Journalists have the responsibility to put stories within a political context

Journalists have the responsibility to put stories within a political context

Summary and context

The summer was filled with press coverage of problems in the Max Planck Society (MPG). Come autumn and these issues had no impact on how politicians perceive the MPG: Yesterday, in the German Bundestag, the education and research minister, Anja Karliczek, proposed a budget for 2019 that showed an added 50 mill EUR to MPG’s budget without any quality check. It appears that the bullying cases  that were extensively covered by the German and international press were dismissed as anomalies in an otherwise excellent research organization. What did the press do wrong that their coverage changed nothing? Here I offer an analysis.

What is the role of journalists?

In my opinion, investigative journalism should aim at uncovering society’s problems by putting isolated stories in a greater context. Data, statistics and structural analysis should be part of such a story. Presenting one isolated case without context is a malicious take-down of a human being, as I previously argued for one of the MPG-related bullying cases.

When I read a newspaper, I expect to see information relevant in the voting booth or relevant for society as a whole. Since the budget for the MPG and other German research organisations will be discussed in April 2019 for the next five years – Pakt für Forschung und Innovation – it’s important to give people time to call politicians and say: “If you let MPG directors (or professors) fuck again with my right to have children, come next elections, you are fired!”.

However, the bullying cases were presented under a sensational light as problems regarding only a few MPG directors from which the MPG president – Martin Stratmann – was quick to distance himself. Nobody talked about how, not only specific MPG directors are to be blamed, but, in fact, one can blame MPG’s management for spreading a culture of working over-time leading to people being pressurized out of their weekends, statutory holidays, vacation days and parental leave. One can blame MPG’s management for amplifying gender stereotypes leading to fewer women in academia. Thus, should we blame one specific director who listened to her boss? The superior orders defense can be used for MPG directors too because not following their bosses orders leads to being bullied.

In the past, I participated in an article in which we named a MPG director as the cause of a series of problems at his MPI. We went on the report of some junior researchers, but we mostly used what staff in the general administration, MPG’s management and other directors told us. We couldn’t get any document more than reports produced by the local PhD representatives. (This is exactly what the journalists had in the Leipzig case.). According to the journalistic guidelines we were safe. Nevertheless, we got it wrong. Later, I received official MPG documentation showing that the named director was bullied and that the MPG’s management spread misinformation about him. The director was bullied because he did things differently. More than 80% of the PhD candidates in his department received a contract while a high percentage of staff scientists at his institute received permanent contracts. The situation angered the president and the vice-president who made sudden changes in the institute’s budget and blocked any contract extension. This led to stress on junior researchers who reported the results of the decisions of the MPG’s management; the junior researchers didn’t know how things actually happened. The president and the management stated that they did everything in their power to remedy a very bad situation but their power was limited. I believed them. That was some years ago. However, the MPG didn’t change their attitude as we see from the statement made by the head of the press office to Nature News:

the institutes are independent of the society’s general management, which only advises the institutes’ leaderships and checks administrative procedures.

Should we use names of the perpetrators of bullying in the press?

Getting it wrong in the past, and subsequently talking to the person we named in the press only to realize how much the story hurt him, changed my mind about naming MPG directors in public. Moreover, when I was the Max Planck PhDnet spokesperson, we discussed some guidelines about using the press to raise awareness about our issues; a vast majority of PhD representatives opted for not naming institutes or directors. Nobody cares about who the perpetrators are since the problems are not isolated but they are structural and they are not happening only inside the MPG but in the entire German system.

For example, a culture of discrimination against parents is specific to the German academic system where half of those reaching the coveted high positions are childless. In addition, when we don’t center press coverage around the stardom of the perpetrator, we give more space for survivors to tell their stories. Not only survivors of bullying done by star scientists have the right to speak up; everyone should be equally heard.

There are journalists who understand that we don’t need to name the perpetrator to tell the story: Kristin Haug, Anna-Lena Scholz and Katrin Schmermund. Pascale Müller, beside having a strong background in investigative journalism seen in her thorough reports, shows an immense empathy by balancing the release of the name and she explains her decision.

