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Managing Professional Boundaries

Journalists use manifestations of boundaries as symbolic resources in their day-to-day interactions with sources. State house reporters invest considerable energy in cultivating and reflecting upon these interactions and relationships. In his newsroom ethnography Herbert Gans (1979: 141) noticed that beat reporters were politer to sources than general assignment reporters. My observations confirm this for the most part. However, in public settings (e.g. press conferences), Albany state house reporters asked more hard-hitting questions than general assignment reporters. They used these occasions, especially high-stakes press conferences with the Governor and/or legislative leaders, as public stages to perform aggressive watchdog journalism. In the German case, judging from video footage available online,8 press conferences were much more low-key and orderly. Oftentimes reporters did not rise to speak themselves but were called upon by spokespeople. In Albany, reporters took the floor themselves and in competition with each other to ask questions. Most importantly, the manner in which they asked questions was more assertive, sometimes aggressive compared to their German counterparts, who distinguished themselves through substantive depth rather than the diction in which questions were posed.

State house reporters were very aware of and struggled with the dangers of what we might call overembedded source relations. Overembedded social networks are built on lasting ties and relationships based on mutual trust and reciprocity, which generate constant flows of valuable information while blocking information from outside the network (Uzzi 1997). This is a particularly serious problem for watchdog journalism, where being too close results in systematic neglect of critical viewpoints and personal obligation taking priority over public interest. In moments of selfcriticism, LCA reporters talked about the State Capitol as a bubble or echo chamber, LP reporters about the Landtag as a Kaseglocke (bell jar).

Balancing closeness and distance to sources is an issue of importance in any journalistic endeavor that relies on long-term relations to informants. Both, closeness and distance, can have professional merit: closeness procures access to information, which those who are less close are excluded from; distance is a precondition for critical detachment and a professional virtue in itself. Reporters in both settings talked about the ways they maneuver between these two poles while trying to stay clear of extremes: Being in bed with your sources (figuratively and literally) or being completely shut off from personal access. Everything in between constitutes a delicate balancing act that requires constant adjustments and variations of boundary performances.

Some of the reporters in the Albany press corps did not find it difficult to switch between sociable and professional interaction, like this senior reporter who responded rather prosaically when I asked him about this problem:

I can be friendly with politicians, have fun with them, go out with them, but I can never be real friends with them. I always have to be in the position to drive a stake through their heart if it’s necessary. And a lot of people respect that, some don’t and they will never talk to you again. (Interview, LCA reporter, March 20, 2010)

Another young reporter said he knew everything was fine when he was imaginarily capable of ruining a source’s day. He also told me that he frequently went out for drinks and dinners with sources. It should be mentioned that both were highly influential journalists of the press corps. Other, less-experienced reporters often found this back-and-forth challenging, as this young wire reporter:

You can’t be afraid to be confrontational but you can’t be afraid to be open enough to be almost a friend but that’s too much; there is such a fine line- it’s a very delicate thing. You know a lot of these people. You know their wives’ or their husbands’ or their kids’ names ... but you also know that they will do anything it takes to spin you and get you to state something that makes their boss look good. ... So it’s a delicate thing and, you know, it’s so easy to get caught in just being a human and having a human connection with somebody. It is one of the most challenging parts of the job. (Interview, LCA reporter, April 16, 2009)

She pointed more explicitly than any other Albany reporter to this very obvious tension between developing interpersonal relations while remaining unscrupulously professional, which at times involves threatening livelihoods. Besides her young age (mid-twenties) and relatively little experience as a journalist in general (6 years) and on this beat (2 years), her gender certainly also explains her openness to address these weaknesses.

I did not have access to nightlife sociability between reporters and sources. My understanding is that (1) when reporters in Albany said they socialized with sources they were mostly referring to spokespeople and “staffers,” less elected officials, (2) those who participated were mostly young reporters and (3) most senior reporters said they did not meet sources outside of the Capitol. Some reporters pronouncedly refrained from socializing in order not to compromise their ability to be critical watchdogs. Those who did socialize with sources emphasized the compatibility of both demands: “what you do get is an easier working relationship ... it doesn’t mean you can’t still kick their teeth in” (Interview, LCA reporter, May 26, 2011).

