Has Covid-19 changed journalism in Germany?

Featured Image by Sam McGhee via Unsplash.

A year ago, in March 2020, Chancellor Angela Merkel was forced into quarantine after coming into contact with a doctor who was infected with Covid-19.  Instead of giving press conferences and working with her cabinet, Merkel had to lead the country from her home office for two weeks. The situation was new to everyone. Chancellor Merkel informed journalists via video conferences with updates about the pandemic. From then on, journalists have reported on these briefings and have held Merkel accountable from her home in Berlin.

Televised briefings

Video conferences have brought us closer in a time when we can not be together. However, face-to-face communication cannot be wholly compensated online. We need to keep our distance from each other to fight the virus but it has changed how we work. Political journalists normally accompany politicians, such as Chancellor Merkel, on their official trips around the world. These journalists are given first-hand insight and up-to-the-minute information. But ultimately, the pandemic has changed the way journalists report. Only a small number of journalists are allowed at press conferences and there is less time for questions. This has resulted in often shorter statements being made by politicians as they are often having official Covid-19 meetings deliberating restrictions for up to eight hours.

How can the government still be held accountable by journalists during the 'Corona-crisis'? For German journalists, it is essential to include opinions on government policies as well as from opposing parties.In Germany, journalists work according to the "Pressekodex : Ethische Standards für den Journalismus" or guidelines which aims to protect ethical standards and fair reporting in journalism. To hold the government accountable, journalists have been interviewing pandemic experts like epidemilogists, virologists and public health experts who can give a critical evaluation on how current and future measures has affected the pandemic. At press conferences, journalists often draw attention to various groups e.g. parents, creative artists and elderly people in society that have been adversely affected by the restrictions. What is more, journalists often criticize the implementation of certain measures as well as the loosening of the restrictions nationally as well as at a German state level to ensure accountability every step of the way.

The German public-service broadcaster "Arbeitsgemeinschaft der öffentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunkanstalten der Bundesrepublik Deutschland" (ARD) reports on new Covid-19 infections and deaths daily. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the ARD introduced an additional news broadcast called “Extra” in which certain aspects of the pandemic are critically analysed and explained to the public.

Growing public concern regarding Germany's economy

At the beginning of the pandemic there was little information about the virus but people’s need for information was high. Suddenly, people had to fear job loss. Journalists who had recently been focused on reporting on politics now had to understand the scientific background of Covid-19 to connect the political measures that were being taken by the government. This also shows the interdependence between politics and science throughout the pandemic. Political decisions are not usually based upon scientific findings which also goes to show what an unprecedented situation the pandemic has created. All the more, journalists have been responsible for reporting the essential interaction between politics and science so that audiences understand how this expert advice has become integral in fighting Covid-19. In Germany, advisors such as the President of the Robert-Koch-Institut Lothar Wieler or virologist Christian Drosten from Charité in Berlin are regularly consulted by politicians and interviewed by journalists.

Vaccine conspiracies

Furthermore, journalists have been constantly confronted with conspiracy theorists and false reports about Covid-19. How should journalists react? How can false reports be effectively corrected? Are people who deny the existence of Covid-19 given too much attention?

All these questions are difficult to answer. First of all, it is important to differentiate between constructive criticism and conspiracy theories. No one who expresses criticism towards certain political measures should be stigmatised as a conspiracy theorist. But if misinformation and myths become the basis of people’s opinions and decisions, we have to be alarmed.

In Germany, the willingness to be vaccinated is at around  67% according to a survey conducted by the Robert-Koch-Institut. It is to be assumed that only a minority is reluctant to get a vaccination as a result of conspiracy theories. However, this is still an issue that has to be taken very seriously.

The German media have put a lot of effort in to explaining how people start to believe in conspiracy theories and how these can be debunked. To do so, misinformation and conspiracy theories have to be addressed by journalists. Of course, there is always the danger of raising more public awareness and therefore, popularlity to misinformation theories. Debunking misinformation has to be done effectively.

Research especially by leading psychologists and public health communication sciencists has been undertaken on the issue. It is not only journalists and researchers that should be responsible for tackling misinformation and conspiracy theories: Also media users can help. Especially on social media,  users should always question the source of a post and check the facts by consulting other, reliable sources. So it is up to everyone to take on some responsibility.

What can we learn from the crisis?

The pandemic surely has posed new challenges on everyone. Angela Merkel said in her first speech about Covid-19 that: “We should be capable of learning throughout the pandemic". All the things we have learned should not just be temporary. We have learned that scientific advice is crucial in political decisions. Covid-19 affects us all immediately but we cannot ignore the issues that affect us in the long term like climate change. Thus, the interaction between science and politics should also be maintained in the future.

Last year in March, Angela Merkel held her first speech about Covid-19. One year later, we find ourselves at a crucial point in the pandemic. There is hope because of vaccination but the virus’s mutations have created new challenges.  Debates about loosening restrictions in the midst of rising records in Germany continue.  On one hand, the German government has presented a so-called “five-step plan” in which different opening strategies have been proposed depending on the infection level. On the other hands, these strategies should arguably be stopped as soon as possible according to Karl Lauterbach, a German health expert and party member of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD). The news coverage right now mirrors this divide between mantaining the lockdown and the desrire to loosen restrictions.

Like most of mainland Europe, Germany is experiencing a third Covid-19 wave. In order to stop it,  Angela Merkel suggested to go into a strict lockdown in the days before Easter by shutting down the public, economical and public life to a minimum. Her idea was heavily criticised by the public and other politicians. Opposition parties like the Free Democratic Party Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP) and the Left Party (Die Linke) even demanded a call for a vote of no-confidence against Merkel. Merkel's plan eventually got cancelled just a few days after its announcement. In retracting the proposals, Merkel explained that the implementation of an even more strict lockdown could not be realised in such a short time.

In the Chancellor's Question Time at the Bundestag, Merkel officially apologised for her suggestion and said that only she is accountable for any measures that have been decided. Merkel's retraction showed that we are experiencing a crisis we have never been in before and has left Germany in an uncertain situation. How can the virus be contained before and after Easter? The federal states of Germany are left with this question. After Easter,on the 12th of April, the federal government and the federal states will discuss and evaluate the state of the pandemic again.

Merkel’s last challenge

For Merkel, the Covid-19 pandemic has been one of the most challenging times as Chancellor yet. It may also be her last political challenge. The 26th of September 2021 marks an important date: The Bundestag elections. Angela Merkel has already declared that she is not going to run again for the chancellorship. For 16 years,  Angela Merkel has dominated European and global politics and has handled a series of different crises. What will the situation look like in September this year? Can we already talk about a post-Covid phase? One thing is certain: Angela Merkel is leaving her party at a time where the consequences of the pandemic will have to be faced.

If we take Chancellor Merkel’s advice, what matters most in the pandemic is how we learn from it and how we critically evaluate the political measures and the coverage of Covid-19. “Distance is now a sign of care” according to Merkel in a speechshe made one year ago. We are uncertain about how long we all have to keep our distance but when we go back to our normal lives we will be able to critically look back on the pandemic and see what we have learned.

The value of journalism in times of crisis

Since journalism is often regarded as the mirror of reality, the distance to politicians the journalists have right now shows how the pandemic has changed our interactions and communication overall. Nevertheless, the pandemic has also proven that journalism as a “fourth power” is essential to society. Critical and informative reporting in the midst of a global pandemic helps to explain the measures that have been taken whilst also questioning certain aspects in order to stimulate the public discourse and to give feedback to political officials. Beside the flood of information, misinformation and vaccine conspiracies, journalism remains indispensable in our lives.