Is Bild damaging to society?

12.12.2010

Daniel Winter has a close look on Germany every sunday on detektor.fm. This weeks he deals with the most popular german newspaper.

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People with “Bild”-shopping-bags. Photo: Michael Kappeler / dapd.

You can get in contact with Daniel via Twitterhttp://twitter.com/dfmenglish.

For this week’s blog post, I am indulging in a passion of mine – complaining about German media. Coming from the UK, it’s hard not to compare what we have there to over here in Germany. But one dominant tabloid newspaper seems to be suffering from a lack of common sense.

However, common sense doesn’t necessarily sell, as was shown by Bild’s ultra-sensationalist headlines from this week, especially with regard to the accident on Wetten Dass..? which may have left a contestant paralysed in parts of his body (at the time of writing the extent of the damage done is not clear).

After the unfortunate and dramatic accident which took place in front of millions of viewers on live TV, where the contestant Samuel Koch tried to jump over cars with the aid of springed stilts, Bild reacted with the headline:

Lähmungen! Not-OP! (Paralysis! Emergency operation!).

Bild seemingly chooses to sacrifice good language in order to get the key words across in a sensationalist and emotive fashion.

Many would criticise Bild for this, but I, surprisingly, don’t. After all the newspaper, which is published by Axel Springer AG (also known for die Welt and the Berliner Morgenpost, amongst others), is a commercial product which has to right to appeal to its potential customers as much as any other product. As is often the way in the media, fear, shock and scandal sells – and this story appears to offer all of those by encouraging the reader to relate to the fear of becoming injured, hurt or disabled; as well as the shock and scandal that something as dramatic as this could happen on live TV and the steps ZDF failed to take to avoid this injury occurring.

What else would you expect the newspaper to do?

Bild is one of the most popular newspapers in the world with a circulation (amount of newspapers distributed) of around 3 million, and a readership (amount of readers total, as many individual copies have more than one reader) of as much as 12 million – clearly it’s a format that works, a format which the public love. Without a shadow of a doubt, there is currently zero motivation for Bild to change its style of journalism.

Some argue, for example BildBlog.de, that Bild is a useless newspaper which misinforms the German public en masse. After all, 12 million is not an insignificant number, meaning incorrect information which reaches such a large amount of people can potentially have an influential effect on politics, culture and individuals featured in its stories. But what most of these commentators seem to miss out of their criticism are the questions which are most important – if you didn’t have Bild, what would you have in its place? And if you wanted to keep Bild, but regulate it heavily, how would you ensure their freedom of speech (or perhaps more accurately their journalistic freedom and the ability to show their interpretation of events) remain intact?

It’s all rather simple.

Leave Bild alone. Leave it as it is.

We can’t get rid of it, and heavy regulation would ruin the independence which makes a free press so worthwhile, effectively scrapping the newspaper entirely. Would you really want to be responsible for taking away an important news source for around 15% of Germany’s population? What would they read or view instead? I imagine through my own personal speculation, that many readers of Bild wouldn’t also read the Frankfurter Allgemeine, if Bild wasn’t there. I get the feeling a Bild reader wants their news fast and fun, and Bild is the king in this market. Being responsible from taking away what is for many people the single source of news and information they get in their day, is not something I would willingly take part in – this would actively dumb down a large section of the public with regard to their knowledge of current events.

Perhaps Bild is inaccurate and perhaps it’s spreading misinformation.

But Germany needs to improve its press freedom, being as it is at number 17 on the world press freedom index, and stifling Bild’s opinion wouldn’t help this ranking. In a market where money and sales figures are everything, perhaps it’s time the public learnt to tell the difference themselves between what sounds accurate and what sounds like over-the-top fear-mongering. The faster people get wise to the tricks of the trade in the media they consume, the faster they will start to consume their media with more discretion: i.e. choose a media product which is more informative than Bild.

Basically, a clever public equals newspapers which wise-up and become more informational to appeal to growing demand. Self-censorship is the best kind of censorship, and falling profits is the greatest motivator in business.

BildBlog is just one such source of education for the public against the evils of misinformation.

A misinformed public is the worst thing after an apathetic and unaware public.

Continue to buy in to Bild, and contribute to the dumbing down of Germany. Or, to boil it all down to one phrase: Bild isn’t the problem, their readers are.