August 16, 1988: a hostage drama unfolds in the small Westphalian town of Gladbeck. Two robbers, Dieter Degowski and Hans-Jürgen Rösner, at the time 32 and 31, respectively, robbed a bank and fled with two hostages. Little did they know their crime would go down in German television history, for it was the first time ever that viewers would watch a criminal pursuit take place before their very eyes.
Journalists, who normally stand by and observe, this time were in the thick of the drama, even hindering police and conducting interviews with the hostage takers. The US periodical Newsweek referred to the episode as the “Hans and Dieter Show” — a true first for German media.
In pursuit of the best soundbite
By the end of a pursuit that saw Degowski and Rösner traverse pretty much all of Germany in a stolen bus and a total of 32 people hostage, photo journalists had had all the time in the world to snap shots of the bus and the people inside.
Journalists fought for the best position from which to depict the events. Radio reporters let the hostage takers themselves give their take on how the situation developed, with one of the two gangsters saying at one point, “from here on I only want to speak through the media.”
The German nation — or those with television or radio access — was able to follow the entire showdown live. A sense of excitement and fascination, horror and disbelief were palpable throughout the country.
Desire for pictures
Iconic photographs were taken of hostages being interviewed with guns held to their throats. One reporter even made his way into the getaway car to direct the hostage takers through the streets of Cologne — a city with which they were apparently unfamiliar.
That particular reporter faced harsh criticism for his actions after the affair, even facing allegations of complicity, but nevertheless he later became the editor-in-chief of Germany’s most-read tabloid, Bild.
By the time the drama had reached its end, two hostages were dead (including one of the female hostages who had been photographed with a gun held to her throat) and a number of others traumatized.
Was the media partly responsible for the disaster? Media psychologist Jo Groebel, for one, argues that the journalists who covered the affair not only satisfied the hostage takers’ desire for recognition and attention – they also “incited” the criminals to prove themselves in their brutal megalomania.
Critical distance in the smartphone era
Michael Konken, head of Germany’s largest journalists’ union (DJV), refers to the Gladbeck drama as “the darkest hour of German journalism since the end of WWII.” As a direct consequence, the national press council issued a number of reprimands and drew up tighter controls for the coverage of such affairs.
An ethical debate was also held in the media landscape itself, with several papers concluding that such coverage “should never happen again.” Today, it is illegal for any media outlet to conduct interviews with hostage takers while the crime is taking place.