How Germany's Public Broadcasters Face Modern Challenges
28 July, 2017

Public broadcasting is facing increased challenges due to the fast pace of technological development and the demands of journalism in the post-truth world. To get a sense of the relationship between modern day politics and public broadcasting in Germany, Hromadske spoke to Heiko von Debschitz, International Relations Advisor for German public service television broadcaster ZDF.

As the traditional audience for public television ages, broadcasters like Germany's ZDF are adapting to the technological habits of a younger audience. "Once you have really convincing content you then start thinking about what's the best way to bring it to the audience," Heiko von Debschitz told Hromadske. While expanding their range and engaging with a variety of social media platforms, ZDF is also aware of the risks that the post-truth era poses for reporting.

Ahead of the federal election in September, the potential remains for the spreading of misinformation in Germany. Furthermore, contentious issues like Germany's migration and refugee policies have led to backlash from a number of groups, including the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD). That being said, von Debschitz insisted that German society has not seen the kind of polarization that took place during the recent US election, for example. According to von Debschitz, Public broadcasters like ZDF have been able to maintain their audience's trust in their ability to provide balanced, representative reporting. Overall, he claimed, Germany has a "healthy media environment."

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To learn more about the state of public broadcasting in Germany, Hromadske sat down with Heiko von Debschitz, International Relations Advisor for German public service television broadcaster ZDF to talk about the country's contemporary media environment.

So my first question to you will be about the audience of public broadcasting, what is a way to get a new audience to a social network? We do understand how to do this in terms of television, but what is the borderline between your main goals, about your speech, about the way you broadcast and this easy content that is needed for this audience?

Heiko von Debschitz: The major part of a traditional audience is rather older and not very used to social media. So the big challenge is to reach the younger audiences with their new and different viewing habits and we are constantly trying out new instruments, new ways and we have been at the forefront in Germany of online video on demand ways of presenting and packaging our content to our audience. It’s been constantly evolving.

The latest, or one of the latest, innovation that the public broadcasters in Germany introduced last year was a special offer for younger audiences. Totally new formats, not as a TV channel and not as a single platform on the website. The idea was to focus on the individual formats, that they are the most important idea to develop programming that is most interesting for our target groups, especially the younger viewers, and then to make sure that they reach their audience through various ways. It could be through Youtube, through Facebook, it could even be through Snapchat, all the different platforms that these target groups are using. Once you have really convincing content you then start thinking about what’s the best avenue, what’s the best way to bring it to the audience.

How do you do with this post-truth reality? We live in this era, in this world, where the greatest politicians of the biggest countries are openly and deliberately telling lies. How do you cover these things? Are you someone who can just openly tell your audience what is true and what is false or are you trying to keep a balance?

Heiko von Debschitz: Well in Germany we are fortunate enough that so far we haven’t been suffering anything comparable to for example the US election campaign and the big divide, the big polarization between different parts of the audience. Germany as a society is not as split as that at the moment but of course we are also reporting on what’s going on and these phenomena, especially now with what we saw in the US election campaign, is something that is mind boggling to Germans. We are aware of these dangers, of parallel truths existing in parallel environments, also especially on social media, but so far I think in Germany we still have a healthy media environment. There are still some media that are especially considered to be trustworthy, with a diverse range of opinions and political standpoints. Public service broadcasting is an important factor in that array of trustworthy media that we still feel that the majority of the population still believes or doesn’t see us as manipulators. There is a minority of people who attack us and who claim that we are government mouth pieces or we are with international conspiracies or whatever, but this is really a minority. But of course in election years like this year in Germany also, we feel like the potential disruptive force of people highjacking public opinion or spreading misinformation can happen in Germany. But I think we are maybe in a better position than other countries.

There are some critical thoughts that German mainstream media are undermining the Islamic threat with the coverage of different migrant stories. What is your answer to this?

Heiko von Debschitz: I don’t see this as a very valid criticism. There was criticism especially at the initial phases of reporting where maybe some journalists also got carried away with the big euphoria of look at us how welcoming we are as a society, but I mean in the later months and since the first big wave of immigrants arrived in Germany we have covered all kinds of different challenges to society and problems. But it’s not that it’s now totally negative but I think it’s quite a realistic picture that’s being painted by the media in general. Of course you have very different media and you have all different views and different political views being reflected, so I think there’s a variety of voices being heard, and being heard not just in private and commercial media but also in public media. I think we’re doing reasonably well. Integration is a huge challenge, integrating hundreds of thousands of new arrivals in our society is a huge challenge and it’s something that we also as media still have a lot to grapple with. So for some time to come this is going to take major innovative and new ideas and flexibility, but also I think a constructive and positive attitude.

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How do you cover groups such as Pegida, they have anti-migrant, anti-refugee policies. Do they have the opportunity to express their thoughts through the media?

Heiko von Debschitz: There is a political party that is close to them which is the AfD, the far-right party in the German political spectrum which managed to win seats in a lot of regional parliaments over the last two-three years and they are also expected to win their first seats in the German federal parliament later this year. So they are also being represented, they are being interviewed, they are being invited on political talk shows. And I think also our, the journalists way of talking to them and talking with them has evolved and has become less confrontational, maybe. But we are still, and we will still point out positions that we or the individual interviewer thinks is against our constitution or our constitutional values. But they are a legitimate political party and they are being treated as such.

How about the topic of gay marriages, I know that in Germany you just legalized gay marriages so what do you think is it an absolute citizens’ right or is it a topic for debate?

Heiko von Debschitz: This is a topic that came up out of nowhere, just due to some words, some lapse that the Chancellor mentioned in a public podium discussion and it was quickly taken up by the majority of parties in the federal chamber so they turned it into a law within a couple of days. It was a big surprise to everybody but as for, not just in the parliament but also in German society there is a clear majority accepting gay marriage as a reality and as a right and as something that is not seen as a threat to anybody else

There’s no particular policy at our channel to deal with this issue in any different way from any other issue. It is being reported on, the different views are being presented and now in the context of this legal initiative also the dissenting voices of the minority, and some of them very prominent voices, including the Chancellor herself, she voted against this legal project and she had the chance to make her position heard. So I don’t think it was in any way different from any other topic that we cover.

What is the major challenge that German public television is facing right now?

Heiko von Debschitz: I would say our major challenge hasn’t changed a lot over the last ten-twenty years, which is constantly renewing and rejuvenating our audiences because our audiences, which is not something exclusive to Germany, it’s happening in many other countries where you have established public service broadcast or public service broadcasting system, is that our audience is quite old, it’s older than the average citizen. So it is a challenge to win the eyes and ears of the younger audiences that have grown up with different viewing habits and different ways of using and consuming media or content. So that’s, I would say, the biggest challenge. To keep relevant, to keeping relevant to these younger parts of society.

/Interview by Olga Datsiuk

/Text by Eilish Hart