Three years ago, the falsifications by reporter Claas Relotius shook SPIEGEL and called the magazine’s credibility into question. What followed?
By Brigitte Fehrle
Fehrle, 67, is the former chief editor of the Berliner Zeitung. She works as a freelance journalist in Berlin.
On December 19, 2018, SPIEGEL was forced to publish a case of forgery that had never been seen before in this form. For years, the young reporter Claas Relotius had written and published texts, most of which had a kernel of truth, but most of which were fictitious.
His stories were almost always extraordinary, unique, spectacular. They took place in inaccessible war zones, in the American provinces or behind the walls of prisons. He cleverly composed the supposed facts in his texts, exploited gaps in the system at the time and outwitted colleagues from the editorial and documentation departments who trusted him too much.
Relotius received much praise and numerous prestigious journalism awards for these texts – mostly reportages. In December 2018, after years of freelancing, he was permanently employed by SPIEGEL and was at the beginning of what could have been assumed at the time to be a great career. The story that finally exposed him was titled “Jaeger’s Border.” It was a story about a vigilante group that tracks down illegal migrants at the border.
For the news magazine’s editorial staff, which was informed by the editor-in-chief at noon on Dec. 19, the revelation came as a shock. Especially since it was not the editorial staff itself, not attentive department heads or editors-in-chief, who had unmasked Relotius and thus stopped him. It was a colleague who had been involuntarily teamed up with the star reporter for research on refugees on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Juan Moreno, a veteran reporter, was apparently the first to pose the question to a text by Relotius: Can this be? Did this scripted story really happen that way? Moreno researched Relotius’ story on his own initiative, looked up places and people involved, and found out: it was fictitious.
It took a few weeks before Juan Moreno was believed at SPIEGEL. At the time, he was “running into walls,” as he later put it himself. Moreno was a freelancer, Relotius was seen as the talented, up-and-coming colleague. People suspected competition and jealousy as motives for Moreno’s accusations. But that is a separate story in the ¬story, not a laudable one for SPIEGEL.
The Relotius case led to an intense public debate about the credibility of journalism. The question was rightly raised as to how certain readers could be that the information and the stories told were true, when in a medium such as SPIEGEL, with its extensive documentation department that checked every text in the magazine for factual accuracy, a forger could remain undetected for years.
Even the numerous organizers of journalism awards, whose juries are made up of renowned editors-in-chief and experienced reporters and investigators, had to ask themselves why they liked these particular texts so much that they awarded prize after prize. And since it was reportage for which Relotius had won awards, the question arose as to whether this genre, which more than any other arises from often unverifiable observation, is particularly susceptible to forgery.
The fact that the scandal surrounding Relotius did not lead to a lasting loss of image and credibility for SPIEGEL also had to do with the change of editors-in-chief. Steffen Klusmann was already in the house in December 2018, but not yet in office. So it was not his forgery scandal, it was the scandal of his predecessors. A happy coincidence, then, that made it easier for Klusmann to decide in favor of openness and consistent reappraisal.
A special investigative commission, of which I was a member, was set up to look into the case.
The three-member commission, which in addition to me included the newly hired head of news Stefan Weigel and longtime SPIEGEL man Clemens Höges, was given three tasks: To check all of Relotius’ texts for forgery. To answer the question of whether and how the structures within the company contributed to Relotius not being exposed for so long. And to make suggestions as to how this can be prevented in the future.
The first task was complex, but the result was clear. All of Claas Relotius’ texts were checked for accuracy with the help of the documentation and the editorial team. The result was as clear as it was devastating: almost all of the texts were incorrect or even completely falsified. Finding out whether the editorial structures contributed to the fact that the ¬forger Relotius was not discovered for so long was the incomparably more difficult task.
In January 2019, when we began our in-house research, I encountered mostly editors who literally no longer understood the world. A forger at SPIEGEL! At a news magazine. The news magazine. I often heard the incredulous question: Why would someone falsify in an editorial office that spares neither money nor effort, that has its journalists fly to the ends of the earth to procure information? Many also took it very personally, felt cheated, deceived, even abused, and saw themselves in a victim role. The most difficult thing for most people was to admit that it was not only Relotius’ particularly sophisticated falsifications that were responsible for the editorial team’s blindness.