The situation was a little different in Munich. They recounted more frequent personal contact with elected officials, not only their staff. As with Albany reporters, they varied in terms of how difficult they perceived maneuvering the dangerous waters of developing relationships while reporting critically. One reporter, who had personal contact with politicians, said: “I keep great distance. There are a few people who I know well, better than others, but I do not talk to them about internal information. I don’t let myself be embroiled in this, intra-party wars or whatever ... I don’t let myself be turned into a tool” (Interview, LP reporter, January 24, 2012). He seemed comfortable with handling relations to sources but said that his age helped in this respect. One younger journalist explained how she managed to assert herself in the job:

It was a special situation for me. First of all, I was by far the youngest when I came to the Landtagspresse, certainly by 15 years, and a woman in a male- dominated job. In the LP most alpha animals are men. It was difficult for me to acquire respect, that they don’t say “well, nice little thing, somehow” and I don’t exactly weigh 100 kilos either. That was most difficult at the beginning and that only works by keeping a lot of distance to those involved, by remaining factual. (Interview, LP reporter, March 26, 2012)

Women were in the minority in both press corps and state houses. They used specific strategies to prevail in the male-dominated political environment. Some said they tried to be extra-tough to compensate for their gender disadvantage. One female reporter in Albany told me she did not take part in nightlife activities with sources—mostly men— because of the ‘unseemly appearance.’ I did not hear of cases of intermarriage in Albany and I know of one in Munich. There was hearsay about an intimate relationship between a female reporter and a male political actor. Obviously it was only the female reporter who was perceived as using her body for professional advantage.

A culturally specific distancing behavior of reporters is which form of personal address they use with politicians. LP correspondents made the point that they never used informal address (“Du” as opposed to “Sie”). The form of address is less a determinant than a representation of the kind of relationship that has been established between reporter and source. One senior LP reporter who spoke of duzen (using informal address) in this way compared it to the fact that he does not play tennis or soccer with spokespeople either: “I don’t want to ... establish this kind of personal contact. It becomes difficult because there will always be situations where I have to hurt a spokesperson or his boss ... you do need to find the right balance” (Interview, LP reporter, April 17, 2012).

However, several correspondents acknowledged exceptions to this general rule and said that duzen was sometimes unavoidable: “There are some [politicians] where it just happens over decades. You try not to allow yourself to be guided by it, on the other hand this is an unavoidable condition of the job. I mean, you can try it without closeness but then, well, you are isolated” (Interview, LP reporter, December 5, 2011).

Though there is no formal/informal distinction of pronouns in the English language (anymore), in Albany there was a peculiar contrast regarding the use of first names. While most reporters use the name of the office to address politicians (“Governor,” Senator”), most politicians addressed reporters by their first name.9 However, I noticed that a few senior reporters used politicians’ first names, not only in informal press gaggles but also in press conferences. One of them said he meant it in a pejorative way to not make them feel “too important” (Fieldnotes, LCA, May 10, 2011).

The in-between-ness of closeness and distance involves careful reflection on the part of reporters about when it is worth to “throw a source under the bus.” Several factors are worth considering. First of all, the story itself: How big it is, that is, how great of an impact it might have regarding attention, accountability, professional recognition (of outlet and journalist), and so on. Secondly, how damaging the story is for the source—mere disgrace, job loss, criminal prosecution, and so on. Thirdly and a consequence of the two, the implications for the relationship between journalist and source—irritation, complaint, breaking off lines of communication, libel action, and so on. Most beat reporters would agree that publishing every damaging detail they can find would be counterproductive for sustaining source relations and not worth it for democracy either.

