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

Public Responsibility

All journalists I talked to took their responsibility to the public very seriously. They associated this responsibility with the watchdog role, accountability, with den Mdchtigen auf die Finger schauen (keeping an eye on those in power) and vierte Gewalt (the fourth estate). For many LP reporters, Einordnung (literally: classification; figuratively: contextualizing, locating within the general context) was the most important service to the public. Several reporters were so enamored with public service ideals that all of their assertions about professional norms and values filtered through it. (In a regular sequence of an interview, I dealt with this question after I probed reporters to draw boundaries regarding bad journalism.)

Idealism and Moral Claims

US reporters maintained a tone of expressive idealism to the question what their public responsibility was, while German reporters provided more low-key answers, referring to concrete practices rather than high-flown and abstract ideals. One LCA reporter, for instance, said that journalism and “feeling some responsibility to the public” are “almost synonymous ... The only reason I’m doing this is to serve the public, is to serve democracy” (Interview, LCA reporter, September 13, 2010). Several LCA journalists declared improving the world is what motivated them. One of them said this ideal was what kept many reporters going, despite low pay, low social standing of the occupation and long working hours: “What we discover and publish is going to make the world a better place. I mean, that does sound a little like Pollyanna or gaga, unicorns, rainbows, pie and sky. But a lot of people do feel that way” (Interview, LCA reporter, January 26, 2011).

In the same way, reporters condemned stories which did not follow these ideals. Regarding the excessive volume of coverage given to speculation whether Donald Trump might run for president or not, one reporter remarked: “That doesn’t improve the world in any way. That doesn’t alert anybody to waste or abuse of taxpayers’ money” (Interview, LCA reporter, May 5, 2011). Apart from the fact that this reporter was an investigative journalist and hardly involved in daily news making, the moral discourse of journalistic professionalism of LCA reporters drew remarkably from this responsibility to taxpayers and to creating accountability of public spending.

One reporter, who repeatedly stressed that newsworthiness depended upon relevance for his constituency, said: “The question here is always: how’s that gonna affect people. ... That’s why I like taxes so much, to write about. Everybody understands the impact of taxes and impact of jobs” (Interview, LCA reporter, May 23, 2009). Another reporter drew an imaginary scenario, in which a source wants to go on background: “If some spokesman is like: ‘Can I just be a spokesmen? - ‘No. Your fucking job—the taxpayer pays you!— is to speak for this person” (Interview, LCA reporter, January 21, 2011). Reporters often invoked taxpayers when interacting with sources, which speaks to the performative valence to this rhetoric. In Germany, neither was fiscal accountability nor were taxpayers important points of reference for reporters’ self-conceptions and performances. On this issue, the occupational discourse seems to reflect that in German political culture taxation is much less contentious than in the USA.

Public Representatives Within and Beyond the Bubble In Germany, public service reporters had the strongest attachment to the idea of being representatives of the public: “We should understand ourselves [as] those who keep an eye on others on behalf of the public. ... After all, we do not have the economic pressure that private stations, newspaper or magazines are subjected to” (Interview, LP reporter, December 6, 2011). Others have pointed out that representing a public service medium means being able to cover important issues that private television and radio did not cover for rating concerns. US reporters counterbalanced the relative weakness of such institutional foundations and policies by stronger moral commitments. They referred to themselves explicitly as representatives of the public; they justified their jobs by being at the state house in place of the public. One reporter told me of an instance where the press was kicked out of a meeting room because of a lack of space. He told the Senator in charge: “I’m here as a representative of one million people who read my newspaper every day. I know I’m not an elected official; they didn’t choose me. I’m here, because they can’t be here” (Interview, LCA reporter, September 8,

2009). Knowing him, I am confident the scene had taken place close to the way he described it.

“Charlie,” a newspaper reporter in his mid-forties, stood out in terms of his ability to think and care for issues “outside of the bubble,” even though he was mostly caught up with the regular daily reporting business. I observed Charlie on several occasions pitching stories to his editor, implicitly or explicitly appealing to their public service value to an extent I have not witnessed among other journalists. In the interview we did, he defined his idea of public responsibility by telling me about a recent story he reported on, which occurred outside of the state politics purview, thematically as well as spatially. It involved a vulnerable population that died in a tragic accident:

For whatever reasons I found myself doing those stories over the years. I just sort of happened to find them and grabbed on to them. [Stories involving] people who are completely helpless, how are they being treated by our society, by our government. And often they are not always treated as well as they should be. And they can be victimized by the circumstances or by neglect, or even worse. Having seen that in other situations as a journalist it has made me empathetic and therefore it’s important that we do those stories, that people know about that. (Interview, LCA reporter, April 8, 2009)

Charlie had more concrete obligations in mind when he reflected upon public responsibility than most of his competitor-colleagues. One basic requirement articulated by him and many other reporters was that the stories he covered must speak to or at least relate to people’s concerns—a requirement they knew they often violated. They conceded to this when they referred to the state house as a bubble or KAseglocke (bell jar), implying that relevance criteria are often times limited to this micro-universe.

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