So if a scandal like this can happen at Spiegel, many have wondered, what does that mean for everyone else? And what kinds of questions does Relotius—whose evocative prose was so admired that Spiegel editors called it the “Relotius sound”—raise about the merits and pitfalls of narrative journalism and foreign correspondence more broadly?
Spiegel isn’t the first high-profile news organization with a staffer who partially or fully made up stories: Over the past two decades, The New York Times, The New Republic, and USA Today, among others, have faced similar challenges to their credibility. But Spiegel’s reckoning comes at a time when trust in media is perilously low—and it presents a case study for how a news organization attempts the tall task of regaining reader trust in the age of so-called fake news.
The German outlet broke the news of the scandal itself on December 19. In a more than 6,000-word exposé, the since-suspended editor in chief, Ullrich Fichtner, outlined the scope and range of Relotius’s fabrications as well as how a colleague had discovered them. “These revelations come as a deep shock to everyone at Der Spiegel—the editorial staff, the research and fact-checking department, the business side and everyone who works here,” he wrote. “We are all deeply shaken.”
The next day, Scheuermann found himself on a plane to Fergus Falls, Minnesota, the setting for some of Relotius’s most elaborate lies. Relotius had spent more than five weeks living there for a feature story on a small town in Donald Trump’s America; in the wake of the scandal, two local activists, Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn, offered a point-by-point rebuttal of Relotius’s inaccuracies.
Many of the Spiegel journalist’s falsehoods, including those from Fergus Falls, exploited stereotypes of Trump voters as backwards, provincial, and ignorant. His dispatch from Minnesota included characters and details such as a gun-toting city administrator who had never seen the ocean, a sign in town reading Mexicans Keep Out, and a local movie theater that continued to play the movie American Sniper years after its release. (None of these things turned out to be true.)
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Fergus Falls was “one of the places where you can really see, hear, and smell what impact a lie and fabrication can have on a small community,” Scheuermann told me.
His job there was twofold, as the resulting article demonstrated: to tell the real story of a town that had been completely mischaracterized and felt wronged in the eyes of the international community, yes, but also to apologize for the damage his organization had done. When he sat down with Anderson and Krohn, Scheuermann said, “I soon realized that it’s just not enough to do what I always do and just ask questions, try to write a story that’s as close to reality as possible—but also that there is a need to apologize.”