The Dilemma of an Opinionated Journalist

Previously published here.

„Don’t be a sissy, you’re not made out of sugar!“ Sara had been hearing that sentence all day long. It is the favourite saying of any German, whenever it starts to rain. This kind of weather is rather typical for a small town in Northern Germany. Especially, in the month of April and especially, when the whole town gets together in protest. Sara equipped herself with a rather colourful umbrella from the hotel lobby and stepped onto the wet pavement. She is a journalist for a rather conservative newspaper in Germany, with hopes and dreams of making a difference in the world. Or at least in German politics. Privately however, she would describe herself as left-leaning with some economic liberal tendencies. A clear clash between her workplace and her own convictions. As a journalist she knew that she had to be objective in her reporting, look at all sides of a problem, analyse and inform. That is why she did not think that it would be a problem for her to take a job in a conservative news outlet. She did not want to make her own opinions heard; she just needed to cover politics as neutrally as possible. Now, Sara had been assigned to cover the campaign trail of the right-wing populist party AfD, following around one of their leaders Frauke Petry. On that very rainy day, Sara had been expecting a small town-hall meeting type of thing, where voters could assemble to ask questions and voice concerns. Instead it turned into a rally with hundreds of protesters out on the streets. Wandering around between these protesters, she suddenly realised that she wanted to make her – rather unfavourable – opinion of the AfD heard. “Is that possible in the conservative newspaper I work for?”, she asked herself.

Certain AfD members are right-wing extremists, according to their statements. However, the party is part of the democratic spectrum and reaches many voters. For our journalistic work this means that the AfD has to be treated like any other party. – Thomas Hahn,


Democratic AfD?

Firstly, however, it needs to be established that the emergence of the AfD has faced most quality media in Germany with the same dilemma. How to portray a party that is so obviously populistic? Even worse, so outspokenly right-wing, bordering on extremism? The Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany), short AfD, was founded in early 2013. A year later they were able to gain entry into no less than 13 regional parliaments. Although the AfD is a right-wing populist party, they were recognized with having a strong economic liberalism.

The European Union has seen an increase of right-wing populist parties over the last years. Several devastating terrorist attacks, the economic crisis that endangered the whole Eurozone, as well as the refugee crisis, have shaken the continent to its core. Research suggests that more and more Europeans are voting for populists due to their fear of huge masses of immigrants yet to come to their borders. While left-wing populist parties use the emotion of hope for a better future to achieve justice and equality, right-wing populists fear foreigners and root this emotion in hatred and indifference. The AfD has developed an effective way of communicating this fear in a way that cannot be ignored, by strategically using negativity, breaking taboos, and disrespecting rules like political correctness. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s approach of a “culture of welcoming” and repeating her mantra “We can do this!” has left space for the AfD to fill. The party rose and scooped up all those scared voters who do not know who is entering their country.

This changed in the summer of 2015, when after months of severe power struggles over the leadership of the party, Frauke Petry and Jörg Meuthen became the heads of the AfD. Since then, the party has become highly nationalistic with drastic right-wing reasoning and at times a perceptible anti-Semitism. They are classified as Euro-sceptics and anti-feminists and most of the German quality media condemns them as populists. They are treated as an unwanted occurrence.

With this background, it makes sense that Sara was contemplating her new resolve to write more actively against the AfD. While she went through this inner struggle, she suddenly felt the mood of the crowd change. The chants became more obscene and there was a fury in the air that was palpable. It seemed as if the storm clouds had gathered, ready to explode. And explode they did. As soon as some of the AfD members, attending the meeting, exited the building, the crowd surged forward and Sara could see from behind that a full on brawl had evolved in the front. Two or three members got seriously injured before the police had a chance to break up the fight. And here was the struggle laid bare before her eyes. The AfD is an acknowledged party with the right to conduct meetings and go on the campaign trail. The crowd has the democratic right to protest, yet not to get violent while doing it. Suddenly, Sara was faced with a conflict of interest. That one act of undemocratic behaviour by the represented electorate in this small town in the middle of nowhere, made their claims against the AfD invalid. Sara’s personal conviction was the same as that of the protesters, yet she could never condone their violent behaviour. It felt like she was finally ready to write a piece that reflected “her” newspaper’s opinion as much as her own.

