Reporter admits fabricating coverage at Germany’s leading news magazine


When one of Germany’s most trusted publications, Der Spiegel, released a news alert on Wednesday, the subject was its own failing: The magazine revealed that one of its star reporters, Claas Relotius, likely exaggerated his coverage and allegedly fabricated entire events for years before resigning on Monday.

In his roughly 11 year long career as a journalist, Relotius authored or co-authored 55 stories for Spiegel and three stories for the online sister publication Spiegel Online, as well as articles for other prominent German news outlets including Cicero, Financial Times Deutschland, Welt, and Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.

The many topics he wrote about included partially fabricated or entirely fabricated accounts of a Yemeni prisoner in Guantanamo, a pro-Trump town in rural America and vigilante groups along the U.S.-Mexican border.

When confronted last week, Relotius acknowledged many of the fabrications. The “fear of failure,” he said, according to his bosses, had mounted the more his colleagues celebrated him for his work over the years.

Fabrication scandals are highly uncommon, but when they do occur they almost always have serious consequences.

In 1981, for instance, the Pulitzer Prize Committee withdrew a feature-writing prize from Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke after her story was exposed to be a fabrication.  New York Times reporter Jayson Blair resigned in 2003 after editors discovered he had committed “frequent acts of journalistic fraud.”

At The Post as well as other publications, similar allegations have usually resulted in resignations and changes in procedures, ultimately strengthening checks to prevent a similar thing from happening again.

But at a time when political parties are deeply polarised on both sides of the Atlantic, the Spiegel controversy could also bolster those who now regularly portray reporting as “fake news.”

As a publication that often allows its reporters to include subjective observations in their stories, Spiegel’s anti-Trump cover pieces had been widely shared in liberal circles in recent years.

The fact that Relotius was initially exposed due to a story from the United States was immediately used to discredit the magazine’s wider coverage.

On Twitter, Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party wrote: “CNN Journalist of the Year 2014 is #FakeNews. Enjoy #TeamTrump.”

The party’s regional branch in the southern city of Heidelberg went on to suggest that other stories published by the magazine must also be fabricated, given the scale of the scandal.

Several media experts agreed that Spiegel had now chosen the only possible way out of the scandal: to reveal the full extent of it and to make internal findings public.

But still, some, including media analyst and former Spiegel employee Stefan Niggemeier, described the magazine’s first main feature on its own scandal as “tone-deaf.” Besides more factual summaries, the feature story reconstructed the revelation in what critics said was an unnecessarily dramatic fashion.

Even to some who do not buy into “fake news” claims, the Spiegel scandal serves as a warning.

“This is a moment (in time) when reader trust is a precious good for those newsrooms still enjoying it. Anything that gives politicians or more extreme members of the public an easy target to point at is really regrettable,” said Lucas Graves of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.

Spiegel said on Wednesday that it would call on a commission to investigate the case and prevent repeats, but that “even with the best intentions they can’t be entirely ruled out.”

Only few publications, including The New Yorker, can match Spiegel’s dozens of fact-checkers who go through all pieces before publication.

“I really don’t understand how he could mislead his colleagues so well and publish stories that were almost completely fictional in some cases,” said media analyst Niggemeier.

But while the fact-checking efforts of Spiegel and other publications with a high output may spot spelling mistakes or inaccuracies, they aren’t designed to catch deliberate fabrications, Graves said. Often there is not enough time for fact-checkers to speak to sources a second time in order to verify claims.

“Still, cases of outright fabrication are really rare, so it wouldn’t make much sense to reorient all efforts to catch those cases,” Graves cautioned.

Instead, he and others have suggested post-publication checks on some stories.

In his case, it appears that one of his colleagues had exposed him, Juan Moreno.

Relotius had teamed up with Moreno to report on vigilante groups along the U.S.-Mexico border, but Moreno soon began to suspect his colleague of fabricating facts.

He raised his concerns to the magazine’s editorial board, who were initially unwilling to accept the findings.

Moreno decided to head back to the south of the United States without the approval of his editors to speak to the sources Relotius claimed to have interviewed.

When he finally tracked them down, they all agreed: None of them had ever heard of Relotius.

-Washington Post

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