Public service broadcasting: Chances and risks in the digital world
Munich, 03 July 2023
The digital transition is changing the media landscape and also posing a challenge for public service broadcasting. At acatech am Dienstag on 27 June 2023, experts from the worlds of media and science discussed how a large state public service broadcaster like Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR) responds, what new news formats are available and what the possible implications of the new German Interstate Broadcasting Treaty (Rundfunkstaatsvertrag) could be. The event took place in cooperation with the Zentrum für Ethik der Medien und der digitalen Gesellschaft (zem:dg) at the Munich School of Philosophy.
President of the Munich School of Philosophy (HfPh) and acatech member Johannes Wallacher was delighted to be able to welcome guests to his institution’s auditorium.
According to Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2023, 44% of 18- to 24-year-olds regularly get their news about world events via social media. The most frequently used news source is Instagram. Accordingly, public service broadcasters also need to have a presence on this platform and to offer the relevant formats. “News WG”, developed by Bayerischer Rundfunk in 2018, is one such format.
In her presentation, Bianca Taube, News WG product manager, editor and moderator with BR24, provided an insight into how content is created, drafted and developed. She said that the aim of the format is to deliver clear messages that speak to young adults, even if they have not heard anything about a particular topic before. She described how it was a case of explaining the political background and not just publishing press releases. One of News WG’s distinguishing features is its work with the community. According to Bianca Taube, intensive dialogue is very important in finding topics and getting feedback. She explained that, as active community management has been a policy from the very beginning, a culture of discussion has evolved in the comments section, which, compared to other websites, sees fewer hate posts. Instead, the many positive comments made by users were testament to the success of the approach – Bianca Taube said that even in the fast-paced social media world, it was possible to awaken interest in news features.
In the panel discussion that followed, Stefan Primbs, editor and head of social media at Bayerischer Rundfunk, pointed out an important limitation with social media activities: the range of public service offerings depends on the platform operator’s serving algorithms and is not within the broadcaster’s control. Articles are displayed not only to subscribers but also randomly to all platform users based on unknown processes. An opportunity to burst the filter bubbles? At least in this way access is provided to younger target groups, who can no longer be reached by means of traditional communication channels like homepages and media centres.
Stefan Primbs reported that BR24 was in the process of making community management even more interoperable. For example, as part of a project entitled “Dein Argument” (“Your point of view”) (in German), comments on online articles could be included in the text of an article, once they had been verified by the editorial team. He said that communication with users could also be encouraged in this way.
Annika Sehl from the Katholische Universität Eichstätt-Ingolstadt and co-director of zem::dg highlighted the benefits of using various platforms for public service broadcasting. One advantage is that dialogue with audiences can develop where the respective audience is. Moreover, according to Annika Sehl, high-quality news formats on social media platforms promote access to information in such a way that even users who do not consciously look for news will come across news formats in their feed. In addition, news can be formatted in a way that is target group specific, depending on the platform. The numerous different formats that are created enable users to personalise their consumption of news. Annika Sehl warned, however, that social media platforms are inherently subject to conflicting interests as the reports that are served are implicitly personalised by the platform operators, for example based on previous usage behaviour. Stefan Primbs added that, unlike in the case of linear formats in radio and television, the various digital formats no longer needed a “lowest common denominator” that connected all of the content – instead, the information’s strength was that it could be directed at specific target groups.
While public service methods and formats are changing, criticism of the institutions involved continues to be multi-faceted: scandals such as the one that recently surfaced at Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg (RBB) or the doubts publicly raised about the political independence of broadcasting councils have also led to negative headlines in recent times. acatech member Christoph Neuberger, Freie Universität Berlin and scientific managing director of the Weizenbaum-Institut, pointed out that the weaknesses of the system were being tackled: he said that the new Interstate Broadcasting Treaty that has just been concluded contains new, effective compliance regulations and aims to consolidate competences between the state public service broadcasters. He said that, in addition, according to the provisions of the new agreement, broadcasting councils, which represent the public, are to be involved more actively in the quality control of content. Christoph Neuberger added that reliable “beacons” of information were important for people to safely get their bearings at a time of disinformation and hate speech and to be able to evaluate news reports.
Claudia Paganini, from the Munich School of Philosophy and co-director of zem::dg, moderated the discussion. Some contributions illustrated the controversial nature of the topic. For example, the question of the necessity for digital and asynchronous formats was posed – after all, the average audience reached by public service broadcasters use these formats very rarely but instead want the high-quality linear radio and television service that they are used to. On a positive note, it was emphasised that the “snackable news” on social media platforms can be easily linked with the detailed background reports and reportage available in the public service media centres.