Where political leaning plays a role it is necessary to deal with it transparently. To be fair though, both sides of a point should be represented. – Kai Biermann, Zeit Online


Political Leaning vs. Role Perception

Talking to her editor Tom, when she got back to the office, she soon realised that he wanted her to make a big story out of that incident in the small town in the North. But Sara told him that she would rather write an opinion piece, to which he promptly agreed. So Sara wrote about the event that she had attended and how peaceful protest turned into a violent quarrel, condemning the undemocratic actions taken by the crowd. Her editor liked the piece and put it on the front page of the opinion section. For the first time in her budding career, Sara felt like she had made an impact at the right news outlet at the right time. However, her opinion of the AfD was still a bad one and she was not ready to give up the fight against them. A few weeks later, she encountered another one of those AfD rallies in a big city in Eastern Germany. It is well documented that voters in that part of the country are more prone to follow the AfD. Mecklenburg-Vorpommern for example, is one of the biggest supporters of the populist party. It was a completely different experience for Sara. Frauke Petry and other leaders of the party were celebrated at this event, there were crowds chanting in favour of them. The racist and misogynistic messages of the party were ubiquitous. Coming back from the campaign trail, Sara now had her mind full of doubts. Was she right to write an opinion piece that conformed to the political leaning of the newspaper? Should she write an opinion piece that fully reflects her own views?

If my political opinion clashes with the political leaning of the newspaper I work for, I usually pull the piece. I do this mainly, to not confuse the reader. They do expect a certain kind of opinion piece when picking up our newspaper. – Jacques Schuster, Welt Online

Some insight into this struggle was given by a study conducted at the University of Amsterdam. Here, the possible influences on opinion pieces were being investigated. German journalists frequently express their opinions about the AfD in the commentary sections of the major German online newspapers. Therefore it is interesting to find out, whether the political position of the newspaper is a bigger influence on an opinion piece, or whether German journalists’ role perceptions affect it more.

Journalistic role perceptions describe how journalists in different cultures and media systems go about their work. They have a strong influence on journalists’ professional behaviour, which in part explains the significant differences between news cultures. Providing political information is globally regarded as essential in the journalistic work field, as is the monitoring of the government and the reliable presentation of information. However, objectivism and the separation of facts from opinion play out differently in different news cultures. Western journalists generally do not promote any particular values, while non-Western journalists tend to be more interventionist. The “Worlds of Journalism” study has shown that the German and American journalism cultures are similar in their professional role perceptions in terms of wanting to report objectively. This goal of objectivity is deeply embedded in the German press code.

In this study, opinion pieces on the AfD from five major online newspapers in Germany – Spiegel Online,, Zeit Online, Welt Online and Bild Online – were analysed. The findings provide a richer picture of how German journalists use opinion pieces to portray a right-wing populist party and show that the political position of the newspaper has a significant influence on the portrayal, as journalists are evidently affected by their workplace.

Bildschirmfoto 2017-06-23 um 12.20.51

When an analysis is needed, your own political opinion naturally finds a way into your work. Ideally, the reader is aware of this and knows why he chose either SZ or Welt Online to read. – Hannah Beitzer,

This leads to the assumption that Sara’s internal struggle is only natural in the world of a German opinion journalist. She believes that she has to inform and educate her audience, but not yet that she should also influence them. Of course, it is impossible to know if an article makes an impact on its readers. However, the medium of an opinion piece does give a journalist a fair shot at influencing the possible outcome of an election. Faced with the dilemma of either portraying her own opinion and probably ending up in a dark corner in the newspapers last pages, or showing the political leaning of the newspaper while being printed on page one, made Sara realize that the newsroom she works in will always have that kind of power over her. The question was whether she would succumb to that and only write what her editor wanted, or fight for her position and her right to express her opinion at the newspaper.


Sara’s decision

In the end Sara decided to write her opinion in the most extreme way she could think of. She asked the reader to not vote for the AfD and had to change her piece to the wishes of the editor. Disillusioned, Sara was thinking of quitting her job. But she couldn’t help but wonder, if she maybe could make a difference at this newspaper. And with time, maybe she would gain more rights to really express her own opinion. The realization that the political leaning of the newsroom really does influence the journalist more than their own role perception and political opinion, is something that should be kept in mind by the consumer of such media. Opinion pieces might be the real reflection of the actual journalist who has written them. However, they are conform to the newspaper’s ideology. So it can only be advised to read more than one newspaper, from different parts of the political spectrum.


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