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When democracy is in danger communication has to change
1000 ways to improve our lives / No. 57
Good morning from Berlin,
Bad news is good news. The media business model is the negative headline. Always has been. Because humans pay the greatest attention to danger. That ensures their survival. As an individual as well as a species.
Floods, wars, climate change, national debt – the topics change (some don't), but the structure remains the same: If you look at the world from the perspective of a news magazine, it is always on the verge of collapse (although in many democracies and market economies, life is thriving).
This is a problem for people checking the news regularly to participate in political and social debates (which is what a democracy thrives on). Even knowing that the news only shows the worst part of human coexistence, one can hardly defend oneself against the texts and images damaging one's psyche. You must prescribe a decent and steady portion of positive counter-news if you don't want to be overwhelmed by negative impressions in the long run.
In addition to the individual challenge, there is also a social one. If, due to (negative) media reports, people increasingly believe that everything is getting worse, first, they lose trust in the ability of existing institutions to find solutions, then they vote for those who can destroy those institutions – and with them, democracy, the rule of law and the market economy.
Why now? Maybe because of the technological progress in communication. Working for the media, like public television and radio, and newspapers, used to be reserved for a few. That was both a blessing and a curse. The wheat was sorted from the chaff by a bottleneck at the entrance to the media world. The quality of the reporting was quite high, although not only wheat but also chaff was getting through the bottleneck (in many cases, social status, a fitting political stance, and knowing the right people paved the way into the media world).
This bottleneck no longer exists. Anyone can broadcast, anyone can reach a large audience today. And above all, those who shout "danger" the loudest get great reach.
The means of communication have changed, but people have remained what they always were. We still look and listen to where the downfall is potentially announced.
That's why digital mountebanks are so popular. They call out that the world is going to end soon – and everyone stares (it's also a bit true with the end of the world because it is above all their own world, their own social standing, that those calling out see in danger in an ongoing changing society – but hey, that's another topic.) And when the next person calls out "not soon" but "tomorrow", there is still someone who attracts attention because they already see the world is coming to an end "today". And no one to stop the hustle and bustle.
Perhaps the bottleneck was more of a blessing than a curse.
On the other hand. Everyone has the freedom not to turn to mountebanks. We are all responsible for ourselves. We can all turn to those media that refrain from exaggeration and distortion.
The social task is to educate young people so that they can make these decisions. If this education takes place, everyone can be expected to make a responsible choice of media use.
The prerequisite is that these truthful media exist. For this, the so-called quality media must say goodbye to false exaggerations completely. This wasn’t tragic when the bottleneck media world still existed. The damage was limited. That's different today. Anyone who joins the ranks of the "everything is getting worse" media people is responsible for the decline in trust in institutions.
I still read titles like "Pension insurance before bankruptcy" in well-known newspapers. Made by media people who know better. They know that pension insurance works according to the pay-as-you-go scheme and that the system can practically never go bankrupt. Yet it is written. Because it gets attention – and in the long run, deep frustration among the people.
Young people have alarmingly low trust in the statutory pension insurance system. Many believe that they will hardly benefit from it in old age. As a result, people lose confidence that politicians can improve things with good reforms. But they could. But, if, instead, right-wing fringes get the votes because they promise to abolish "incompetent elites," then there will be no reform, then there will be the destruction of democratic institutions.
So the media has to find a new language. So far, the horror scenario has often been put forward (pension before bankruptcy). Communication needs to change in a world where the real nightmare scenario is authoritarian and anti-democratic forces taking power. By focusing more on the possible positive effects of potential changes. For example, what are the advantages of a solid budget instead of the disadvantages of excessive national debt.
Sure, the line is a narrow one. The media must and should name problems. Without awareness of the problem, there is no way towards a solution. It is, therefore, even more important to learn to communicate without exaggeration, without falsification through omission, and without exaggerating through the generalization of individual cases.
Perhaps this cannot be done without making people more responsible for forming their own impressions.
And maybe more correction tools are needed for this as well. Tools to help people tell right from wrong. Because despite all media education: We all are constantly overwhelmed by classifying information according to credibility, authenticity and lobby interests. We all need support. By those who are into a subject. By those who can assist in all conscience. So that those who do their own thing because they use people's attention to danger for their financial gain and to feed their insatiable ego will lose support.
And what applies to the media also applies to politics.
If the fierce struggle between democratic parties primarily helps extreme parties, such as the AfD in Germany, and weakens democratic parties, then at least opposition politics must change.
The opposition's old recipe was to harm the government with harsh criticism where possible, which would benefit the opposition. Now it is primarily those who should not benefit in a democratic community who benefit most. The only way out is to change political communication fundamentally. Instead of constant criticism, better offers have to be submitted. The sociologist Detlef Pollack recently described it perfectly in the German paper Süddeutsche Zeitung:
"The challenges are so enormous that the CDU [German's largest opposition party] should make combating the climate crisis its own concern, for example, and show that it can deal with it better than the Greens [party in the governing coalition]. It would not have to bend her heels but could make proposals that overtake the Greens and the SPD in their own field, drawing on their own values and traditions. The CDU would have good reasons to do so if it remembers keywords such as the preservation of creation or the criterion of the social acceptability of the upcoming change. In addition, it could add its signature to these proposals by emphasizing that the climate crisis can only be overcome if the market economy mechanisms are not undermined."
The Upshot: Media professionals, politicians, and scientists, we all have to find other ways to promote good politics and a society of prosperity and freedom than constantly ringing the alarm bell. Otherwise, we run the business of the enemies of democracy and the friends of authority.
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