The MPG’s press office and the president don’t show the same empathy for their own directors. Blinded by a desire to look good, they name the directors and publicly condemn their behavior. The problem is that, while the journalists are within their legal rights to name famous people as long as it is in the interest of the public, the employer cannot bad-mouth employees nor publicly discuss details of internal conflicts. The same laws that protect junior researchers from bad-mouthing and their personal information being released protect MPG directors as well.

The caveats of sensationalizing a bullying story

In contrast to investigative journalism that shapes progress, clickbait is defined as:

something (such as a headline) designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest

Science magazine was accused in the past of wanting to release names because they are in the clickbait business. The controversy leading to the firing of one of the best contributors Science magazine had, was extensively covered. Before this incident, Science magazine was under scrutiny because of sexist advice or because they used sexual objectification to attract attention to their covers. Moreover, the journalist who broke the news on this case was at his first investigative piece of this kind. He even confessed his disappointment in positively covering the MPI-CBS director and the desire to make-up for the past. For the title of his coverage, he stressed the irony of the fact that the director involved is an empathy researcher. The irony went viral to other news outlets, the detail of her research topic being called “spicy” in a report from this week. But what value does this irony or spiciness have for talking about the victims of discrimination against pregnancies and parenthood in academia? Later, the same journalist who broke the Leipzig story had a good attempt at contextualizing the case.

Nevertheless, a few days later, he sensationalized the suicide of a scientist outed for fraud in his studies. What value does the suicide add to the story of those who investigated the fraud for years? As someone who went through the experience of having a loved one’s suicide covered in the press, my heart goes to the scientist’s family and friends. Further, the 500 Women Scientists leadership condemned the Science magazine reporting that centers around perpetrators’ achievements instead of the victims. All in all, many have doubts when it comes to sensational reporting in Science magazine. This type of reporting is clickbait: Everyone loves to see a falling star.

Once the star had fallen, we should ask some questions. Would victims have an equal platform if they were victims of a lesser known professor? Is the problem in academia the defining part of the reporting or the stardom status of the perpetrator? Why are we talking about these problems if we see no political change? How do we get political change?

What is bullying and how should we deal with it?

This type of reporting is damaging and the media is in fact bullying the MPI-CBS director. Moreover, bullying is an outburst of victimhood. In the past, I wrote about the female director at the MPI for Astrophysics having her achievements questioned by lesser male scientists than her. In the case of the female director at the MPI-CBS, despite her success, the gossip was about meditation being a serious research topic, though her research made her one of the most powerful people in Germany, according to Manager magazine.

I am not saying that names should never be used. Within the recent press coverage of issues inside the MPG, people brought up Harvey Weinstein and catholic priests as parallels to the cases in the MPG. Let’s make things clear: Sexual assault is a criminal offense and those great pieces of investigative journalism were investigated for almost a year before being publicized. The MPI-CBS was investigated for a few days; for some reports, it took two-three weeks.

Though sexual assault is a criminal offense, bullying is not. Bullying is barely mentioned in the German law; most court cases of bullying are in fact harassment of individuals from protected classes. I personally believe that bullying should be considered criminal endangerment of health due to its terrible consequences. For example, 40% of bullied targets are believed to suffer adverse health effects. However, my opinion does not substitute the law and I’m not using my platform for self-justice, but for lobbying for better laws. But when we discuss these better laws, we have to understand that bullying is complex and we have to dissect each case of abuse of power and bullying to pin-point the broken laws or the situations that fall within the legal standard for bullying. This is what I am trying to do when I cover structural problems.

But not everything covered by the press falls within the legal standard for bullying; some instances are unprofessional emotional outbursts. As a woman, I am confused about the reports of emotional outbursts: It seemed acceptable for years when male directors and presidents do it. Why aren’t the male emotional outbursts in the news? Why isn’t there public coverage of the fact that the former vice-president told a group of junior researchers that it is their fault if they get kids since they are expected to work long hours?

