A disgraced German journalist who for years filled his award-winning ‘real-life’ reports with fiction is now accused of embezzling from his audience.
Weekly news magazine Der Spiegel has gone to the police with evidence that may support allegations that Claas Relotius, an employee of seven years, solicited money from readers to benefit Syrian orphans featured in one of his reports. Not only does Der Spiegel claim these orphans’ stories were largely fabricated by Relotius, but also that he funnelled donations into his own personal bank account.
The magazine says it passing on what information it has to prosecutors, having filed a criminal complaint against the 33-year-old reporter. Der Spiegel insists it was unaware of Relotius’ fraudulent fundraising campaign and does not know what sums of money are involved.
The report in question was published in July 2016 and claimed to tell the story of Syrian orphans living rough on the streets of Turkey. Relotius is accused of calling for financial donations via email from readers who contacted him about the story. A Turkish photographer who worked with Relotius on the report revealed that many parts of it were merely figments of the writer’s imagination.
Details of other invented stories emerged last week after Relotius resigned from Der Spiegel after seven years, having admitted making up much of his journalism. Confessing to his employers, he told them “It wasn’t about the next big thing. It was the fear of failure…The pressure not to fail grew as I became more successful.”
‘Exaggerations, Embellishments and downright lies’
One such fiction published in March 2017 and entitled “In a Small Town” claims to examine the lives of Donald Trump supporters in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, where Relotius had spent three weeks ‘on the ground’. Two Fergus Falls residents, Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn, had the report translated (it was originally published in German) only to find “endless pages of an insulting, if not hilarious, excuse for journalism.” The pair felt compelled to publish their own story debunking the exaggerations, embellishments and downright lies written by Relotius.
Anderson writes: “Not only did Relotius’ “exposé” on Fergus Falls make unrecognizable movie-like characters out of the people in my town that I interact with on a daily basis, but its very basic lack of truth and its bizarrely bleak portrayal of the place I love left a very sick, unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach.”
The scandal prompted criticism of Der Spiegel’s management from the US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, who complains of “institutional bias” against the United States.
Der Spiegel’s Editors-in-Chief wrote an apology to readers and have promised to “leave no stone unturned” as they investigate what they admit is their “flawed” fact-checking system. In their words: “We have a lot of questions for ourselves, and the answers will likely result in quite a few changes at DER SPIEGEL.”
Damage to journalism
According to “Zeit” editor-in-chief Giovanni di Lorenzo, the case of fraud at “Der Spiegel” damages the genre of reportage as a whole.
This applies in particular to “the figure of the war reporter, who normally goes to areas where the rulers have a special interest in ensuring that no information reaches the outside world,” di Lorenzo said in an interview for “Spiegel” themselves.
“These reporters are now under general suspicion because it is almost impossible to fully understand their research.” The fact that there are now doubts about the truthfulness of reports for which people risk their lives is the real harm.
Der “Spiegel” printed the interview with di Lorenzo in its new issue, which has been available since Saturday and has the scandal of in house fraud as the cover story.
Di Lorenzo said that the question had to be asked whether there had been a deformation in the genre of reportage that affected all publishing houses.
“In some of the works submitted for the Nannen Prize, I ask myself: “Is this still journalism or is it already a novel? Di Lorenzo sits on the jury of the Nannen Prize, one of the most important awards in German-language journalism. “Mediocre and boring stories are and remain an imposition! On the other hand, there are a few reports where it is now the same as with the overbreeding of dogs or horses – too beautiful to still appear authentic,” said di Lorenzo.