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Home arrow Communication arrow Contemporary Journalism in the US and Germany: Agents of Accountability

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Missions: Quality, Format, Medium

For journalists working for broadsheet newspapers and most other news venues, tabloids were key reference points for distinguishing professional from unprofessional journalism, even though contextual conditions of the two cases were different: Tabloids are irrelevant in national news in the USA but quite important in New York. In Germany, Bild is extraordinarily influential on a national scale but not in Bavarian politics. The local Munich tabloid Abendzeitung is important but was only staffed by one state political correspondent and thus not as central a player as New York Post (2 correspondents) and New York Daily News (3-4 correspondents) were in Albany at the time of this study.

Tabloid journalists were aware that their work was perceived as inferior, certainly from an academic perspective that I embodied as a researcher interviewing them. They argued that what separated them was nuance, especially through the main limiting condition of having to apply simpler language on less space. As one tabloid reporter put it: “I would say 90 percent of what I write—because I’m writing politics or policy stuff—you can get in the New York Times. We might write it differently; it might not be as edgy word-wise but I think it’s all the same thing” (Interview, LCA reporter, February 10, 2011). One young tabloid reporter went further, arguing that tabloid stories are forced to focusing stories down to its “barest principles,” making stories “snappier and edgier, which in a political environment causes some tension. It also causes change. I feel like the tabloids have more impact” (Interview, LCA reporter, May 26, 2011).

I heard similar remarks in the LP, though in Germany the prevalent distinction between Boulevard and Qualitdtspresse does not explicitly refer to different formats but more overtly carries the value judgment with it (I will use tabloid and boulevard interchangeably in the following). One LP tabloid reporter said differences between tabloids and broadsheets were shrinking: “Of course, I need to entertain readers differently in a boulevard newspaper than in a daily newspaper like Suddeutsche Zeitung, although the Suddeutsche is boulevardized2 just the same these days and doesn’t cover different issues than I do” (Interview, LP reporter, March 21, 2012). There were categorical differences between what she did when she started her career 20 years ago compared to her broadsheet competitor-colleagues, she conceded.

Surprisingly, several broadsheet reporters in the LP spoke understandingly about boulevard journalism. One used to work for a tabloid himself for a few years and did not see as big a difference between those purported distinctive missions of journalism:

There are differences but in many cases they are very small. In many cases you notice that you swim in the same soup. And in many cases it is, like: this sentence is shorter and there a bit longer ... Put differently: the serious publications, quote, end quote, have converged in the last 20-30 years to a certain boulevardization of topics. (Interview, LP reporter, December 5, 2011)

While he admitted that he got worked up about Bild constantly, he said that he was much more forgiving of tabloid journalism than most of his colleagues. He explained this with his professional experience and comprehension of the different production conditions. I received an unintended demonstration of this when he walked me out after our interview: We met one of his colleagues who made a pejorative remark about a tabloid reporter of the LP, which my informant quickly waved aside.

To another reporter, boulevard meant “that issues are vaporized from a cup of coffee to espresso” (Interview, LP reporter, January 25, 2012). Although she agreed that Bild did many things wrong, in her view their political coverage on page 2 had a great “public service quality” in terms of providing a lot of information within confined space.

In the LCA, even one reporter who was pronouncedly dismissive of tabloids conceded that they occasionally succeeded in one important respect: aggressively demanding accountability. Apart from these more positive statements, the norm was to dismiss tabloids—especially Bild and the New York Post, respectively—for helping one side over another and covering issues dishonestly for the sake of a powerful story. One LCA reporter became a little worked up when talking about the New York Post:

Every day they’ve got to have a picture of a woman wearing a bikini and nothing else, right? There we are! That’s the bottom line of what that paper is about! [laughs] So you think that kind of paper is going to spend a whole lot of time on the pros and cons of an issue? No! They’re going to look for something that’s gotta’ hook! (Interview, LCA reporter, April 21, 2010)

Another LCA reporter emphasized how important integrity was for how he and his organization operated, contrary to certain others: “There are some reporters, as I’m sure you know, that are sort of open for sale” (Interview, LCA reporter, September 13, 2010). It was of utmost importance to him that news decisions are guided by criteria of public relevance and the desire to ascertain the truth rather than relational commitments with sources. Apart from other common criticisms, like the tabloids’ obsession with scandal, one distinctive theme of the metadiscourse in Albany was that inferior standards of tabloids can “poison” the rest of the press corps, especially regarding anonymous sourcing (to be discussed in more detail in Chap. 6). This polluting force of tabloids operated by news agenda setting and raising readers’ expectations:

Since I’ve been here at least two politicians have made extensive use to the New York Post. They just try to stampede the rest of the press corps. You know, give them something for Monday that drives a couple of days of coverage. ... The tabloids give them a vehicle because their sourcing... their standards are so much weaker. They can just use it—it’s like an injection to a blood stream. (Interview, LCA reporter, January 21, 2011)

Another reporter remarked:

There are people who have tried to drive an agenda in their so-called objective news reports. You see anonymous sources quoted saying gratuitous things, and this happens on a weekly basis. Unfortunately, some people who read that material think that’s good journalism. And it affects everybody because a lot of average readers think that is the way we should be operating, too. (Interview, LCA reporter, May 5, 2011)

Even if LP reporters’ evaluations of the tabloid press were usually less harsh, they generally agreed with their LCA counterparts. For one of them, bad journalism was tendentious journalism as boulevard newspapers practice it. She provided an example of a damaging story about a celebrity based on a false rumor, which was then followed by the headline: “That’s how the star suffers from bad rumors” and she added jokingly:

“..which we have spread!” ... That’s how you ruin somebody’s existence. That’s how you spread things in the world, which are unfounded, and then straighten it out. The press law still allows that and I find that awful ... But it happens on all levels, including political coverage. I don’t want to whitewash myself as if I had never done anything like that—because what don’t you do for a good story!—but it’s wrong. I don’t do that anymore. It’s actually a disgrace for our craft. (Interview, LP reporter, March 23, 2012)

Regarding defamation coverage, she said that if you took away the question mark from “a leading newspaper” (she was undoubtedly talking about Bid) half of the stories would never appear in print.

Chapter 7 will deal in more detail with the opposition between traditional and novel forms of journalism, particularly disagreements about blogging and tweeting that revolve around abandoning principles of sourcing, being objective, separating news and opinion and impersonality. As mentioned above, these disagreements were relatively irrelevant, because they mostly remained theoretical, for the self-conceptions of LP journalists.

Another subsidiary line of division between journalists concern the medium of journalism, specifically print opposed to less prestigious, electronic news forms (radio and television). As one LCA reporter said: “In print, reporters generally are far superior to the TV reporters. And the radio people, I would not even call them reporters. I think they just basically transcribe whatever’s said and they throw it up in the air” (Interview, LCA reporter, March 20, 2010). In a portrait about herself, a former newspaper reporter, then TV news anchor and blogger, Elizabeth Benjamin addressed this opposition: “There are two kinds of people in political TV news: people who started there, and the people who are the print journalists. The print journalists are a thousand times better. They have the context, they can break the news, and they can do reporting” (Meares 2010).

I have heard similarly dismissive comments in interviews with newspaper reporters of the LP, but more specifically aimed at reporters working for private television and radio stations. These companies hardly assign specialist correspondents but instead send general assignment reporters for important events to the Landtag. One of my informants referred to representatives of private radio stations as “blonde microphone stands” (Interview, LP reporter, November 7, 2011) while acknowledging that this was in fact a malicious (and sexist) term.

 
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