At the other end of the emotional scale, I met people who seemed to me as if they felt a secret joy about the scandal. For very different motives, I suspect: jealousy of a successful colleague; envy, because the reportage department had privileges that they themselves also wanted; or satisfaction, because they did not share the journalistic course that someone like Relotius, who won prizes with beautifully written texts, stood for.
At least in the first months of our research, I encountered great interest in enlightenment everywhere. It seemed clear to most people that covering up or tactically maneuvering with the truth would damage SPIEGEL and the reputation of journalism. A very few, who were rather taciturn, probably wished for the old days, when SPIEGEL acknowledged criticism from outside with defensiveness or hermetic silence.
The general eagerness to shed light on the case naturally waned as public interest in the Relotius case waned and the daily routine returned. But by then, we as a commission had already largely completed our research.
It may sound cynical, but fortunately Relotius had not only falsified in SPIEGEL. Fortunately, because this meant that other serious editorial offices in Germany could not play the public prosecutor. Editors-in-chief and department heads everywhere had to ask themselves: Could this have happened to me? Those who were honest answered in the affirmative. At the time, the reasons that led to SPIEGEL’s blindness to falsification also applied in different ways to other editorial departments:
the overvaluation of the genre of reportage, the supposed “supreme discipline” of journalism, which tempts to dramaturgical compositions, embellishments and – as in the Relotius case – to invention. the lack of transparency and verifiability of research, which does not allow readers to understand the background and environment in which a text is created. a weakly developed culture of error in the reporter’s department, which misinterprets mutual control as mistrust.
SPIEGEL’s editorial team drew far-reaching consequences from the forgery scandal. After a long discussion process, the editorial team adopted new, stricter rules for research, documentation and texts. The aim is to make it easier for readers to understand how texts are created. Reporters must also document their research more comprehensively and more verifiably.
A case of Relotius, who was able to deceive superiors and colleagues with invented persons, places and documents, is actually no longer possible if these rules are adhered to. Pessimists might say: Faking has become much more costly.
To ensure that readers’ doubts about the truthfulness of texts are not lost, as happened in the Relotius case, an ombudsman’s office was created at SPIEGEL. Here, the head of the legal department, a documentalist and the head of news at SPIEGEL consistently follow up on tips.
So a lot has happened, and not just at SPIEGEL. In other media, too, the actual or at least threatened loss of credibility due to the falsifications has led to similar discussions and consequences. As a reader, you can now expect more transparency and accuracy in texts in the best case.
Claas Relotius once said many years ago at an event with young journalists that he expected his readers to trust him. One wishes he wasn’t right. But without trust in the rectitude of the editorial offices, it is not possible, despite good rules, more transparency and new complaints bodies. It is precisely because readers have to trust, because not everything is verifiable for them, that a Relotius case must not be repeated, no matter how insignificant or what form it takes.
This sentence is true, of course. And yet it seems written for a bygone era.
When the Relotius case became public in December 2018, it happened in a media environment that today seems almost harmless. True, there was Fake News, the then U.S. president tried to manipulate the public with clumsy means quite perfidiously, Russian trolls played along. But this seemed to be a kind of deviant behavior, a phenomenon that one still hoped would be temporary, trusting in people’s media competence and the quality and precision of counter-information – real facts.
Today, only three years later, we are witnessing a globalization of a new kind. It does not follow economic cycles or financial flows. Yes, not even climate change. It travels with the virus. For the first time, the malevolent conspirators have found a global theme. People around the globe are agitating for one and the same.
The deniers of the pandemic have been able to leap over the barriers of rich and poor, culture and religion. In real time with the spread of the virus, radical groups have emerged around the world that defy any political or social classification and disregard democratic rules. Peoples are indeed hearing the signals now, but very different ones than the masterminds of socialism had hoped for.
For media committed to reality and truthfulness, the struggle to be heard in their world is probably lost.