My informants addressed different forms of inhibition in this context. Reporters in the USA spoke of “protecting your sources” and “picking your battles.” One LCA reporter illustrated these considerations as follows: “You need to report on them accurately but you don’t need to go crazy in fucking them” (Interview, LCA reporter, May 18, 2010). LP reporters referred to such inhibitions as Abwdgungssache (a matter of weighting) or as trying not to leave verbrannte Erde (scorched earth) behind. German journalists were more upfront about the consequences of inhibitions: one of them remembered having Beifihemmungen (bite inhibitions) at one point, another spoke of Zensur im Kopf, a metaphor for “self-censorship.”

Several LP reporters admitted feeling guilty after having published a critical story. Among LCA reporters only Dash, not coincidentally a devout Catholic, acknowledged the existence of guilt and the fear of “having wronged somebody.” It is conceivable that spokespeople sensed his sense of guilt and therefore liked to yell at him on the phone, even though Dash was not the only subject to attempts of intimidation. It is telling that German reporters told me about guilt, despite the fact that most of them did not know me when I first interviewed them. I spent much more time with my informants in Albany and had good relations with several of them. Yet, only my key informant, at a point when we had known each other for more than a year, acknowledged to me over a beer at his dinner table that he felt guilty toward sources at times. Aside from the fact that most German reporters were presumably Catholic (southern parts of Germany being dominated by Catholicism) and most US reporters Protestant or Jewish, Albany reporters distinguished themselves by more rigorously protecting their performance of professionalism and claims to professional autonomy in public, toward each other, and toward me.

Besides inhibitions to attack, reporters had other strategies to maintain their relations with sources. When I asked one LCA journalist how he acquired off-the-record information, he used a revealing metaphor: “Some do it to make a deposit in the favor bank that sources and journalists are constantly making either withdrawals or deposits to” (Interview, LCA reporter, May 11, 2010). The favor bank denotes a relation based on reciprocity— information in exchange for publicity. Another reporter told me of a recent story, which he wrote because the Governor’s office had asked him to in exchange for information on a story he really wanted to write. He thought this favor, which appeared on his newspaper’s blog rather than the paper, was “stupid” but received a lot of attention. We did the interview three weeks after the story appeared and he was still waiting to get access to the information he had been promised (Interview, LCA reporter, May 4, 2011).

The idea of the favor bank, though not in this terminology, was familiar in the German context. One German TV reporter put it quite bluntly:

It is a business of give and take between journalism and politics and this means, if I get a good information from someone, I have to use a sound bite by that person at another point. That goes without saying. But this has nothing to do with partisanship or other dependencies but this is just how it goes. It is also legitimate I think. (Interview, LP reporter, May 30, 2012)

Another LP reporter saw opportunities for avoiding the discontent of sources by using stories she could not place in print as online stories instead. At the time of the interview she hardly wrote for online, partly a personal choice, partly because her company had separate print and online departments. She described a situation where she pursued a very busy informant for days, finally succeeded in interviewing him for ten minutes, but then her story got canceled for the print edition: “You can then go and place stories online that would fall through the net otherwise. As a result, sources feel they have been served well and will be with you for longer, hopefully” (Interview, LP reporter, March 23, 2012). Only one LCA reporter with relatively little online journalism duties saw a similar potential in the digital expansion of the space for news. For him, however, it was more about the opportunity to accommodate important stories rather than pleasing sources.

Granting favors, even if it entailed reciprocity of valuable information, collided with ideals of professional autonomy. Therefore, reporters countervailed the perceived loss of autonomy in performance. The episode discussed at the beginning of this chapter exemplified this: Dash was handed a soft, human-interest story by a top official, which he perceived as a stain on his professional honor. When he did a critical story, followed by complaints, about the same politician a few weeks later, Dash felt vindicated. This is not to say that he wrote that latter story only to “get even,” but that he attached great meaning to his work and at the same time used this meaning deliberately and strategically in an ongoing performance of professionalism in front of his audience of peers and political actors.

 
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