The Tension Between Customers and Citizens
German public service reporters talked about being relatively shielded from commercial pressures and being able to spend unprofitable amounts of resources for covering actually important issues. As one bureau chief put it, “politics must take place” (Politik muss stattfinden) (Interview, LP reporter, January 24, 2012), arguing that it was the news media’s and specifically public service media’s responsibility to put politics on the agenda. To him as for many of his competitor-colleagues, it was irrelevant whether the audience thought politics was complicated, tainted or unentertaining. Another LP bureau chief of a regional newspaper, who did not exclusively report political stories, told me in a rather prosaic manner about a recent audience study:
Within that period I had political stories that I deemed as important. The rating was 5 percent [of readers read the story]. And I reported on Bruno [Sacha Baron Cohen’s alter ego] and the rating was 97 percent. And that tells you everything. But in spite of that, you need to take notice and place both stories. What we do in politics is special-interest nowadays but it is enormously important. (Interview, LP reporter, December 1, 2011)
Similar to his public service competitor-colleagues, audience metrics are extraneous to his sense of professional duty and self-worth. In the USA, a strong sense of professionalism compensated for the relative weakness of state-enabled public service media and created a perception of distance and freedom of action regarding the business objectives of news organizations: “I do not spend much of my time worrying about making money for my paper. I mean it’s sort of in the background, right, but the way I can help my paper is by writing good journalism that has an impact” (Interview, LCA reporter, May 21, 2011).
Several LCA reporters implicitly and explicitly addressed the tension between conceiving the audience as consumers or citizens: “The news business gets blame for a lot of stuff; for simply not pushing back against
the consumer.....You’re blamed for over-sensationalizing or focusing on
Tiger Woods when we should be focusing on the health care debate” (Interview, LCA reporter, April 5, 2010). He acknowledged that neither his paper, nor its main competitor, “report to be the paper of record.” One of his competitor-colleagues was more careful not to draw too strong of a contrast: “People want to read important things, too, you know. Readers are not idiots. But it’s the balance of what they need to know and what they want to read” (Interview, LCA reporter, September 13, 2010).
LCA reporters embraced the proverbial watchdog role to offset their relative irrelevance to their audience. In other words: they drew meaning from keeping watch when nobody else was paying attention and alerting in cases of wrongdoing when danger was ahead. They believed that politicians are kept at bay by their mere presence, which could always trigger exceeding publicity in important moments. One reporter emphasized that this duty stood above concerns of decreasing demand for political coverage, even from the citizen perspective: “I think even if they don’t wanna read the newspaper, they wanna know that someone is there, someone is at the meeting, someone is holding people accountable ... they don’t want that to go away” (Interview, LCA reporter, May 23, 2009).
Consistent with the analysis of discourses of journalistic professionalism in Chap. 3, while US reporters emphasized hard-hitting accountability journalism, German reporters sought to penetrate subject matters as thoroughly as possible. The key term in the German context for this responsibility was Einordnung (subsequently translated as contextualizing), which means providing context, interconnections, assessments of issues and pointing out their significance. LP reporters contrasted this with chronicler duty. One German reporter with decades of professional experience said: “Our service is increasingly contextualizing, evaluating, establishing connections. Earlier we had a much more documentary character” (Interview, LP reporter, April 17, 2012). When he was a young reporter, editors had drilled into him that page 1 must depict what a historian will regard as most significant about that day 100 years later. The result was often a rather “dry retelling” of events, he recalled. He believed that this conception of news making was based on a reader who did not exist anymore, using the example of his now-retired father-in-law who used to exclusively read his newspaper during his daily commute. His definition of Einordnung was somewhere in between analysis and opinion—not as judgmental as the latter but more evaluative than the former.
To one young reporter, however, opinion was an essential part of contextualizing an issue: “I am a great supporter of opinion, of commentary. I think it is part of journalism to give people, who are less well versed in an issue, the opportunity to contextualize it. Whether they share your opinion is something else” (Interview, LP reporter, March 26, 2012). To him, contextualizing was about positions on issues so that readers are aware of them and are able to establish their own position in line with or in contrast to them. In accordance with their US counterparts, LP reporters also made remarks about not underestimating the audience. This is what one of them had to say about the danger of opinion entering into news features: “I think the reader is smart enough to distinguish purely factual coverage from color coverage” (Interview, LP reporter, February 10, 2012). Einordnung, then, is somewhat similar to the notion of analysis in that both relate to reporters’ belief that they have to provide more than just the “facts.” However, Einordnung was a more central in German reporters’ self-conceptions than analysis was for US reporters. Beyond that, to German journalists Einordnung also involved evaluative positioning, which is why “contextualizing” is at best a makeshift translation. The required dissociation from taking sides and expressing opinions categorically excluded positioning in news analysis for US reporters.
Another issue in which German reporters stood out was their sense of responsibility regarding the consequences of their reporting, both in terms of public opinion formation and harming those they cover. “Karl,” a senior radio reporter, said his responsibility was “that I take my job seriously, that I take the people about whom I report seriously and that I don’t forget my journalistic responsibility over the thrill of the chase, which often succumbed me in my earlier days” (Interview, LP reporter, November 22, 2011). He illustrated this with an instance when he had the night shift and a hostage situation occurred. The kidnappers drove on the freeway up north from Bavaria toward Hesse. Karl’s station had an agreement with the police not to report on such cases immediately in order not to risk lives of hostages. When the car crossed the state border, Karl called a colleague in Hesse, told him about this agreement and asked him to honor it as well. The response from his colleague was dismissive as he considered this nepotism and he reported on the hostage situation immediately. Though the situation ended well, Karl thought this was utterly irresponsible. Apart from life-threatening situations, LP reporters said they did not take the influence of their writing lightly and told me about moments they realized their potential impact on public perception.
Based on what they told me, US reporters would probably agree that Einordnung (positioning exempted) is important to them, as would German reporters agree that they are watchdogs of sorts. However, what matters here is what they in fact expressed as their responsibilities as well as the nuance with which they articulated it and the significance they assigned to it. Thus, even though US reporters emphasized the value added through analysis (amongst other things), they did not see it as their greater responsibility to the public, nor did German reporters feel that way about watchdog journalism.