Germany got its own dose of fake news when a star reporter for weekly Der Spiegel confessed to have fabricated at least 14 of 55 articles. Some of his stories had earned distinguished prizes.
The reporter, Claas Relotius, admitted to making up parts of his stories, mostly features from foreign countries, and resigned after a seven-year tenure at Spiegel. Whether the magazine will pursue legal action will be decided after an internal probe.
The disclosure of one of the biggest frauds in postwar German media history comes at an awkward time for Spiegel. The magazine is transitioning to a new editor-in-chief who faces the challenge of merging separate print and online teams. It could also further erode public confidence in journalism, which has already taken a pounding due to fake news spread online.
"We have a large following of readers and many are now wondering whether Spiegel is still trustworthy," incoming editor-in-chief Steffen Klusmann and deputy Dirk Kurbjuweit wrote in an op-ed. Spiegel was aware that the Relotius case will make the fight against fake news even more difficult, they added.
Other renowned publications for which Relotius has worked, such as Financial Times Deutschland, Die Welt and Frankfurter Allgemeine, may also contain fabricated material, Spiegel said. Germany's last big case of fabrication dates back to 2000, when a reporter made up interviews with Brad Pitt and other US stars. Two editors at Süddeutsche Zeitung were fired as a result.
The Relotius case echoes incidents in the US, such as Jayson Blair. The young reporter made up or plagiarized dozens of national reporting stories for the New York Times before being unmasked in 2003. Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for a story about an eight-year-old heroin addict that was so moving Washington police went on an all-out search for him, but couldn’t find him because he didn’t exist. Cooke gave back the prize. Stephen Glass was a rising star at The New Republic, a left-leaning weekly on politics, until a Forbes investigative team in 1998 revealed many of his stories were hoaxes. The scandal was turned into a 2003 film, “Shattered Glass.”
Spiegel is no New York Times, but even by the German magazine's standards, Relotius' outright falsehoods and inventions are shocking. The 33-year journalist won the CNN Journalist of the Year-award in 2014, the European Press Prize last year, and Forbes put him on the talents list “30 Under 30” in the category Europe Media 2017.
Fear of failing
It was a colleague at Spiegel who became suspicious of Relotius’s contributions to an article he worked on. The story, published last month, describes vigilante militia patrols along the Arizona border with Mexico to keep migrants from entering. Veteran reporter Juan Moreno investigated Relotius' reporting and found it was partly invented and partly plagiarized from an article in Mother Jones magazine.
There was the story about a Syrian boy who believed he triggered the civil war in the country with his graffiti, an article that won the German Reporter Prize just three weeks ago but which was made up. It was the fourth such award the Spiegel reporter had won.
The prize jury released a bitter statement about the damage Relotius had done to the reputation of journalism in general with his deception and the “criminal energy” behind it. The organization is considering revoking all four of his prizes.
When Relotius confessed his fabrications to his editors last week, he said: “This wasn’t about the next big thing. It was the fear of failing (…) The pressure not to fail became ever stronger the more successful I became.”
Spiegel, founded in 1947, emerged as a champion of German press freedom in the early 1960s in a standoff with Franz Josef Strauss, a Bavarian politician with aspirations to become chancellor. The confrontation became known as the Spiegel Affair.
As defense minister, Strauss accused Spiegel and its publisher of betraying state secrets in unflattering reports about him and ordered police to raid and occupy the magazine’s offices in Hamburg. His actions were later repudiated by German courts and permanently ruined Strauss’s chances at national office.
But reputations are easy to destroy and very difficult to rebuild. German weekly Stern in 1983 published what it claimed to be newly discovered diaries of Adolf Hitler. They were subsequently revealed to be a hoax and it took a decade for Stern to restore its credibility.
Spiegel's incoming editor-in-chief, Steffen Klusmann, did not exclude the possibility that fact-checkers or other staff members would be let go because of the Relotius affair. A committee will review all of Relotius’s work, which for the time being will remain available on Spiegel’s web site, but with a disclaimer. The committee should also make recommendations to safeguard the integrity of Spiegel’s reporting.