The winner of numerous journalism awards, including CNN’s “Journalist of the Year,” the European Press Prize and Forbes List of “30 under 30 — Europe: Media” award, the 33-year-old reporter had risen to quick fame in media circles and the public eye but had mixed fact with fiction and even spun whole tales for one of Germany’s most respected media companies.
One of Der Spiegel’s editors in chief, Ullrich Fichtner, described internal reactions using the words “shock,” “sadness,” and “appalling,” and wrote that the incident constituted the “low point in the 70-year history of Spiegel.”
The magazine, which recently introduced the slogan “No fear of the truth,” acknowledged in a piece published on Thursday that “we have many questions for ourselves.”
In his roughly 11-year-long career as a journalist, Relotius authored or co-authored 55 stories for Spiegel and three stories for its sister online publication, Spiegel Online. He also has written for other prominent German news outlets, including Cicero, Financial Times Deutschland, Welt, and Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.
The many topics he wrote about included sensationalized or entirely fabricated accounts of a Yemeni prisoner in Guantanamo, a pro-Trump town in rural America and vigilante groups along the U.S.-Mexican border, among others.
When confronted last week, Relotius acknowledged many of the fabrications. The “fear of failure,” he said, according to his bosses, had mounted the more his colleagues celebrated him for his work over the years.
Fabrication scandals are extremely rare, but when they do occur they almost always have far-reaching consequences. In 1981, for instance, the Pulitzer Prize Committee withdrew a feature-writing prize from Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke after her story was exposed to be a fabrication. New York Times reporter Jayson Blair resigned in 2003 after editors discovered he had committed “frequent acts of journalistic fraud.”
At The Post and other publications, similar allegations have usually resulted in resignations and changes in procedures, ultimately strengthening checks to prevent a repeat.
But at a time when political parties are deeply polarized on both sides of the Atlantic, the Spiegel controversy could also bolster those who now regularly portray reporting as “fake news.” As a publication that often allows its reporters to include subjective observations in their stories, Spiegel’s anti-Trump cover pieces had been widely shared in liberal circles in recent years. The fact that Relotius was initially exposed because of a story from the United States was immediately used to discredit the magazine’s wider coverage.
On Twitter, Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party wrote: “CNN Journalist of the Year 2014 is #FakeNews. Enjoy #TeamTrump.” The party’s regional branch in the southern city of Heidelberg went on to suggest that other stories published by the magazine must also be fabricated, given the scale of the scandal.
Several media experts agreed that Spiegel had now chosen the only possible way out of the scandal: to reveal the full extent of it and to make internal findings public. But still, some, including media analyst and former Spiegel employee Stefan Niggemeier, described the magazine’s first main feature on its own scandal as “tone-deaf.” Besides more factual summaries, the feature story reconstructed the revelation in what critics said was an unnecessarily dramatic fashion.
Even to some who do not buy into “fake news” claims, the Spiegel scandal serves as a warning.
“This is a moment when reader trust is a precious good for those newsrooms still enjoying it. Anything that gives politicians or more extreme members of the public an easy target to point at is really regrettable,” said Lucas Graves of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.
Spiegel said on Wednesday that it would call on a commission to investigate the case and prevent repeats, but that “even with the best intentions they can’t be entirely ruled out.”
Only a handful of publications, such as the New Yorker, can match Spiegel’s dozens of fact-checkers, who go through all pieces before publication. “I really don’t understand how he could mislead his colleagues so well and publish stories that were almost completely fictional in some cases,” Niggemeier said.
But while the fact-checking efforts of Spiegel and other publications with a high output may spot spelling mistakes or inaccuracies, they aren’t designed to catch deliberate fabrications, Graves said. 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, one of the editors in chief. “Maybe the checks in our system are too weak”
“Still, cases of outright fabrication are really rare, so it wouldn’t make much sense to reorient all efforts to catch those cases,” Graves cautioned. Instead, he and others have suggested post-publication checks on some stories. Routinely contacting some sources after publication to check for possible complaints — even when nobody has objected to coverage — could both improve future reporting and expose rare fabrications because research has shown that only few people ever actively complain themselves, Graves said.
That’s especially true for Relotius, who mostly wrote about people living abroad and without access to the German magazine.
In his case, it does not appear to have been a reader complaint that ultimately exposed him — but instead one of his colleagues, Juan Moreno. with whom Relotius had teamed to report on vigilante groups along the U.S.-Mexico border, but Moreno soon began to suspect his colleague of fabricating facts. He raised his concerns to the magazine’s editorial board, who were initially unwilling to accept the findings.
Moreno decided to head back to the south of the United States without the approval of his editors to speak to the sources Relotius claimed to have interviewed.
When he finally tracked them down, they all agreed: none had ever been interviewed by Relotius.
More on WorldViews: