TRUTH & AUTHENTICITY

Stefan Niggemeier of www.BILDblog.de.

Stefan Niggemeier of www.BILDblog.de.

Bild blog is dedicated to investigating the articles of the BILD-Zeitung. The BILD-Zeitung is the largest daily newspaper in Europe with a circulation of 3.5 million readers. Its articles influence public opinion on topics ranging from politics to entertainment, yet many feel that the paper contains misleading and exaggerated information. People read the Bild as though it were a tabloid, but they also read it to get their news. This blurred co-existence of truth and fiction can give the Bild an unusual freedom in terms of the slant of its articles. Finding this ambiguity and exaggeration irresponsible,Niggemeier and his colleagues began doing their own investigations of Bild’s articles and then publishing what they found at www.bildblog.de. Since it’s inception 3 years ago, the BILDblog has become the largest blog in Germany, now with a daily subscription of about 50,000 readers. As technology allows for more checks and balances by the masses, BILDblog may be a harbinger of how future media sources will be held accountable for the truth.

Pulse: Was the initial idea of BILDblog to uncover exaggerations and discrepancies? Did you set out to become ‘the watchdog of the BILD-Zeitung’?

Stefan Niggemeier: When we first started, the BILDblog was more of a commentary on the Bild’s practices and articles. It evolved as we began to investigate those articles and compare them with what other news agencies were saying. We also invited our readers to send us tips when they discovered something they thought was wrong. The readers responded in surprising numbers. We get to hear from experts in certain fields or subjects, people who notice things that we wouldn’t necessarily see on our own because we don’t have that specialized knowledge.

So the blog becomes a way for readers to pool their skills and get closer to the truth.

Which is amazing. And it works. Not only in terms of specialized fields, but also with languages. For instance, quite early on we found a story that the Bild wrote about a Spanish woman who had died in a dramatic way. The Bild wrote that she was barbecued, that’s the words they used, and they kind of made this whole story into a joke. We couldn’t find any sources for this article so we went online and asked if there was someone out there who could speak Spanish and who could maybe look into this. Within a really short amount of time, we got emails from people saying ‘Yes I speak Spanish and I found this article and it’s actually quite different from what the Bild has said’. In the end, it turned out that the Bild had told the it the wrong way around, but it was our readers who played the biggest role in figuring out the true story.

By opening yourself to so many voices and perspectives, isn’t it sometimes difficult to call any one thing ‘the truth’? It is. And because there are often many angles to a story, we sometimes have a question of what we should write. We don’t want to criticize the Bild from an ideological point of view; we do that rarely. Sometimes if they are really campaigning for something we get into that, but we try to focus on the facts rather than having to distinguish between opinions. People sometimes write to us saying the Bild misquoted them or didn’t understand them or present their story correctly. This gets quite difficult. We usually don’t write about these things because we’re journalists as well and we know how it works when you interview someone and later they don’t like what they said to you. You might never get to the truth is those stories. What I do know, or what is easier to say, is that there are definitely things which are not true. We’ve become quite good at finding out what is false. Sometimes there are accepted facts and sometimes it’s a matter of having three reliable sources say the one thing while the Bild is writing something totally different. We don’t actually like to use the term ‘truth’ very much; we’re very careful with it because as you start looking into things you find all kinds of contradictions and differing versions. It isn’t always possible to say which is correct, but it is possible to say when something is wrong or distorted. This is what one can easily discuss.

Why do you think the Bild is so prone to distortions or exaggerations? Is it part of a prevailing mood in media, or do you think it’s a conscious decision?

It’s the whole system. I think most often it’s done out of a drive to have a better story. To make it more exciting. To make it bigger. More sensational. To catch your eye. To sell more newspapers by topping the most interesting stories. The stories may be wrong but they sound much more interesting. And of course sometimes they distort things for their own political agenda, which is even worse. One thing that is very specific to the Bild is that they have very obvious distinctions between their friends and enemies. They have people who work with them and cooperate with them and others who they don’t like and tend to disparage. Those attitudes change how they shape the story. It’s very old-fashioned in a way, very black and white.

