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ABC of the German media system

Why the media are considered the “fourth power”, what the press code involves and how press freedom is guaranteed.

Eva Steinlein, 03.05.2022
The German media system – an overview
The German media system – an overview © Getty Images / iStockphoto

The German media landscape is diverse and robust. Independent information on current events is constantly available on radio and television, in the print media or on online news portals.

The media are the “fourth power”

The importance of journalists and editors is so great that many people describe them as the “fourth power” alongside the executive, legislature and judiciary. The press is free, protected by the constitution and has a supervisory function – also with regard to itself.

Public-service and private broadcasters

Many people in Germany subscribe to a local newspaper so that they know what is happening in their immediate surroundings – it reports not only on politics and business in their town, but also on construction projects, accidents and all kinds of events. Supraregional daily newspapers, such as Süddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Welt, offer background information and investigative journalism. They are traditionally held in high esteem.

The nine Landesrundfunkanstalten, as the regional radio and television organisations of the German states are known, are run as public-service broadcasters subject to public law. They are financed by a fee that all households in Germany have to pay. In return, these stations deliver basic provision – in addition to news programmes and documentaries, this also includes sports transmissions, quiz shows and soap operas. ZDF, Deutschlandradio and Deutsche Welle, which is only received outside Germany, are also public-service broadcasters run in accordance with public law.

Private broadcasters, such as n-tv, Pro Sieben/Sat 1 and RTL, and commercial radio stations, such as Radio Energy and Klassik Radio, finance their programmes through advertising.

Young media users usually get their information from articles, videos and podcasts available on the websites and online media libraries that almost all news media in Germany offer.

The constitution guarantees freedom of opinion and freedom of the press

The fact that there are so many different news media in Germany is also a result of the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of opinion and freedom of the press in the Federal Republic. Article 5 of the Basic Law states: “Every person shall have the right freely to express and disseminate his opinions in speech, writing and pictures, and to inform himself without hindrance from generally accessible sources. (…) There shall be no censorship.”

Who can work as a journalist?

The professional designation “journalist” is not protected, which means everyone can use this job title. If you can prove you work as a journalist, you have a legal right to information from state authorities, enjoy partial exemption from strict data protection rules and cannot be compelled to divulge your sources and informers (right to refuse to give evidence).

Nevertheless, specific rules apply to Germany’s over 100,000 journalists. Most of them have completed a university degree and several years of training at a school of journalism or on an editorial board, a period of practical training known in German as a Volontariat. Their work is governed by the Press Law of their respective state.

Press code for journalists

Journalistic due diligence requires that journalists must precisely check the source and content of a report before publication. If they are publishing unfounded information or hearsay, they must make this clear in the article. Furthermore, reporting must not be mixed with advertising. Advertising content must always be clearly identified as such. If journalists have falsely represented a person or information, they are obliged to publish a counterstatement. In addition, journalists can be made legally accountable for what they have published.

Journalists have also laid down rules for their work in the form of a press code. In it they pledge, among other things, not to accept any benefits or favours that would threaten their independence. In their reporting they should carefully weigh the individual’s right to privacy and personal dignity against the public’s right to information. They should not allow themselves to be led by sensationalism or discriminate against or offend anyone.

Regulators: Press Council and Broadcasting Council

The Press Council and Broadcasting Council monitor whether journalists observe these principles. Citizens can complain to the Press Council when they see violations of the press code. It then examines their complaint. In the event of a violation, it sends the respective editorial board a notice or rebuke or issues a public reprimand for publication.

The Broadcasting Council monitors whether public-service television and radio stations fulfil their statutory broadcasting responsibility – in other words, whether their programming contributes to information, education, guidance, culture and entertainment as well as to securing diversity of opinion in Germany. The Broadcasting Council should represent a cross-section of the population: its members are appointed by societal organisations, such as unions, churches and political parties.

The right of reply

Every person, organisation and business enterprise in Germany has the right of reply if they feel that they have not been portrayed correctly in a report. If they meet certain legal requirements, they can publish their view of the situation in the same publication, in the same section and in the same type as the original statement.