As a woman, I am confused about the fact that the reports about bullying inside the MPG concern two women. Are women not good leaders? (This question was actually raised in the press based on these two cases, which only goes to prove the fact that we need a discussion about responsible reporting.) There are ~45 female directors and ~255 male directors. Statistically speaking, 70% of the workplace bullying perpetrators are male. Is this a case of error in odds due to biased press coverage? Though women can be bullies too, my six years of listening to victims of MPG’s structural problems tell me that the science is right and most of the perpetrators are male. However, when men inside the MPG are indicted under criminal charges, researchers, organizations and the news rally to criticize the MPG for imposing consequences against the perpetrators. But when a female is a perpetrator, there is an outcry about the consequences not being tough enough. Similarly, even when a man is investigated for financial fraud by a state prosecutor, the matter is barely mentioned. More, when the work of the same man is considered scientific misconduct, this fact barely makes the news. But allegations of scientific misconduct against a woman go around the world.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not defending any MPG director’s actions. I am not defending women as incapable of doing any harm: 30% of workplace bullying cases are caused by women. I am just questioning the public’s reaction and the way the press sensationalized bullying when women were the perpetrators.

In fact, we can all be accused of bullying. I can be accused that I bullied my former supervisor out of academia. My defense is that this was the last resort because the MPG didn’t prevent future bullying in her research group. This is also the case for the brave people speaking up in the case at MPI-CBS: The MPG didn’t properly mediate the conflict and allowed a supervisor to continue victimizing people. This is why the people who spoke up against what happened at MPI-CBS are heroes. Moreover, nobody is entitled to tell them how to handle their situation because nobody was in their situation.

Another line of defense I have, when people accuse me that I bullied my former supervisor out of academia is that there is a clear definition of what bullying is and nothing that I did falls within that definition. When journalists are not familiar with the definition of bullying, their reporting suffers. For example, one editor in chief at a famous German newspaper argued that “Nils”‘s case was not bullying. However, receiving unrealistic workload met with reprimand for not achieving the goals is bullying by Leymann’s definition. In another example, being asked to consult with the director before talking about the research results was reported as bullying. Nevertheless, this is a part of the MPG contract: Being asked to follow one’s contract is not bullying.

Who am I to tell journalists how to do their job?

In 2014, it took two articles to change the system of stipends to contracts inside the MPG. However, those articles were strategical. The first article was published after a failed debate in the presidential commission aimed at improving the situation of doctoral candidates within PhDnet’s agenda. (As a consequence of this debate, a year later, the chair of the presidential commission said that some MPG directors have feudal lord characteristics.) In this article, no Max Planck institute, nor director were named, as the stories were presented within structural problems. As a consequence to this article, within weeks, Martin Stratmann was called in the Bundestag’s committee dealing with research issues and was asked to explain himself. Martin Stratmann stated that he supports the junior researchers. We waited until our meeting on 1st of September 2014 when we asked Martin Stratmann for a concrete plan to improve the situation. When he failed to provide us with such a commitment, beyond an empty show of support, a second article was published. For this article, I suggested that the rapporteur to the Bundestag on MPG is involved for a public statement. She didn’t disappoint and showed her support for our problems. Moreover, she shared the article on Facebook stating that she supports junior researchers. I messaged her saying that if she indeed supports us, she should talk to me. We phoned and within 30 min I explained to her all our attempts to address the issues internally. I told her that I feel that Martin Stratmann and I are in a conflict and we need an external mediator. To me, she was the one in the position to mediate the situation. In less than five months, the official announcement came that the MPG will give up the use of stipends. It took only two strategical articles and holding 50 mill EUR out of the annual MPG budget as a bargaining chip. Nevertheless, yesterday, despite of far more than two articles, the education and research minister gave the MPG an extra 50 mill EUR (the same 3% annual increase to their budget) without even considering what the press reported. To me, this is a result of terrible reporting. One can only wonder whether the politicians saw those articles as they were not actively engaged in the discussion that was sensationalized down to malicious gossip.


When I was bullied, I chose not to make my case public with the name of my supervisor and her image – though I am in the fortunate position to have a platform – because I can see the structural problems inside the MPG and the German academia as the source of what happened to me. I can see that both me and my former supervisor were victimized by people who are still inside the MPG and occupy high positions. I always believed, and continue to believe, that people are entitled to second chances. My former supervisor was not trained to lead people but she is very skilled at her new job outside academia. These being said, in an ironic twist of faith, while I was decrying the journalists using the name of academic bullies, I found out that my former supervisor is an invited speaker at a conference aimed at empowering women. While I believe in second chances, I doubt that my former supervisor is a model for female junior researchers. Would she still be invited as a role model to empower young women if people knew what she did to us?

All considered, I believe that we should all take a step back and think about how we cover cases of academic bullying.

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