One of Germany’s leading news magazines and oft-cited publications Der Spiegel apologised on Wednesday for award-winning staff writer Claas Relotius who had allegedly “falsified articles on a grand scale and even invented characters” in more than a dozen stories that he had worked on over a seven-year period.
The prestigious Hamburg-based weekly forced its 33-year-old star reporter to resign on Monday after the discovery, which editor-in-chief Ullrich Fichtner called “a low point in Der Spiegel’s 70-year history”.
Founded in 1947 and renowned for its in-depth investigative pieces, in a lengthy post the magazine said Relotius had committed journalistic fraud “on a grand scale”, further expressing shock and astonishment. Relotius had freelanced at Der Spiegel for years before joining full time a year ago.
After confessing to falsifying entire events for his articles and embellishing his coverage for which he rose to quick fame in the media fraternity, Relotius returned four coveted awards including CNN’s “Journalist of the Year”, the European Press Prize, and Forbes‘s List of “30 under 30 — Europe: Media” award, besides being stripped of others.
The magazine, whose motto is “No fear of the truth”, admitted this week that they have many questions for themselves after the ongoing investigation revealed that at least 14 of Relotius’s 60 articles were fabricated. A commission is now reviewing all of Relotius’s work including during his years as a freelancer, when he wrote for many respected German and Swiss newspapers.
Most of his coverage was based in the Middle East and the US, and his bylines have also appeared in other prominent German news outlets, including Cicero, Financial Times Deutschland, Welt, and Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. Die Welt tweeted on Wednesday: “He abused his talent”.
One of his award-winning pieces around a Syrian boy called Mouwiya whose anti-government graffiti was reported to have triggered the civil war. Relotius alleged that he had interviewed the boy via WhatsApp; the magazine is currently investigating if the interview took place and whether the boy exists.
On Thursday, another editor-in-chief Steffen Klusmann said that parts of an interview with a 95-year-old Nazi resistance fighter in the US were also fabricated.
Another erroneous article that fired up was one where Relotius painted Fergus Falls as a pro-Trump rural American town. Two residents immediately took to Medium to publish their comparative analysis of fact and fiction, citing eleven instances of gross distortion of reality, unsupported by even basic research, wondering “what kind of institutional breakdown led to the supposedly world-class Der Spiegel fact-checking team completely dropping the ball on this one”.
A colleague Juan Moreno, who co-authored a piece with Relotius on a pro-Trump vigilante group reportedly involved in hunting down illegal immigrants on the Arizona-Mexico border, first alerted the editors to Relotius’s discrepancies and sourcing problems.
Although Relotius rebuffed all claims at first, there came a point “when that didn’t work anymore, until he finally couldn’t sleep anymore, haunted by the fear of being discovered”. “I am sick and I need to get help,” he was quoted as saying in the magazine’s apology note to its readers.
Among other stories that Der Spiegel discovered fabricated was an article in which he claimed to have interviewed the parents of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who controversially knelt to protest police brutality in USA. Another instance of distortion included one about a Yemeni prisoner in Guantanamo Bay.
Weaponised by the right
Many of Relotius’s anti-Trump articles were shared widely among liberal circles in Europe, at a time when international media has come under fire and is in itself embattled with the fake news menace.
The flipside to Der Spiegel’s scandalous revelation constitutes right-wing populist touting Relotius as a “representative of the lügenpresse”, or lying press, an epithet that was widely used by the Nazis to denounce the and is making esurgence among far-right populists today. Several YouTube vloggers and political outfits have already claimed that this revelation proves their long-standing claims of widespread fake news in the mainstream media.
Der Spiegel is the latest prominent news organisation to be rocked by revelations of a high-flying reporter falsifying information. It is reminiscent of past scandals in global media such as the Jayson Blair snafu at the New York Times, the Stephen Glass scandal at the New Republic, and the revoked Pulitzer Prize won by Janet Cooke at the Washington Post, which remains the ultimate case study of ethics in journalism to this date.
In 1981, Janet Cooke was the first Afro-American woman to win the coveted Pulitzer Prize, based on her depiction of an eight-year-old black heroin addict in Washington named Jimmy. The harrowing and detailed article immediately generated a national outpouring of sympathy for the boy, as civilians and activists sought to reach out and help the victim. Cooke was forced to admit that Jimmy didn’t really exist, and her editors came under fire for failing to check the sources. After the scandal broke, Cooke returned the prize and left her job and public life.
In 2003, the New York Times discovered that one of its rising stars, Jayson Blair, had invented parts of his stories and stolen material from other news outlets. The scandal resulted in the resignations of Blair and the newspaper’s top two editors. At the New Republic, Stephen Glass was considered a brilliant 25-year-old magazine writer, until he was unmasked as a serial fabricator and fired in 1998.
After the Der Spiegel discovery, the German journalists’ union has announced that this amounted to “the biggest fraud scandal in journalism” since the historian-certified “Hitler diaries” were and published by Stern magazine in Germany and Newsweek in the US in 1983.
Why it matters
Earlier this month, Relotius had won Germany’s (Reporter of the Year) for his story about a young Syrian boy headlined “Child’s Play”, which the jurors praised for its “lightness, poetry and relevance”. It has since emerged that all the sources for his reportage were at best elusive, and much of what he wrote was manufactured.
According to the Columbia Journalism Review, such incidents point to myriad other issues and transgressions in both journalism and the world at large, including the use of unnamed sources, newsroom ethics, and the tendency of some writers, operating in the genre known as creative nonfiction, to take creative licence in the pursuit of more literary work. Mike Sager, the author of the essay, compared journalistic fraud at such a large scale to sinning in the church.
Another loophole points to the fact-checking efforts of high-output publications like Spiegel. Often there is not enough time for fact-checkers to speak to sources a second time to verify claims. “There will probably now be changes to that. Up until now, we’ve operated on a fundamental trust between journalist and editor,” said Fichtner.
For now, Relotius’s stories have been left unaltered online, but have been appended with a note informing readers that his reporting is under suspicion of extensive forgery and manipulation.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius