Home Communication Contemporary Journalism in the US and Germany: Agents of Accountability
Transgression of Ethical and Jurisdictional Boundaries
Reporting that violates journalistic ethics and transgresses competencies was another form of bad journalism correspondents distinguished. An example of this is what one LP journalist referred to as Verdachtsberichterstattung (suspicion reporting), while admitting it may have positive consequences sometimes. Similarly, one of her competitor-colleagues found reporting based on hearsay legitimate under certain conditions: “I think you can write about rumors as long as it is clear in the article that it is a rumor ... But [you must] not present it as a representation of facts” (Interview, LP reporter, March 26, 2012).
Albany reporters frequently addressed the problem of rumor mills, exemplified by a series of news stories on former Governor David Paterson in early 2010, which was typically accompanied by strong boundary drawing:
[When Paterson was Governor] there was this whispering campaign of innuendo about sexual misconduct and just all sorts ofwild rumors and based upon nothing—for as I can tell. It was just rumors were flying and making it out to the blogs. It was making it into Fred Dicker’s radio show. He would talk about it on the air. So it was being circulated and that wasn’t fair to Paterson and it wasn’t to journalism. (Interview, LCA reporter, January 26, 2011)
Of course, reporting rumors was not new at the time but the means to circulate them through blogs and Twitter and the demand to do so more quickly were. This was another important moment for readjusting and reemphasizing professional boundaries for LCA reporters. To some of them, this period was a stain on the prestige of the press corps.
As with most sensitive issues, LP reporters mostly drew on examples in the national press. Rumor news frenzies on sexual affairs of a standing Minister-President, furthermore, were highly unlikely to occur in Munich, though reporters noticed a sinking inhibition threshold to report about politicians’ personal lives. According to one LCA reporter, this shift occurred during Watergate in the USA: “The reporter coming in saying, basically, ‘prove that you’re not a crook.’” Despite the fact that there were stories about affairs of former presidents (e.g. John F. Kennedy) and governors, they never got reported at that time: “There was a gentlemen’s agreement among reporters . all of that’s changed . When you can prove that the president of the United States is a liar, then I think it changes for everything” (Interview, LCA reporter, May 17, 2010).
Another boundary-transgressive type that reporters delineated was journalism that is vindictive, unnecessarily harmful and cruel. One reporter used the example of indebted former State Comptroller, Alan Hevesi:
[He] was sentenced and he has been demonized in some of the tabloids ...
I think the treatment has been a little on the harsh side. ... He definitely deserves what he’s gotten but there have been editorial cartoons and there’s been front page of the tabloids with his head shaven. They’ve done everything but put him in prison-striped outfit. (Interview, LCA reporter, May 5, 2011)
The line between viciousness as critical and as an end in itself is blurry, as one LP reporter pointed out: “Of course you can also inebriate yourself with the feeling: ‘My god, I can make the CSU angry, and now they are all scared of me.’ But that’s not a value in itself ... There are colleagues who are really into that” (Interview, LP reporter, January 30, 2012). Breaching ethical codes was considered even more serious. One LP radio journalist told me he reported about an ongoing trial at the time. He said he often chatted with one of the jurors on smoking breaks but that he would never have dared to talk to him about anything trial-related. “With colleagues from Bild Zeitung I would not be so sure that they did not do that” (Interview, LP reporter, December 6, 2011). Another reporter referred to a concrete example of unethical journalism: “Before the previous election a boulevard paper made a big story about then Minister- President Beckstein ... The core of the story was that he turned fat, that he drinks, that he takes medication and that he is being beaten by his wife. ... [After the election] all four points turned out to be false” (Interview, LP reporter, November 10, 2011). To him, this was a clear case of a breach of “ethical-moral boundaries.”
One LCA reporter talked about the imperative of not needlessly harming people, especially “innocent bystanders,” as a journalistic virtue his editor kept emphasizing (Interview, LCA reporter, April 16, 2009). Surprisingly, the theme of harming subjects of news reporting hardly came up otherwise. Though reporters were aware of the possibility of ruining somebody’s livelihood, which often involved family members (i.e. innocent bystanders), most did not signal this as a moral dilemma.
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