In many countries media are restricted to an extend that you cannot talk anymore about press freedom. But also in countries with press freedom media are usually regulated. And this also makes sense because there are limits to ethical coverage and standards of quality media should be set. In the project Media Dialogue for Pluralism and Understanding we had a closer look to the regulative system in Germany with the keynote speaker Sonja Volkmann-Schluck from the German Press Council [Deutscher Presserat].
In the beginning Mrs. Volkmann-Schluck explained the history of the German Press Council. In the 1950s the government of the Federal Republic of Germany planned to enact a press law that would regulate media. In reaction journalists’ and publishers’ unions gathered in 1956 to form an independent organization that should regulate print media autonomously without intervention of the state.
To show us how the self-regulation of media works in Germany Mrs. Volkmann-Schluck presented us the German Press Code. In the press code principles of journalistic ethics are collected which should function as guidelines for journalistic work. Individuals and organizations can complain at the German Press Council about the journalistic content in newspapers, in magazines and on websites. The complaints are checked then and if the press council finds out that they contravene the principles of the press code the press council can apply sanctions. The most common sanction is the public reprimand. But the possibilities of the press council are limited because it is a body of self-regulation – fines or other punishments for example are not part of the sanctions. Because of this limited set of sanctions the press council is sometimes called »toothless tiger«. But as Mrs. Volkmann-Schluck said: »Think about what it would mean for press freedom if we had harder sanctions like fines etc.«
Following this general introduction Mrs. Volkmann-Schluck picked out two principles of the German Press Code to discuss with the project’s participants. The first principle was the one about the Protection of the Personality:
»The Press shall respect the private life of a person and his/her right to self-determination about personal information. However, if a person‘s behaviour is of public interest, it may be discussed by the Press. In the case of identifying reporting, the public interest in information must outweigh the interests worthy of protection of the persons involved; sensational interests alone do not justify identifying reporting. As far as an anonymization is required, it must be effective.«
In connection to this principle Mrs. Volkmann-Schluck showed the participants a newspaper article in which the photo of the victim of a murder was shown. When the participants were asked if this portrayal was ethical most answered that it is not because showing a photo of the victim is not in public interest and because the victim’s family was not asked about the usage of the photo. Also Mrs. Volkmann-Schluck agreed to this and explained difficulties in the press councils everyday work because often it is not immediately clear if a portrayal contravenes a principle or not.
The second principle we discussed was the one about Inappropriate Portrayal:
»A report is inappropriately sensational if the person it covers is reduced to an object, to a mere thing. This is particularly so if reports about a dying or physically or mentally suffering person go beyond public interest and the readers‘ requirement for information. When placing pictorial representations of acts of violence and accidents on front pages, the Press shall respect the possible effects on children and young people.«
The discussion concerning this principle was about a soccer player who died on the soccer field by a heart attack. A newspaper published an article of the man while he was lying on the ground and dying. The article’s title was »Here dies the hope of Hertha [a soccer team from Berlin]«. Also in this case many participants recognized that this kind of portrayal is inappropriate and violates the human dignity of the soccer player. Thus, the newspaper was sanctioned through a public reprimand.
At the end Mrs. Volkmann-Schluck talked about press councils in other countries. It is important to notice that internationally there exist different kinds of press councils – not every press council has the same structure and function like the German one. Nevertheless, press councils cooperate internationally. On the European level the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe is the most important association in this context.
To download the German Press Code in English click here, to visit the German Press Council’s English website click here and to learn more about the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe and its member organizations click here.