What German media can teach us about rebuilding public trust

There are lessons to be learned from the German media model that might undo some of the media craziness in America and assist in rebuilding trust in our press institutions.

Having been around media in the US for many years now I am surprised by the increased criticism and mistrust of it, especially knowing how important journalists are to our democratic system. The media world has changed, but not to the extent many people think. My colleagues in the industry pine for the days of Walter Cronkite as though they were artifacts of a long gone past never to return. I don’t think this is the case—one only has to look to Germany for an example of what could be.

In Germany the Social Democrat Olaf Scholz has taken over as chancellor from Angela Merkel following her 14-year tenure. The Social Democrats had a narrow victory in the September 2021 German elections that left parliamentary control in limbo as the center-left party cobbled together a majority. That process, and the broader transition away from the Merkel era, was and continues to be accompanied by typical grumbling about domestic problems.

Yet while post-Merkel Germany faces predictable uncertainty, the German media reporting on the transition is holding remarkably steady. And that continuity—of widely watched and trusted outlets delivering clear-eyed assessments of current affairs—is chief among the many reasons Germany is unlikely to devolve into the social and constitutional crises, and the belligerent coverage of them, that followed the 2020 American election.

There are lessons to be learned from the German media model that might undo some of the media craziness in America and assist in rebuilding trust in our press institutions.

On the matter of trust, 53% of Germans trust the news overall, according to the Reuters-Oxford 2021 Digital News Report. A recent Gallup survey found an 11% divide in trust between conservative (56%) and liberal (67%) respondents. What’s more, left- and right-leaning audiences in Germany consumed the same news sources to a greater extent than in America and Southern Europe. I think most Americans would be surprised by these numbers.

Indeed, the Reuters-Oxford 2021 report on American media found that just 29% of Americans trusted the media in general. Gallup, meanwhile, found that confidence among Democrats (58%) far surpassed that of Republicans (35%). Nearly two-thirds of Americans agreed that a dose of “media skepticism is healthy.” This trust schism, and the American tendency to consume news while questioning it, helps explain the fracturing of US news media over the past three decades, with cable networks in particular spouting off-center ideologies.

The common consumption of and general trust in media in Germany stems in part from the viewers and readers of major outlets mostly identifying with the political center. But a bigger contributor to the non-ideological media landscape is the overwhelming confidence in and popularity of public outlets: 80% of respondents in one survey said they trusted public networks and publications most of all sources.

An especially persuasive example of this reliance on and faith in public media is Tagesschau, the TV news service nightly broadcast on the ARD public network. Tagesschau regularly reaches up to 10 million viewers in a nation of roughly 80 million people. That gives it a 34% ratings share, more than all the US network, cable and PBS newscasts combined. NFL Sunday Night Football, the top-rated series in America last year, averaged a 26% share.  

This huge audience is also a heterogenous one, which the 69-year-old program has attracted and sustained despite an overriding philosophy of journalistic seriousness nowadays anathema to a US news model reliant on flashy stunts that appeal to the base and, with luck, become a hit meme.

Tagesschau, like BBC news programs, is presented by newsreaders instead of talking heads. That is to say, its newscasters read the news rather than bend it to their often-provocative opinions. The scripts for each night’s newscasts are prepared by a deep bench of seasoned editors and researchers who value accuracy over speed. Each story is then factchecked two or three times by different editors. It’s an example not only of an anti-fake news newscast, but also one with tremendously broad appeal.

The ARD Network went so far as to establish a dedicated anti-fake news outfit to identify fake news, investigate its sources and publish those findings across multiple platforms. This doubling down on truth stemmed in part from the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and from a public backlash against misleading stories on the 2015 migrant crisis. I’d argue that the still-lingering national trauma over 20th-century propaganda and personality cults also tilts the viewing public toward sober news reporting. 

Perhaps this is why ARD Taggeschau, per Reuters-Oxford, is the most trusted (70%) news brand in Germany. No national program comes close in America, where 58% of respondents trust their local news outlets (the highest among all programs) and just 48% have confidence in runners-up CBS and ABC News.

Though Germans may lack the cornucopia of cable and digital outlets from which Americans cherry-pick, public media is successful there despite stiff competition.  Germany has 96% internet penetration, right on par with the US, and Taggeschau faces many rivals, including 24-hour cable channels. A wide range of domestic papers caters to readers that span the political spectrum. And American exports like plan to open German websites.

One has to go to the roots of public media in Germany to see how it has flourished there to an extent hard to imagine in America. Public broadcasting was established in Germany after World War II with a model closely aligned with the BBC’s. Then and now, licensing fees paid for the bulk of content. Advertising was highly

restricted. In fact, commercial television only reached German screens in 1984.

Instead of commercials as a primary revenue source, German public media thrives almost wholly on public funding. Revenues from licensing fees in 2020 totaled $9.75 billion, or $111 per capita. In America, that figure was $400 million, or just over $1 per capita. It’s no wonder that the drive for maximum profits in the US has resulted in lowest-common-denominator content capitalizing on and fomenting anger and distrust.

I have profound faith in the continued health of American media. Although not completely optimistic, I’m still hopeful that its economics will evolve to more closely resemble Germany´s. It may be that big foundations or super-rich, public-spirited citizens can mend the current, damaged US model.

I see no reason why US news programs of the future can’t adopt formats, like Taggeschau’s, tailored to a more complex and polarized world that can thrive even in the age of hyper-niche digital and social media outlets. (Interestingly, each Taggeschau newscast is just 15-minutes long with no commercials, which would appeal to our ever-dwindling attention spans.) This sort of programming can be partly our own creation, evolved for the current moment, whose time has come for domestic consumption.

Americans may even be yearning for more seriousness in the press as they continue to steady their balance after the convulsive Trump years and the ongoing trauma of the pandemic, much of it compounded by flagrant misinformation.

My friend Walter Cronkite drew the nation together around a campfire each evening throughout the volatile 1960s and ‘70s. We trusted him. And this allowed him to report all sorts of uncomfortable truths that we in turn had to confront. It placed a great burden on us all, much to our national benefit.

Walter Cronkite stepped down as CBS Evening News anchorman in 1981, a year after CNN debuted and began to upend broadcast news. This sort of upheaval continues today, particularly in the form of social media. But social media has also made big inroads in Germany, with 41% of people naming it their primary news source.  If Taggeschau can pull in one of eight Germans despite the barrage of options available to them, a similarly rigorous program could surely be a hit with Americans, no matter how conditioned they’ve become to infotainment.

Where do we go from here? First, we don’t give up on believing that the people of the United States can huddle and unite in reverence for the truth. Second, we know that in the hands of our young, creative professional journalists and capable citizen journalists there can be a breakthrough—and that the German model can inform us.