How a faux pas got Germany talking about #MyBiggestFail

Former journalist Roland Grün started the #MeinGrössteFail hashtag. Courtesy photo.

Stefanie Jacob made an error when she wrote a leader about the Intel chip security problems.

The columnist whose piece appeared in the Dorstener Zeitung, a local German newspaper not far from the Dutch border, confused chip design as making a computer chip look nice rather than building an integrated circuit to make a computer run.

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“The design of the chips had to be updated (to fix the security mistakes). Unthinkable for designers. Looking good apparently is more important than security,” she wrote.

The newspaper column was photographed and uploaded to Twitter—with the offending sentence circled in red—on January 5 for all to see.

At first the reactions were amusing, but then they got nasty. Because a photo of Jacob accompanied her column, posters made sexist remarks. One commented on “dumb blondes,” another talked about “typical woman.”

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“Stefanie Jacob is doing everything she can so people will again take journalism seriously, and also accept women as tech-journalists,” stated one tweet, ironically.

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So late that night former journalist Roland Grün decided to do something about it: Get journalists and others in the communications industry to post their most embarrassing professional moments that only now can they laugh about.

Grün was hoping to make two points: keep social media tweeters talking nicely and point out that everyone—even journalists—makes mistakes. “It was a call for transparency,” he said.

It took about ten minutes to come up with the right hashtag: #MeinGroessterFail, or #MyBiggestFail.

In Germany, Grün said, “there’s a big debate right now about the tone on social media, that people can’t exchange polite comments anymore.” So what if his hashtag could make people laugh instead?

Grün’s own biggest blunder was to post an article about a new regional soccer player, Lars Bender, with a photo of a national league player of the same name. It was a mistake that outed him as someone who knew nothing about football and made him famous (or infamous) in the local sports scene.

Grün posted his tweet and went to bed. The next morning, January 6, he realized his hashtag had gone viral in the German-speaking world. In the last week hundreds of journalists —and non-journalists—have revealed their goofiest gaffes in a sort of cleansing of the collective consciousness.

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Annett Meiritz, a reporter for the online news portal for the German magazine Der Spiegel, confessed her biggest misstep was reporting that “US Military Apparently Buried Obama At Sea.” Oops. She meant Osama bin Laden.

Even non-journalists have gotten into the act. A well-known frozen pizza maker wrote about its too short-hand heating instructions. Another Tweeter sent in a photo.  

Grün’s trick had worked. He had diverted discourse away from personal attacks and gotten social media to think about something bigger: mistakes, journalistic integrity, and transparency. And he did it by making people laugh.

Not everyone’s fail was funny. Froben Homburger, editor in chief of the German news agency DPA, wrote that in the 1990s, as a young AP staffer, he wanted to internally save notes and off-the-record quotes from an interview he’d had with Health Minister Horst Seehofer. Instead he pressed the send button.

As the hashtag began to trend in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, so, too, did articles and commentaries about journalistic ethics, especially the imperative to know what you’re writing about. Carelessness, the stories argued, is what is leading journalism to its crisis in integrity and trust.

“When we are really honest with ourselves, our shitty mistakes really do look different and they have larger consequences, right?” wrote columnist Nora Frerichmann.

Grün believes one of the biggest problems for journalists these days is digital reporting, with fewer reporters expected to write more stories on increasingly faster deadlines. “An editor yells out, ‘We need a commentary on chip design. Can’t you write something quick?’” That, he says, is what leads to embarrassing inaccuracies.  

Speed is often the problem. “At the opening of the Christmas Market with all the big name prominent locals. Unfortunately forgot to change my working title, “drunk.” About half the readers found it positive because someone finally gave the event its rightful title,” Austrian Veronika Wenzel, editor of a news site in Bad Tölz, tweeted.

Journalists need to be diligent, research before they write, and take a breath before pressing send. They also need to admit it when they make mistakes. The Dorstener Zeitung, for one, immediately retracted Jacobs’s column and apologized.

Contacted by CJR, Jacob said she didn’t know Grün. Neither did she want to comment on her now infamous mistake. Stefan Diebäcker, editor of the Dorstener paper said Jacob worked for a paper that shares content with his. He did not wish to comment on the affair either.

But fessing up to a slip-up actually makes publications and news organizations more believable and, ultimately, more trustworthy, Grün says. Now, if only politicians would do the same.

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Alison Langley 's stories have appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, The Financial Times, and Deutsche Welle. She currently lives in Zurich.