Readers and the Referendum

In distant memory, there was a time when readers were unknown beings. They bought your paper, watched your shows. Some of them wrote to the editor, but unless you were the poor soul solely responsible for the readers’ letters, you rarely caught a glimpse of what they thought, liked or disliked.

But this was not meant to stay. With ReaderScan, newspaper editors got an introduction into what kind of stories their readers read, where they started reading a story, where they exited a story. Core to all this was a laser pen which traced the reading pattern of the reader and made it comparable to other readers and readers of other papers. I remember quite clearly that in 2005, when I interned at Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger, a local paper in Germany’s fourth largest city Cologne, there was a lot of excitement around ReaderScan and the ability to better understand, and, ideally, also better serve your readers, based on what you learned with the help of the laser pen.

The advance of the internet has exceeded our expactations by far. Not only can we now easily tell how much a story is being read, shared, liked and forwarded, we can also see where people enter a text and exit, whether a headline works or not, who tends to comment on what and also how long people tend to continue reading (something around three minutes is considered “good” these days). This has helped media outlets a lot in providing the content that people are interested in. One of the downsides though is that many editors tend to focus only on stories that they know will click well. A whole lot of what we would have reported on in the past – in our capacity as chronologists and gate-keepers – has now become obsolete.

Still, I welcome the increase of knowledge that we have had, thanks to the web, Google analytics and other tracking tools. I also like that I am much closer to my readers now, that I know what they like and what not, that they send me messages on Twitter and Facebook, that they inform me in case I make a mistake. But – and this is key – the age of traceability and instant communication with your readers has also led to a lot of dissappointment on my side.

I am referring to those emails and tweets that start without a salutation but go straight to the point, exclaiming “Lügenpresse”, a term initially used in the Third Reich in order to defame journalists. These days, Lügenpresse (lying press/mendacious press) refers to everything with which readers disagree, whether it is the migration crisis, the financial state of Greece, the Euro or the impact that a Brexit would have on the British economy.

During the last three years, I have observed a strong increase of these written notes that not only disagree with a text that journalists have written but go on with insulting the author, discrediting their journalistic capabilities and skills. Often times, the verdict is clear: You, the author of a text that was written following strict journalistic standards (btw, a text that was published in a reputable national news outlet), are just a pen pusher, a scribbler, someone that deserves to be abused.

I have received a number of these emails and still, it hits me when one of these arrives in my inbox, not in my spam folder where it belongs. Monday was one of these mornings again. “Dear Ms. Trentmann”, the email read, “we regret to conclude that your credibility has now been used up.” The text went on, stating I was pretending to be a fact-checking journalist that failed to attribute more space to those entirely credible arguments that the Leave-side is known for.

I am not entirely sure what the reader was referring to. Maybe to one of the economic arguments according to which a Brexit would not hurt the British economy although almost every reputable institution in the world has said so? Or to one of the immigration arguments according to which there was “good”, e.g. German and French, immigration, in the EU, and “bad” immigration, e.g. Polish and Slovakian, immigration, leaving aside important findings such as those of the International Longevity Centre (ILC), a reputable British think tank, according to which the claim that Brits and European immigrants compete for the same jobs, is false? Or maybe another Leave-argument, perhaps the one about the UK sending 350 million pounds to Brussels per week?

Obviously, the friendly reader drew the only possible conclusion: That my reporting of the British EU-Referendum was hugely biased. It seems my thoughtful reader has missed some of my stories – I did investigate some of the arguments made by the Leave-side. But that’s not the point. The point is that journalists, like me, observe an ever-increasing amount of insults, provided by our readers that of course, know it all. Not just me, but also a lot of other colleagues find that quite distressing. Some of my colleagues at DIE WELT have published their favourite reader’s comments on Facebook and Twitter. Not that this would change anything. But of course it’s good to know that I am not the only one receiving these emails.

To me, this is not only a sign of the deterioration of manners when interacting with strangers. Of course, the internet provides a great shield for all those that would never have the courage to swear at you in public. But, it is also hinting at a bigger problem that Western societies face. The perceived lack of credibility of governments, central banks, international institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, journalists and politicains. Often times, public anger and aggression do not stop with emails, as we have seen last week, when Jo Cox, a Labour MP, was shot in her constituency in West Yorkshire.

I think that this tendency is deeply worrying. By categorically declaring that governments, journalists, central banks or politicians are untrustworthy, we undermine the very foundations that our Western democracies rest on.

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