Headline: More Growth! Really? Book Project and Workshop on the Development of a Key Concept in Journalism

Among politicians and journalists, economic growth tends to be considered a prerequisite for a functioning society, and gross domestic product (GDP) is seen as an indicator of successful policies. “Journalists who call for more growth and politicians who design policies for growth don’t need to justify that,” says IASS fellow Ferdinand Knauß. The WirtschaftsWoche correspondent is working on a book during his ten-month fellowship in Potsdam. Knauß presented his analysis of how and why growth made it into the newspapers at a workshop on 7 December, where participants included the former governor of the Federal State of Saxony Kurt Biedenkopf, the former head of the business desk at the German broadcaster ZDF Michael Jungblut, and the former federal minister and executive director of the IASS Klaus Töpfer.

GDP – a powerful number

According to Knauß, the ‘growth paradigm’ is a relatively new phenomenon. After 1945, the Americans demanded that the Germans follow their example by instituting gross domestic product as a measure of German economic performance. They were preaching to the converted: even in the interwar period, German journalists had bemoaned the lack of reliable economic data and noted that the United States was far more advanced in that regard. Journalists accepted the new benchmark for the value of all produced services and goods without further ado – and without encouraging reflection on it. As Knauß stated, “Apart from a brief interlude in the early 1970s when the growth paradigm faltered, the fixation of politicians and journalists on the concept of growth has been remarkably stable.” This has been accompanied and supported by narratives of the unlimited potential for innovation, concerns about the competitiveness of the German economy, and – more recently – the narrative of the migrant as a saviour of growth.

Kurt Biedenkopf was one of the few politicians who was sceptical about exponential economic growth at an early stage because he considered it to be incompatible with the notion of stability. At the workshop he told participants that he often uses a comparison to make the problem clearer to ordinary citizens and experts: “I ask them whether the forest grows. Then I ask them why it doesn’t get bigger and bigger, and that makes them sit up. In the natural world something is always being lost, but in our society taking something away from people is seen as politically impossible. That’s why the entire resdistribution mass has to keep growing.” Yet nowadays distribution problems can no longer be ignored, and it’s wealthy industrial nations in particular that are affected by that, since they have the most to lose.

Who can bring about a rethink?

Meinhard Miegel, Chairman of Denkwerk Zukunft – Foundation for Cultural Renewal, claimed that even today, the discussion of growth is different from what it was a few years ago. The fact that the German parliament established a Select Committee on “Growth, Economics, Quality of Life” in 2011 is itself an indication of change, “even if the ultimate result was disappointing.” The Committee did not find a clear answer to the question of whether too much significance is attached to GDP or whether there are better indicators of quality of life. Klaus Töpfer pointed out that the parties were at least continuing these discussions in working groups, and a lively debate on what constitutes a ‘good life’ is taking place in the media. “There is an underlying acknowledgement that there’s something wrong with the way things are. The conventional economy is in crisis because there is a gradual recognition that quantifying every aspect of our lives is not the solution,” claimed the founding director of the IASS.

However, as Kurt Biedenkopf pointed out, the question of who can drive a change is difficult: “Where is the pressure coming from, and what is going to force these changes? Because nothing will happen if there is no pressure. The ecology is exerting pressure, but it’s a long way from the ecology to a new economic theory.” The workshop participants disagreed on the question of how journalists could contribute to a paradigm shift. “They are not per se thought leaders. They’re reporters first and foremost. You can’t expect that journalists will save the world,” claimed Michael Jungblut.

In Ferdinand Knauß’s view, journalists have become part of the political class to an excessive degree. And business journalists are too focussed on the academic mainstream economy. Knauß demanded that journalists once again question what politicians want to sell to citizens. Business journalists should forge new alliances with their colleagues in the features section, who have a more historical and sociological perspective. With his book, Knauß hopes to encourage a new historical awareness and contribute to a paradigm shift. It contains detailed discourse analyses of business reporting in the German media, including DIE ZEIT, DER SPIEGEL and the FAZ, and is due to be published in spring 2016.