We need the ethics of communication as a school subject!

By Angelika Lonnemann, December 2022

Bernhard Pörksen, born in 1969, is professor of media studies at Tübingen University. In 2008 he was voted “Professor of the Year” and honoured for his teaching. He has researched and written about scandals, truth and lies, and communication as an art of living. Pörksen warns against the democracy-destroying way in which information flows have become polluted and pleads for a new educational campaign, which has to start with children.

Bernhard Pörksen analyses the relationship between society and the media. He notes that the authority of classic journalism is waning: “The shouting about a lying press is getting louder and news is turning into freely swirling confetti of information. Everyone has become a newscaster. Even the angry citizen who only recently was raging in solitude in a flash finds confirmation and good reasons for their own outrage – without their evidence having to pass through a reality filter. In short, the ethos of the individual is more significant today than ever before because everyone has become a participant. This is the great, still misunderstood educational task of the digital age.”

After the pro-Brexit campaign, Donald Trump’s election victory with the help of Putin’s trolls, after the pandemic infodemic and in the swirl of fake news on the Ukraine war, three facts could be established, he said: “Firstly, the systematic way information flows all over the world have become polluted destabilises democracies and gives an anti-liberal impetus, as numerous studies show in detail. Secondly, the asymmetric truth wars of unscrupulous populists, combined with the perverse incentives of social networks – fomenting dissent, inflaming, emotionalising – are conducive to undermining the ability of politics and society to solve current major crises. For these crises (think, for example, of climate change) presuppose a basic consensus about reality, a common focus and long-term thinking. So few things are as necessary right now as the combination of consensus, the ability to compromise, concentration and long-term strategy-building. Third, it is obvious that disinformation kills, directly and immediately. Because at some point the QAnon nutters will take up arms or storm the Capitol. At some point the Reichsbürger [a grouping that denies the legitimacy of the modern German state] will open fire”.

Resistance urgently wanted

Because of the enormous costs of disinformation, which have become obvious in the last few years, Pörksen calls for a more resolute, fiercer resistance from open society. “The calls for violence in the catacombs of the Telegram channels must be prosecuted with a different severity and speed. But in the act of fighting disinformation, a democracy always also defends its own dignity and values. It must therefore already show in the way of confrontation that it is not giving up the enlightenment idea. And therein lies the peculiar beauty of every educational idea: it relies on the better argument, the power of discourse, until absolutely definitive proof to the contrary.”

Sleeper effect through propaganda

Pörksen notes that information of varying quality and origin flows together relatively indiscriminately in social networks: “The cat video directly competes with sensational news and actually significant news. And ultimately it is true that people retain the specific content in their memory longer than the sources from which it originates. That is, nonsense messages from dubious channels that are simply repeated endlessly gradually gain inevitable credibility because their dubious origins increasingly fade, are forgotten. This is the sleeper effect of propaganda, its immanent dominance”. Pörksen defines Facebook, search engines like Google and services like Twitter as hermaphroditic media, as “journalistic instances of power in an elusive grey and crossover zone. Sometimes their operators pretend to be neutral and act as if their algorithms were dully calculating fairness machines. Then again, they are known to make arbitrary editorial decisions, ignore death threats and hate postings, but give priority to deletion requests from individual lobby groups.”

Media literacy and the second enlightenment

Pörksen sees society facing the enormous task of turning citizens into media-literate people and wants to start in school: “If we condense the consideration of media technology, digital economy and human psychology into one conclusion, it is this: the current media situation reveals a gigantic educational task that has not yet been deciphered at all in socio-political terms, a challenge that has not yet been understood. It is necessary to practise dealing with information and a general ethics of communication as early as in school – on the way to media literacy and a second enlightenment that makes the communicative and medial conditions of enlightenment itself tangible.

“Among the ideals and principles of an editorial society that I advocate in my book is that the ideals of good journalism become an element of general education. This includes: checking sources, factuality and relevance; the effort to achieve proportionality, in other words the attempt not to make a thing bigger than it is; the requirement never to rely on just one informant but always to hear the other side as well; a healthy dose of scepticism and an awareness of our own blind spots and prejudices. Precisely because everyone has become a newscaster, smartphone in hand, everyone should also learn to act as their own editor – that is the basic idea. And in the maxim of Good Journalism lies, I believe, an ethics of communication that concerns everyone today. It should be taught in school – as a mixture of media practice and media analysis.

“Schools should therefore train the maturity of the individual and strengthen their power of judgement. From my point of view, it should have long been the order of the day, even beyond the school buildings, to initiate a big conversation about journalistic standards and the training of judgement. It would be an exchange and debate that could also benefit journalism and inspire education policies that are somnolent at best; this urgently needs normative clarity – beyond a merely naively fashionable fascination with technology and general digital blah-blah.”

“Journalism does School” counter movement

Pörksen observes the scene closely and notes that a kind of grassroots revolution in media education has been emerging for a few years now, coming from journalism: “Since 2019, for example, the Journalismus macht Schule (Journalism does School) association reports, we have been in thousands of schools all over Germany. There were school and teacher media days, online workshops, podcasts, media projects and advanced teacher training courses and seminars at adult education centres and universities in huge numbers. In the process, many new and fascinating initiatives and cooperations have emerged – between regional and national newspapers and the public broadcasters, the widest variety of foundations, educational institutions and media houses. Many prominent journalists take part, committed teachers are involved, without much ado, often in their free time, on a voluntary basis. The basic idea of this grassroots media education offensive is impressively simple. It says: journalism is much more than a profession. Because in the journalistic ideals and maxims – ‘Check first, publish later!’, ‘Analyse your sources!’, ‘Listen to the other side too!’, ‘Orientate yourself by relevance and proportionality!’, ‘Be sceptical!’ – lies a concrete ethics of communication that concerns everyone today.”

Further reading:

Bernhard Pörksen: Die große Gereiztheit. Wege aus der kollektiven Erregung. Hanser-Verlag, Munich 2018, 22 euros.

Rainer Patzlaff: Die Sphinx des digitalen Zeitalters. Aspekte einer Menschheitskrise. 348 pages, 24 euros, Verlag Freies Geistesleben 2021

The quotes are from the following newspaper articles:

Bernhard Pörksen: “Wie können wir medienmündig werden, Herr Pörksen?”, Mannheimer Morgen of 7 July 2018, p. 5.

Bernhard Pörksen: “Alle müssen Journalisten sein”, Die Zeit, 7 July 2018, p. 68.

Bernhard Pörksen: “Warum Desinformation tötet”, Badische Zeitung, 3 May 2022, p. 2.

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