The Coronavirus pandemic led to an initial surge in interest in news and increased trust in traditional news brands. However, COVID-19 has also exacerbated some financial challenges while helping fuel debate over the need for greater diversity of views and people within the media.
COVID-19 boosted interest in news, particularly early on, and public service broadcasters (PSBs) and continuous news channels benefited the most from this. Weekly use of n-tv, for example, rose by six percentage points in our survey this year and its trust ratings rose too. Coverage of the pandemic has also prompted vigorous debate, with news media accused initially of being insufficiently critical of lockdown measures. As COVID-19 advanced at very different rates across Germany, government responses came under more criticism.
Attacks on the supposed lack of diverse perspectives in the media were spread on social media and messaging apps such as Telegram. Self-styled ‘Querdenker’ (‘lateral thinkers’) questioned the scientific consensus – sometimes citing questionable scientific ‘experts’ – and protested against the lockdowns on social media and in the streets. Journalists were assaulted when covering demonstrations and accused of false or pro-government reporting. Reporters Without Borders cited attacks on German journalists by extremists and conspiracy theory believers during protests against pandemic restrictions as contributing to Germany losing its ‘good’ rating in the 2021 Press Freedom Index.1
In addition, sparked in parts by the Black Lives Matter protests in the USA and resurgent interest in gender equality, debate grew around coverage of racism, the right language to use to address different marginalised groups, or lack of diversity among those working in newsrooms and appearing in broadcast coverage. They generally included the accusation that ‘old white men’ dominate coverage unduly. One response has been the use of gender-neutral language by some organisations and journalists.
Critics – from multiple quarters – complained about the media’s perceived lack of impartiality; our data suggest that it is those on the right of politics who feel most under-represented by and place least trust in the media. Those on the right complained about the dominance of left-green topics and opinions. Some might point to brands, such as TAZ, Stern, or RTL, which often take ‘positions’ and officially cooperate with movements such as the school student climate strikes ‘Fridays for Future’. Meanwhile some publishers are preparing to fill what they see as the unmet demand for conservative voices on TV. Springer has announced plans to start a new Bild branded TV channel before this September’s general elections, adding to their existing Welt TV channel.
PSBs can’t take positions but are responding cautiously to accusations of being one-sided. Die Tagesthemen, for example, one of the main news programmes on ARD, created a new format ‘for and against’, where a topic is commented on from two perspectives.
All mainstream media have been accused of giving inadequate coverage to former East Germany. This may have contributed to why the PSBs’ monthly licence-fee increase of €0.86, proposed by the independent commission (KEF), was vetoed by the state parliament of Saxony-Anhalt even though approved by the other 15 state parliaments. PSBs will lose out on €365m in 2021, potentially leading to cuts in programming.
Private news media experienced falling advertising revenues and daily print sales. But weekly newspapers and digital subscriptions are doing better. Die Zeit, Spiegel, and Bild all increased their digital subscribers. Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported a doubling in digital subscribers in 2020 to reach 180,000. BILDplus reported 500,000 digital subscribers by year end, 10% up on 2019. But this growth may not be enough to make up for declining income elsewhere.
A few publishers may be hoping that deals for use of their content in outlets such as Google Showcase or Facebook News will help. But the issue divides the industry. While the publishers’ associations and Springer, among most others, are opposed to participation, some major publishers (e.g. of Spiegel and Die Zeit) are reported to have signed agreements to participate in both initiatives.
Meanwhile, the Federal Ministry of Economics withdrew plans to support newspapers’ digital transformation with €220m. The scheme had excluded digital publishers and raised many questions regarding the independence of the press.
Last year saw further consolidation, particularly in the regional market, with possible consequences for the density and diversity of coverage. Some companies agreed to work together on areas such as national reporting, a few titles were acquired by other publishers, and others were bought by companies from outside the media industry.
Sascha Hölig and Uwe Hasebrink
Leibniz Institute for Media Research/Hans Bredow Institute, Hamburg
While the smartphone extends its lead as the most important device for online news, people in general rely on traditional news brands. TV brands benefit from the desire for reliable news whereas Facebook’s role as news source decreases.
Pay for online news
Listen to podcast in the last month
Share news via social, messaging or email
Trust in news overall
Trust in news I use
Trust in news in search
Trust in news on social media
During the ongoing pandemic, more people in Germany placed their trust in the news media in general and in specific brands they use. While PSBs and local news media still obtain the highest trust scores, the figures of the 24-hour news channel n-tv grew the most. Trust in search and social media remains at a low level.