In many ways, your blog and the Bild are enemies; and yet in another way, you might also be beneficial to one another. You might strengthen each other’s readerships. There is also the fact that the BILDblog quite literally needs the BILDZeitung in order to exist.

It’s a dangerous comparison for me to make, but I think what you’re saying is true only in the sense that the police need criminals in order to exist. I don’t want to compare them to criminals, but you get the point. It’s like trying to say that Greenpeace needs people who destroy the environment. But yes, to be honest, a part of why we’re so successful and popular is because the Bild is so successful and popular. Do you do this kind of work because you want to initiate some kind of change? Do you want to raise the standards of the media in some way?

It always sounds so full of pathos to say you want to change the world but that kind of inclination does have something to do with it. I don’t mean I’m out to change the world in nay kind of revolutionary sense — I don’t have the attitude of I’ll write this and it will save the world — but I do think that every little thing a person writes does influence people. It does have the chance to make them see things that maybe they wouldn’t have seen before. The realizations can be very small; it doesn’t always have to be on some big level. It can be as banal as writing about a TV show and telling people it’s worth their time to watch it. So in those terms, the BILDblog is the most visible way I’ve ever influenced people. You can see it at work. People write to us and tell us that their parents have been reading the Bild for years, and now the children are printing out our articles and their parents are reading them as well. Of course we are tiny compared to the Bild and we won’t make it go away, but we are changing the perception of Bild in some small way. There was a time when people read the Bild as a joke without understanding that there were real people behind those stories. People didn’t realize that what they are reading is not just a funny headline; there’s someone’s life behind that as well.

Are you trying to suggest a more collective responsibility for what is accepted as news? Is teh news becoming more of a democracy?

It works in so many different ways. I think we are trying to educate people to be critical when they read any newspaper and not to always believe what they first read. We want them to have a critical mind. But it’s true, the level of responsibility does change the easier it becomes to get everyone involved and checking on what journalists are doing. I think every newspaper and media outlet has to be accountable and realize what’s going on in those terms as much as possible.

Do you think this changes the role of the journalist?

Yes. Journalists used to have the monopoly on these things. Journalists were the ones who knew what was happening and who were sharing that information for the first time with everyone else. Now there are so many sources that the journalist no longer has the monopoly. If that journalist doesn’t tell you, you’ll learn what happened from somewhere else. This means the journalist has to talk to the audience in a different way, keeping this in mind. But I don’t think it changes the fundametnal things that a journalist does, which is to explain what is happening in the world, to havea background in the subject, to have sources which make him well-informed, to have learned his language so he can get the message across to his readers. None of that has changed. I don’t think journalists need to be afraid of the internet and new technology, of the democracy of it, as you called it. I don’t think journalists have to be afraid because the core of what they do is still as important as it ever was. It’s just the role that has changed. You’re suddenly not lecturing people anymore. You have to talk to with them.

Do you think people also still want to be awed by a story? Do we want drama as much as we want truth?

It’s about the same feeling that happens when there’s a plane crash and no one knows how many people are dead. There’s something exciting there. There’s some kind of feeling like ‚this could be big‘ and even though you wouldn’t wish harm on anyone and you don’t want the death toll to be high, the possibility of that is the reason you’re still watching. I do think there is some kind of longing for excitement on that level. People want to be able to say they witnessed something really big and bad — even if they only witnessed it on television.

Maybe they also want something they can share with everyone around them, something to talk about.

People have always wanted that. A person sees something on the street and they immediately run home to tell their parents or whomever is there. And of course when they are retelling the story, they probably tend to exaggerate. You don’t need media for that. It’s not just the big bad media; a lot of it is just human nature. But that doesn’t make it any more acceptable.

Now that your blog has become so popular, do you ever feel tempted towards that same kind of commercialization or exaggeration as a way to maintain your fame?

We sometimes wonder what we should do to attract more readers, and then we wonder if we should even think in those terms at all. We wonder if we should write the things that we know will be popular with our readers or only write about the things that feel authentic for us, that we find important. We make those decisions every day. We always endlessly discuss everything we write about. Those questions are part of the process. We watch out for each other and stop each other on things like that. In the end, we all know why we’re doing this. It’s about the message we want to get across. And that keeps us grounded.

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