Cultural Parameters of Journalistic Professionalism

Occupational Historical Trajectories: Professionalization and Relations to Politics

As an older democracy, the United States has a longer and continuous history of a free press. US media differentiated earlier and more rigorously from other social systems, particularly from social classes and associated parties (Alexander 1988). One consequence of the early differentiation of media and politics is that there has essentially been no party press in the United States since the nineteenth century. In Germany, small party newspapers were only hesitantly licensed by the allied forces in Western Germany after the Second World War (Koszyk 1999) but were quite common in Germany up until the 1960s (Schutz 1999). Since then they have almost completely vanished.1

The beginning of modern journalism in the United States is usually located in the late nineteenth century, which is when newspapers became big businesses and professional organizations of journalism (journalism schools, awards, associations) emerged (Chalaby 1996; Krause 2011; Schudson 1978). The turn of the century also marks the beginning of investigative journalism, or muckraking, as an important occupational practice and objectivity as the central occupational norm. Media scholars view the emergence of journalistic professionalism as closely intertwined with American political culture, particularly the distinctively anti-partisan Progressive Era and a belief in science (Kaplan 2002; Schudson 1978).

National Socialism and its propaganda apparatus required a radical historical break in German media at the end of the Second World War (Wilke 1999), even though some have argued that National Socialism had more lasting effects on the occupation than denazification and re-education efforts by allied forces suggested (Hachmeister 2002).2 The German news media landscape of the early twenty-first century really had its beginning in 1945,3 even though some newspapers that existed before (and in part during) National Socialism resumed business after 1949.4

The period after the war, which was defined by reconstruction in Germany, distinguished itself by political consensus—prepared by the New Deal and reinforced by the Cold War—and economic prosperity of the media industry in the United States. In this era of high modernism in American journalism (Hallin 1992), which was defined by high occupational esteem and confidence, American (alongside British) allied forces sent press officers and coaches to German newsrooms to teach principles of objective and fact-driven journalism and its separation from opinion (Donsbach 1999). These efforts met considerable resistance by the German press culture, however (Wilke 1999).

Despite the general de-ideologization of media in Western Europe, the dominant practice of separating news and opinion editorially, partisan and advocacy journalism reverberate more strongly to this day as a consequence of more enduring links between media and ideological blocks in Germany. Relative to the United States, research has found that German journalists are more inclined to advocate certain political ideas, to influence public opinion and have stronger aspirations to become commentators and columnists.5

According to Donsbach (1999), two historical conditions were imperative for the formation of journalistic professionalism in Germany: (1) The era of enlightenment, which fostered a professional role in which the journalist is expected to advance critical ideas from a subjective point of view and act as a “spy of the public, moralizer and advocate for humanity” (Wilke 1993; my translation of the title). (2) The late freedom of the press in 1949 (in East Germany in 1989), over 200 years after the United States and the United Kingdom. This hard-won freedom involved privileges and protections against state influence exclusive to journalism. Press freedom in the United States, in comparison, is more closely linked to rights that belong to all citizens (Donsbach 1999:499).

The combination of a greater impetus to advocate and a sense of privilege relates to what Kocher (1986) has termed the missionary stance of German journalism, a more political, intellectual, and ultimately paternalistic occupational self-conception. German journalism is thus much less inclined to act as an autonomous power that actively intervenes in political affairs across the ideological spectrum. The script of watchdog reporting, on the other hand, is much more dominant in US journalism and fosters a greater adversarial milieu in the occupational culture (Esser 2008; Hanitzsch 2011; Weaver and Willnat 2012). Related to this, comparative researchers have also found that public discourse is more media-driven in the United States and more politics-driven in Germany (Ferree et al. 2002; Pfetsch 2001).

Granted, US newspapers do assume political positions in the editorial pages and even endorse political candidates, which is less common in Germany. However, there is a stronger division between the tasks of producing news and expressing opinions, aside from more centralized editorial control in US newspapers (Donsbach 1999:497). German journalists are not only bestowed with more individual agency (Esser 1998)6 but also with a less strict organizational division of labor, which means that a newspaper journalist may often report and write a news story as well as commentary on the same topic in one newspaper issue. Given the salience of the cultural value of individualism in the United States, this may seem counterintuitive. It seems that objectivism—supported by organizational control measures—trumps individualism, which renders a more subjective occupational role impossible. Chapter 7 will argue that this tension loosens in the social media age, however.

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