Pack Journalism: Hounds, Sheep and Lone Wolves

Pack journalism as a phenomenon is well familiar in the USA as well as in the German context. The equivalent German term Rudeljournalismus is less common and has a less definitive meaning than pack journalism.

In interviews with Albany reporters, I directly confronted them with the term—“what does pack journalism mean to you?”—while I found that the better strategy of German interviews was to rhetorically circle around the question. I started by asking about advantages and disadvantages of a press corps, which was usually followed by advantages only. I then said that common criticisms against press corps were that they generate homogeneous news coverage and often represent packs, after which they addressed these issues.

A very succinct definition of pack journalism by a senior LCA reporter went like this: “Pack journalism, for me, is sort of covering my ass”. He meant that part of what he did was making sure he covered key issues and events, which most of his competitor-colleagues also focused on. He added that the LCA has often been described as a ship: “It can travel together sometimes, which becomes sort of a collective thinking. I don’t know if that’s necessarily bad because it’s often just an obvious thinking” (Interview, LCA reporter, May 17, 2010). Another senior LCA journalist said that “by definition” it is not a good thing, but that pack journalism “bubbles up out of good intentions.” It was driven by competition and, while the LCA may sometimes “overcover” stories, reporters often recognize a story as important and go in the same direction “not because it’s the wrong direction but because it’s the right direction. Where it becomes pack journalism is when you are pursuing it not because it’s a great story but because you anticipate that everybody else is gonna do it” (Interview, LCA reporter, March 16, 2011).

Both reporters addressed the basic understanding of pack journalism as news agenda setting. LP reporters also explained that covering the same issues was a consequence of shared criteria of newsworthiness. As one LP reporter said: “You define a certain hierarchy of topics, which just occurs objectively in part. For instance, when the Minister-President comes in, it is clear: all lunge at him. Of course! There are things that are objectively important” (Interview, LP reporter, December 6, 2011).

Two basic criteria of newsworthiness for state house reporters are amounts of money and extent of power involved in stories. LCA journalists, who put much stronger emphasis on accountability of government spending, frequently mentioned the state budget as an undeniable subject of newsworthiness. The Bavarian budget (Staatshaushalt) does not nearly evoke such interest and is barely negotiated in the context of public discussion but mainly within cabinet meetings and parliamentary debates about additional details. Though some reporters acknowledged that the implicit consensus of newsworthiness can be problematic, for the most part they saw it in neutral terms and deemed it inevitable while arguing that joining the pack did not rule out the possibility of journalistic excellence.

 
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