Guest contribution: Power abuse in journalism

The greatest story starts with you

by Eva Hoffmann und Pascale Müller

On 17 October 2021, the New York Times published an article on the abuse of power and the toxic leadership climate at BILD. In the article, several sources stated that they had had a sexual relationship with editor-in-chief Julian Reichelt which had resulted in better jobs for them. But they also reported being put under pressure and feeling overburdened. The article also mentions research on the allegations against Reichelt by journalist Juliane Löffler who, with her editorial team Ippen Investigativ, came under fire in her own publishing house before publication.  

Two days later, the then editor-in-chief of BILD had to quit his job. The scandal provided material for a huge media story, for a storm. Anyone standing by might come to the conclusion: the whole extent of sexism and abuse of power in German editorial offices is now out in the open. But the Julian Reichelt case is symptomatic of a much deeper problem.

Many things had to come together for the scandal to become public

During the investigations into the allegations against the former editor-in-chief of BILD, many things came together making it easy to publish the story. You had sources who were willing to describe their experiences. You had an extremely persistent reporter and her team, and you had an accused who was a media celebrity.

These factors helped overcome the immense resistance that every #metoo investigation has to face - intimidation of the alleged victims, legal attacks, perpetrator-victim role reversal. 

In most cases, investigating power abuse is not that easy. Some cases never become public. Not because they didn’t happen or because the abuse supposedly wasn’t that bad, but rather because investigations on abuse within the media industry are not free of the very power relations they are investigating.

A dragnet full of unpublished experiences

Every colleague who has done investigation into this topic has a dragnet full of unpublished material. Sometimes the sources prevent publication They are either too frightened or bound by legal restraints. But there are also cases where people in decision-making positions have no idea what discrimination or power abuse actually is, and why it should be of public relevance to report on such incidents. 

These accounts then end up in a reporter's notebook. And the reporter is almost always a woman. And there the reports lie, and, because we aren’t allowed publish them, we cannot make it clear to society that German journalism has a huge unspoken problem.

Reporting assaultive behaviour must become normal

Even if we can’t always report such issues to the “general public”, at least we should make talking about assaultive behaviour within our industry normal and not a topic to veer away from. This should make it possible to recognize, sanction and prevent such behaviour. 

What must change for this to happen? Those in positions of power in publishing houses, broadcasting stations and editorial offices must recognise that sexism, racism, queer hostility, and other forms of discrimination are not the problems of “the others”. To maliciously glee over a scandal when it affects the competition is no help to anyone.

BILD is not the only publication with a toxic leadership culture

In many editorial offices, there seems to be a lack of awareness of structural and active discrimination. At least, this is what we heard in the numerous interviews we held, the results of which were published in Medium Magazin in May 2022.

It is not only about the former editor-in-chief of BILD. Our research showed that a culture of toxic leadership that uses bullying and intimidation, sexism and other forms of discrimination is widespread in German media. In under a week, 189 journalists responded to a survey asking about experiences with leadership culture and described their experiences in German print, online, radio and television editorial offices. 

The problem is supervisors who grab the buttocks of younger female colleagues, editors who racially insult black female reporters and women who have given up on their dream of becoming journalists because of sexism and assault. Some of those who took the survey wrote things like: "I have become quieter; I no longer suggest certain topics. I no longer openly address problems. My self-confidence has suffered greatly. The job that was always my dream now feels more like a nightmare." Sadly, the problem exists in almost all editorial departments.

German journalism needs tutoring

Editorial offices, radio and TV stations and publishers urgently need to create structures that provide a safe working environment for all their employees. This can be done…

  • by setting up a complaints office that staff perceive as confidential and independent, and by communicating this to all employees. This office should be easily accessible and the name of the person or persons in charge should be clearly visible for example in restrooms, not hidden away somewhere in the company’s intranet.. 
  • by making sure that all new employees know from the very beginning who they can turn to if they experience sexism, racism or other forms of discrimination.
  • by setting up anonymous mailboxes and by seeing complaints as a valuable opportunity to make a difference. 

There are enough experts on critical whiteness or anti-sexism that can be hired to train editorial staff or those who work in broadcasting or publishing. The German media should recognise that it needs tutoring.

Everyone must ask: Am I doing enough myself?

And finally, everyone should ask themselves the question: Am I doing enough to make sure all colleagues in my editorial department feel comfortable and safe? In many of the situations described to us during the research for Medium Magazine, others were present. 

For example when the editor of a local newspaper allegedly grabbed the buttocks of a young female trainee during a birthday party. Or when a camera crew got off the lift in a broadcasting house when a female colleague got on, saying that they did not want to ride in a lift with a lesbian. 

When colleagues are harassed or insulted, we must not look the other way. Especially those of us in safe positions with less risk of consequences need to step in and protect those in less privileged positions.

