Embedded Political Reporting: Boundary Processes and Performances

“Dash” is sitting in his office on the third floor of the State Capitol Building, talking on the phone to a former gubernatorial spokesperson.1 He was offered to interview a high-ranking official the next day for a “soft” human- interest story, and is looking for an independent angle. Therefore, he calls up the former press officer to ask him whether he could speak to his former boss and whether he has any suggestion about not making the story a quasipress release. Just as he gets off the phone, Chuck, who high-fived him first thing in the morning, explains to somebody on the phone: “Dash did it through good sourcing!” On that day, whilst Dash tries to figure out how not to make the story just handed to him a “press release” for the politician, one reporter after the other comes into the office to congratulate him on yesterday’s scoop. The story, which is in today’s paper and was posted the night before at 9:23 pm, reveals that a current elected official is about to resign in order to work for the state government in a not yet specified position. Dash received that tip from a county-level source yesterday, confirmed it with a spokesperson of the office the official is about to start working at, and finally with the official himself.

Most noteworthy about the story for State Capitol reporters is not the resignation itself but the fact that Dash not only scooped the local daily newspaper in the official’s district but that it failed to get the story in today’s paper in time. They drop in saying “I can’t believe you scooped the [newspaper] on their own turf”, “did [newspaper] offer you a gig?” Chuck envisages the chief editor probably “reaming somebody out” this morning. Another reporter suggests Dash should “torture” the local paper on the blog and mention on every follow-up item how they did not get the story

© The Author(s) 2017

M. Revers, Contemporary Journalism in the US and Germany, Cultural Sociology, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-51537-7_6

in today’s paper. Dash says he doesn’t want to do that because it would be “kicking a dead puppy.” The other reporter suggests that Dash could make the point that— if the paper still had a reporter at the State Capitol (as it used to)—they would not be in this disgraceful situation. (Fieldnotes, LCA, February 9, 2011)

In both of these instances, Dash was handed a story by a source, however, for different reasons and with different implications for his sense of professional self-worth. The latter instance was an anonymous tip he received from a source he developed a good relationship with. The source had a piece of information, knew it would be valuable for Dash and gave it to him instead of other reporters, probably to deepen the working relationship and hoping for future reciprocity. “Good sourcing” involves a competitive advantage through social connections that yield different or quicker information. There are exogenous reasons for why sources give a tip to a particular reporter—his or her outlet, its audience, reach and coverage area—but sometimes it is about sympathy and personal trust. Because of this, Dash cultivates relations to his sources with much care. He often calls them simply to “shoot the shit,” as he says. The serious middle part of a phone conversation is usually framed by small talk and more personal conversations. Dash usually closes by asking “anything else I should know?” which sometimes yields pieces of valuable information.

The prior instance was an offer for a “soft story,” that is, a story with a human-interest angle, based on an exclusive interview with a politician. Dash loathed this assignment. His newspaper, however, would have turned down the offer under no circumstance, given the power, popularity and consequential newsworthiness of the politician in question. The politician offered the story to Dash mainly because it catered to his readers and possibly, in part, to humiliate him. As the following field note from 5 days later shows, he received a different reaction from his coworkers:

A bureau colleague walks into Dash’s office, jokingly asking whether he had heard that he had a 77 percent approval rating amongst their readers. The soft story about the official, whose approval rating amounted to 77 percent by a poll today, appeared on the front page of their paper. When I ask him about it a few minutes later Dash says regretfully that it was “not the most insightful thing I’ve ever written.” He added that it was inevitable to do the story, that, as a human-interest story, it did not seem effective apart from painting a favorable picture of the official and that it was based on facts. (Fieldnotes, LCA, February 14, 2011)

The question remains, however, whether these “facts” were worth being published at all. Dash’s reaction suggested that his professional sensibility objected. The fact that other reporters poked fun at him meant they understood Dash’s quandary very well. His rolling eyes and self-justifying statements when anybody brought it up that day and even weeks afterward are expressions of tensions between professional ideals and organizational interests, one of which is to sell newspapers according to populist appeal in the attention economy. Although “selling newspapers” may not be an immediate concern for reporters (see Chap. 4), it influences news work in the form of tacit assumptions about newsworthiness and preferences of editors; nobody had to tell Dash he had to do the soft story and why. A few weeks later, Dash published a critical story about ongoing negotiations, which shed an unfavorable light on the same top official:

Dash is in a conversation with a competitor-colleague who just dropped in his office [a few weeks ago he made apologetic remarks to her concerning the aforementioned soft story]. After talking about his soon-expected baby, he mentions in passing that his paper received complaints from the top official’s office about the critical story he published a few days earlier (Dash asks her not to spread this around, however). When I ask him about it afterward he says they sent a letter to his editor, calling Dash by name and arguing that he well made sure not to get the facts in the way of his story.

He acknowledged he got one detail wrong but that it did not warrant the complaint. Most importantly, Dash’s editor stood behind him. (Fieldnotes, LCA, March 16, 2011)

Mentioning the complaint to his competitor-colleague appeared as an effort to reestablish his professional esteem among his peers. Overall, this example illustrates the ongoing back-and-forth in the media-politics game where one team wins on a given day and loses on the next. Apart from overt antagonism, which is an important part of journalists’ performance of professionalism, both sides carefully maintain and cultivate relationships with each other. I did not detect hampering personal animosities and despite a certain degree of mutual contempt between reporters and political actors, such instances are usually followed by business-as-usual. However, exceptions to this rule will also be discussed in the following sections, next to different sources of journalistic autonomy, including professional and organizational norms, reporters’ personal lives, forms of interaction with sources as well as news themselves as ultimate representations of journalistic professionalism.

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Media scholars have mostly considered reporter-source relations in terms of control over news decision-making, focusing on how social, informational and cultural dimensions of media-politics relations influence the news.2 This chapter takes a different angle, taking these relations and negotiations as opportunities to analyze journalists’ normative commitments. Rather than focusing on conditions for and implications of journalistic autonomy, it examines cultural practices that aim at remaining and appearing autonomous in their own terms. These practices consist of managing, selective blurring, and performing professional boundaries. Comparing cultural practices of German and US reporters in source relations serves to further examine differences between the two occupational cultures.3

 
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