directly with the editors in chief—there are three—to “conceptualize and compose cover stories” and other projects. Geyer will continue to work as an editor, also on “special tasks,” also with the editors in chief. He will not return to his previous position as lead editor of “Society”—“at his own request,” according to a press release. Clemens Höges, a member of the investigating commission, was elevated as an editor in chief.

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The language that Der Spiegel—in particular, Steffen Klusmann, another editor in chief—used to communicate the changes is vague, and raises as many questions as it answers. The press release states that Fichtner and Geyer won’t be ascending to their previously promised roles “in agreement with the editors in chief”—emphasizing that these were voluntary reassignments, not punishments for misconduct. Klusmann writes that “The Commission’s investigation, which deals with processing the Relotius affair, has concluded that neither Ullrich Fichtner nor Matthias Geyer bears any personal responsibility for the cases of fraud. Nevertheless, they shoulder the responsibility of meeting the high standards we apply to others, and to dispel any doubts about the integrity of Der Spiegel. For that, they deserve our respect.” Klusmann goes on to emphasize that both men are “outstanding journalists, and for that reason I’m happy they will continue to collaborate on our editorial team.” (An employee of the magazine’s storied research department, responsible for fact-checking—in particular on the “Society” vertical where Relotius published—retired in January.)

Alex Clarkson, a lecturer in German and European studies at King’s College London who studies the German media, observes, “I think they’re trying to avoid firings because various contractual payouts would prove expensive.” Others see it differently: Stefan Niggemeier, a reporter for Übermedien, a German media-oversight publication, views these staffing changes as anything but demotions. “That wasn’t their way of not firing them,” he says. “The whole communication was, ‘These are decent people. We can’t promote them but we find no fault in their actual conduct. So we’ll give them these nice positions and they’ll still hold important positions at the paper.’”

 

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In the months since the scandal was revealed, Der Spiegel has been combing through some sixty pieces that Relotius wrote, completely re-reporting some and spot-checking others. In January, Der Spiegel asked Relotius, via his lawyer, to respond to a list of questions; his lawyer responded that Relotius was “unfortunately not in a condition” to respond. Two further queries, sent at the beginning and end of February, were likewise left unanswered. At this point, Der Spiegel has vetted 49 articles, resulting in a detailed compendium of when facts were wholly fabricated, exaggerated, or can’t be confirmed.

More comprehensive results of the magazine’s internal investigation—long promised to be made public—are expected in June. Until then, a cloud of uncertainty persists. Recently, at the Reporter Forum—a yearly conference held at Spiegel’s offices, in Hamburg—Höges said that the commission was in no rush to complete its work, nor would he say when or whether the final report would be shared in full. (There is some expectation that sections will be redacted to protect certain individuals’ privacy.)

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The Forum was largely dominated by questions raised by the Relotius fallout. “Over everything lay a feeling of insecurity and confusion,” Niggemeier tells me. Much of the conference focused on Der Spiegel: How could editors have published so much of Relotius’s work with so little corroborating evidence? How did the magazine’s storied fact-checking department miss so much? What does Relotius’s embellished work say about expectations of what superlative journalism should be? Afterward, Niggemeier wrote of the Forum, “Above all were two accusations that resurfaced again and again: That the goal of describing reality as exactly as possible is often subordinated to the goal of writing as beautifully as possible; and that a reporter approaches their work with an already preconceived image” of what they will encounter. Höges offered a solution: “The motto has to be: there is no beauty without truth.”

 

Underlying the discussion at the Forum was a dilemma that remains unresolved: whether Relotius should be understood as one bad actor who abused a viable system, or whether there is something wrong with the system—be it in terms of fact-checking practices, placing too much implicit trust in colleagues, or a penchant for a certain kind of storytelling.

Many in German media have taken up the task of productive soul-searching. Boris Rosenkranz, for one, wrote in Übermedien about the story—or perhaps myth—of a group of boys who ostensibly started the Syrian war. As reported by Time, which first published a piece on the subject in March 2011, the boys spray-painted a slogan calling for the fall of the regime on a wall in Daraa; they were then thrown in prison, sparking protests that quickly turned violent. Rosenkranz traces how, over the coming months and years, the Western media replayed that story and narrowed it down to particular individuals, until Relotius claimed to have found the single person who started it all. In each successive article, the particulars changed: what the spray-painted slogan said, when it appeared, whether it was a group of children or teens or an individual. Sometimes the boy was named, and the name wasn’t always the same. One German publication, Die Welt, said that he was Bashir Abazed, while others named him Abdulrahman al-Krad, Naif Abazid, or Mouawiya Syasneh—the same name that Relotius used in his falsified piece on the subject.

Rosenkranz’s litany shows that, somehow, each reputable publication included different, sometimes contradictory details—a demonstration that each publication has its own, perhaps flawed, standards and methods for fact-checking and reporting. Evidently, outlets didn’t defer to one another to assemble a larger picture, or to establish facts; nonetheless, each subsequent report deepened public belief in the overall truth of the narrative. Where else, Rosenkranz wonders, are journalists following the trails of other journalists, and creating myths where there might otherwise be fact-based stories?

If any consensus has been reached so far, it’s that many things needed to change. There needs to be less reporting written in an omniscient tone; uncertainties should be wrestled with. More sources need to be identified and hyperlinked. And more forms of reporting should be permitted and encouraged—not just the prized ideal of narrative journalism, with its emphasis on story arc and character, at which Relotius seemed to excel.

At Der Spiegel, the news cycle grinds on. Despite its fall from grace, the magazine was still nominated for several of this year’s prestigious Nannen Prizes, and Klusmann, one of the magazine’s editors in chief, retains a position on the jury. Relotius was nominated for one of these, in 2018. One of the judges later said that he didn’t win because there were doubts about his piece—it seemed “too perfect.”

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Anna Altman is a writer and editor in Washington, DC.