The Props of Professional Performances

Though an important aspect of performances is to accommodate situational demands, they only become meaningful by appealing to cultural structures shared by or at least familiar to performers and their audiences. Performers appeal to these in the scripts undergirding performances and props they use as representations of these structures. Journalists evoke organizational policies and practices as symbols of professionalism to bolster boundary performances. They also make sacrifices in their personal lives concerning civic engagement, less to support professional performances but to avoid compromising them. The following section discusses these props of professional performance.

Editorial Policies

News organizations regulate and protect the autonomy of their reporters. One way they do this is through ethical policies, which many newspapers—both in the USA and in Germany—publicize on their web pages. In the USA, some companies require their news staff to sign revisions of policies periodically. Among other things, ethical policies often define codes of conduct for dealing with sources, for instance, concerning gift acceptance and invitations. The Ethics Policy of Gannett, for instance, says: “For people in news operations, the recommended practice is to accept no gifts” (Illinois Institute of Technology undated). Most news organizations demand to pay for dinners and trips with politicians themselves. They also have more or less strictly defined sourcing policies, which specify if and how unattributed information and quotes can be used. Ethical policies in the USA, furthermore, prohibit journalists from making political donations, engaging politically, let alone holding political office. The Times’ guidebook puts it very succinctly: “Journalists have no place on the playing fields of politics” (The New York Times 2004), which is followed by a detailed description what journalists can and, for the most part, cannot do regarding “participation in public life.” With the exception of political mandates, rules are more lenient in Germany.

Although I did not compare codes systematically, in Germany, I have not heard of or read codifications of source relations to the degree as they exist in the USA. The above-cited Times’ “Ethical Journalism Guidebook,” which is a 57-page document, would be a very detailed example. In addition, the Times has separate guidelines on integrity, including how to use anonymous sources (The New York Times 2008). Tabloids typically have no codified policies, at least none that are made public, and laxer sourcing standards.

Ethical policies that are accessible and thereby communicated to the public, including news sources, serve as representations of autonomy. However, while in Germany none of my informants even mentioned ethical policies,4 US reporters did and, moreover, brought them to bear. US reporters utilized them in performance and referred to them as regulatory manifestations of boundaries when they were negotiating with sources. For instance, in a disclosed e-mail correspondence discussed in Chap. 5 (Hendler 2010), an Albany journalist justified his story toward a spokesperson by arguing that, had it been up to his editors, the story would have been even worse. He told him that he threatened to withdraw his byline if the article was published that way, which, according to their company’s editorial policy, would have meant that the story could not have appeared at all.

Ethical codes had particular performative relevance regarding anonymous sourcing. The common sense in the LCA was that anonymous sourcing had increased overall. They blamed the intense competition between the city tabloids (Daily News and New York Post)—termed as an “epic newspaper battle” by one reporter—for this increase. Furthermore, LCA reporters blamed blogs run by several legacy news companies because their hunger for instant information lent itself to lower sourcing standards.

Journalists tried to offset the perception that the practice of anonymous sourcing was an entry point for manipulation, besides providing sensitive information. One senior reporter told me about instances of fabricated stories in his company: “The most important thing a newspaper has in the United States is its reputation and trust. This was a huge violation of trust obviously. So we really clamped down on anonymous sources or anything that we couldn’t document” (Interview, LCA reporter, May 23, 2009). Another one explained his company’s strict policy: “You should be sparing in using anonymous sources. An anonymous source in a [company] story can only give factual information. No opinion” (Interview, LCA reporter, September 13, 2010).

In both of these cases, sourcing policies substantiated claims to professional autonomy. Reporters invoked rules of their organizations as extensions of how they operated and how their news products are to be evaluated, namely purely according to professional standards. This was either an effort to defend a news story post hoc or to convince a news source of a reporter’s credibility so that it shares valuable information.

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