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The Sacred Discourse of Journalistic Professionalism

During my field research, Mike Gormley was capitol editor of the Associated Press (AP). In late 2013, he became a political reporter for Newsday. When a former colleague of his died, who, like him, used to work for the investigative team of the Albany Times Union, Gormley wrote the following eulogy on his Facebook wall:1

Harvy Lipman who for years was an investigative reporter and editor at the Albany Times Union, died Friday, his daughter Melissa tells us. Harvy left the TU years ago for investigative jobs in Washington and in New Jersey. But he left his mark in Albany. Harvy set a tone with Editor Harry Rosenfeld and Managing Editor Dan Lynch about the value _ the very obligation _ of investigative reporting. He would uncover organized crime one week, and patch together a touching story on the failings of welfare for children and single mothers a couple weeks later. The breadth of his ability was matched only by his compassion. He knew what he wrote could effect [sic] lives, and he took his job as seriously as a surgeon.

Harvy was also a mentor, probably without knowing it. He didn’t go around using the word “mentor” or make a show out of helping younger journalists. He led by example. He led by getting a story right no matter [how] long it took. For Harvy, the least important name in his stories was in his byline. He cared deeply about people and especially those who had no voice, except for Harvy’s.

This business we love has suffered a deep loss. I’d like to say there will be another Harvy Lipman, but I seriously doubt that. (Michael Gormley, Facebook post, February 8, 2014)

© The Author(s) 2017

M. Revers, Contemporary Journalism in the US and Germany, Cultural Sociology, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-51537-7_3

Aside from the fact that Gormley seems to have been personally inspired by Lipman and was probably mentored in the sense he described, this semi-public obituary is an example for the importance in journalism to regularly honor the professional project through its “best” representatives. It foreshadows some of the important characteristics that distinguish many exemplars: empathy, selflessness, public service, issue competence, intellectual curiosity and the indomitable will to reveal the truth.

Apart from exceptional moments of commemoration, collective representations of professionalism are always present when journalists talk about journalism—which they constantly do—even when they are occupied with reporting daily stories. The scripts journalists follow appropriate these symbols to accomplish situational demands. To give a crude example from my interviews, a reporter may not recite the first amendment of the US constitution verbatim when a Senator attempts to throw him out of a public meeting, but refer to it by saying: “Sir, you’re not protected by the United States Constitution. I am” (Interview, LCA reporter, September 8, 2010). This usage is not only strategic but also coupled with deeply held beliefs.

Institutional and material conditions of news making are subjected to impinge on journalists but do not just map directly on their work. They are filtered through the occupational culture, its tradition and mythology, which journalists are professionally socialized in. According to Aldridge and Evetts (2003:562), “the very vigour of [journalism’s] occupational mythology” makes it worth studying from an analytical perspective of professionalism, despite the relative reluctance of journalism to implement rigorous professional structures (e.g. licensing, mandatory education, etc.) and the uncertainty regarding the status of the occupation. Following Schudson’s examination of Watergate, as long as myths are rooted in some empirical evidence, “that kernel of truth sustains the general myth and gives it, for all of its ‘inaccuracies,’ a kind of larger truth that is precisely what myths are for: not to tell us in empirical detail who we are but what we may have been once, what we might again become, what we would be like ‘if’” (Schudson 1995:163).

The following analysis explores how journalistic achievements are honored and dead journalists are commemorated in Germany and the USA, looking at jury statements of journalism awards and obituaries of journalists in leading media outlets. It also draws from instances when reporters interviewed in this study invoked journalists, stories, events and institutions in positive and negative ways.

These moments and invocations are not primarily about the specific representatives and instances of journalism that are honored but about the occupation itself. Journalists, news organizations and stories are embedded and encoded in the occupational mythology and become vehicles for sacred discourses of professionalism. These acts of consecration are staged by influential organizations in the occupation (news organizations, journalism schools, memorial funds), which appoint known voices in journalism to commemorate and determine professional excellence. The objects of honor are, by definition, largely exempt from criticism in these texts and thus evoke rather pure forms of professional mythologizing. Obituaries and award statements represent pivotal moments of ritual purification of journalism. By the same token, pollution of instances in which professional ethics are violated (e.g. journalism scandals) are equally necessary to maintain the purity of professionalism. Both trigger conversations among journalists to reassert, renegotiate, and adjust professional boundaries.

The first section of this chapter examines jury statements of major national journalism awards in Germany and the USA. The second section engages with an analysis of obituaries of journalists in major national news publications in both countries. The final section segues to the larger, field research portion of the book, focusing on collective representations of professionalism informants evoked in Albany and Munich.

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