The Der Spiegel Scandal, Parachuting, and Why Journalists Should Behave More Like Anthropologists

I hope the story about the reporter for the German magazine Der Spiegel who went to the small town in Minnesota and made everybody look like gun-toting Trump-worshiping idiots in a long story full of falsehoods highlights the qualities of “Moundsville”.

There is a way to cover heartland America in a way that resonates with all sides of the political spectrum, because it’s based on, well, the truth. That’s the path that avoids liberal condescension and nationalist nostalgia. I’ve been coming to Moundsville to talk to people, off and on, for five years. During trips from my home in Pittsburgh, I got to know people who were trustworthy and authoritative, and, when it came time to make our documentary, that’s who Dave and I chose as our characters. And we came to the town to premiere the movie, and stayed afterwards to hear reactions from townsfolk, whatever they may be. It made me very nervous.

There’s an old tradition in journalism known as “parachuting”, where a reporter goes into a place for a few days, gets wired up with sources, and then writes, in an authoritative tone, a commanding story about a town. The old joke about this is that you can only write about a place if you’ve been there more than 10 years or less than 10 days. Anybody with a long career in journalism has done this. I’ve done it. That’s what the Der Spiegel reporter, Claas Relotius, had been turning into a glorious career. Except he was faking it, and thanks to a couple of local muckrakers with internet access and an insistence on the truth, he, rightly, got got.

At a time when distrust in the media is high — unfortunate, because American newspapers are, I think, world-class — maybe it’s time to empower local sources to be a part of the fact- (and tone-) checking process. One thing I’ve learned recently in talking to cultural anthropologists is that it’s become a custom to present one’s fieldwork to the people it’s about. Maybe it’s time for journalists to adopt similar practices.

John W. Miller

One comment

  1. It’s the accepted ethical standard of cultural anthropologists to both “do no harm” (report accurately even when such writing would garner less critical acclaim) and to actively seek ways to recompense the community that has offered its stories, hospitality, friendship, wisdom and time. It’s simply unethical to “mine” the wisdom of a community without seeking to reciprocate in appropriate ways. Thanks for applying this to journalism.

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