It starts with you

As an industry, we need to acknowledge this structural problem and report on it differently. The goal shouldn’t only be to expose the next Julian Reichelt or to land the media’s next big scoop. 

Individualising the problem distracts from the real challenge: If you want to report adequately on structural discrimination, sometimes you must start with yourself. That would really be a uniquely big story.

Pascale Müller is a freelance investigative journalist. Hermain research is on labour exploitation and sexualised violence. Eva Hoffmann is a freelance journalist who writes about social inequality, sexism, and migration. Both are members of  Selbstlaut Kollektiv.

Tipps und Tools für a more respectful workplace

NdM emergency kit for acutely threatened journalists

Anonymous hate comments on the internet and dehumanizing slogans can quickly develop into a real threat. Media professionals who belong to discriminated groups, but also all other journalists who work on topics such as right-wing extremism, who report on demonstrations, etc. can feel and be seriously threatened.

The brochure „Leitfaden für bedrohte Journalist*innen in Deutschland“(Guide for Threatened Journalists in Germany) provides an overview of what to do in an emergency and what steps to take in the case of a concrete threat. Media companies who want to know how they can support acutely threatened journalists can find tips here.

Helpdesk against hate

Together with academics and practitioners, the New German Media Makers have analyzed and worked through the best possible strategies against hate speech for journalists, editorial teams and community management. The result is an Online-Helpdesk with many practical tips, the most effective strategies, legal classifications and concrete case studies for dealing with hate speech.

Help with discrimination in editorial offices

from NdM & advd

Information and support for those affected is provided by the NdM in cooperation with the Anti-Discrimination Association Germany (advd) in the brochure "What you should know about discrimination in editorial offices" and online at:



Our NO HATE SPEECH. project offers free training for media professionals: If we don't have the capacity to offer a workshop, we can fall back on our train-the-trainer pool: This pool is made up of journalists who have been trained by us and whom you can contact locally. Further information is available here.

Hateaid Helps

Only one to four percent of all those affected by hate speech report the perpetrators. And even fewer take the matter to court. The reasons: The procedures take a long time, are time-consuming and, above all, expensive. HateAid wants to change that. HateAid supports those who have been attacked by offering counselling sessions. They help victims to file criminal charges and gather evidence. HateAid also finances lawyers and assumes the risk of all legal costs. In return, the victim donates his or her compensation fee to the organization and thus helps them support other victims.


The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma is a project of the Columbia School of Journalism. It promotes greater understanding of the effects of trauma among media professionals and addresses the issue of hate on the web while offering coping strategies to help journalists to stay resilient in the face of persistent pressures. The Center's website offers a wealth of information and tips.

Guest Contribution: Ageism

Ageism: Diversity is everything – except being old

by Silke Burmester

I must have been in my late 40s when I requested that my age no longer be mentioned in the author's line. The question “why not?” was always accompanied by astonishment. But my answer was accepted with complete understanding. I explained to the editors that if my age were known, I would no longer be commissioned for certain articles. Many magazines want to be hip. Those who buy them want to feel modern and with it. They want to see a hip world presented by hip writers.

Approaching 50 is simply a no go. A look at a photo dated June 2021 showing the new management team of "Stern" says it all. There are 27 people in the picture. Women over 50? Two at the most. Journalists who have worked for decades for so-called women's magazines find that they can no longer get articles published on topics that interest them now. The editors want other stories. Positive ones, offering advice and help.

Hardly anyone over 50 climbs the career ladder

Promotions and career advancement opportunities usually take place around age 40. Hardly anyone gets promoted after the age of 50, regardless of their gender. But one can still assume that more men get promoted at that age than women, even if there are no figures to support this yet. Because why would the mechanisms that exclude women no longer apply after 50? Especially since women who act "visibly" are hit particularly hard.

In 2012, WDR took several women who were around 50 years old off the air in one fell swoop. This was around the same time that Thomas Roth became the presenter of the Tagesthemen news. He was almost 62 years old at the time.

In the summer of 2021, 62-year-old WDR director Tom Buhrow also made similar dismissals, saying that the station wanted to become more "diverse". Diversity - the new magic word means everything from LGBTIQ*, black, blue, striped, one armed, three armed, but not "old".

In October 2020, I launched the online platform with a group of other women. Our target group are women aged 47 and above, and the idea is to give ourselves and our topics space.

As great as it is that editorial offices have become aware of and are willing to embrace diversity, it is unfortunate that the will to represent true diversity ends where "age" is involved. Female journalists are doubly affected by ageism because first, when we are older, we hardly have opportunities for promotion or career advancement. And on top of that no one wants to publish the great stories we could tell about and for older women. .

Silke Burmester has worked as a journalist, columnist, book author and lecturer for over 25 years. Now she moderates panels and events. She is also the founder of, „Leuchten für Fortgeschrittene“ an online platform that promotes the visibility of women* over 47.