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Backstage Talk as a Performative Mode

On the most basic level, speaking backstage talk is an informationcontrolling strategy. It enables political actors and lobbyists to speak openly with journalists while avoiding to speak publicly. Because of tightly controlled communication policies in certain branches of government— above all the executive branch—certain spokespeople in Albany uttered “off-the-record” perpetually in conversations with reporters. In one phone exchange I witnessed, a spokesperson shared an alleged off-the-record piece of information with Dash. After Dash hung up the phone Chuck said to him: “We already fucking know that! What do you mean off-the-record? Oh my god! Is he trying to get points by telling us about it after we all already read about it in the Post?” (Fieldnotes, LCA, January 10, 2010).

I have not witnessed or heard about such perpetual use of “unter drei” in Munich. There are several reasons why spokespeople were much more careful in Albany: most of my observations occurred at a time when relations between press and politics reconstituted themselves. It was right after the gubernatorial election, a new Governor had entered office, spokes- people found themselves in roles they had not inhabited before, Governor Cuomo had a notoriety for tightly controlling public information, the power balance in the Senate shifted in favor of the Republican party, and so on. Furthermore, the digitally enabled and demanded live coverage through blogs and Twitter increased the risk of information immediately entering the public arena, a process that was more easily avertable in times when print deadlines still mattered.

Backstage talk inspired a self-presentation of journalists as close confidants rather than distanced professionals. According to Goffman (1956:

69), backstage is “a place, relative to a given performance, where the impression fostered by the performance is knowingly contradicted as a matter of course”. The kind of familiarity between political actors and journalists was in stark contrast to how they engaged with each other on the public stage, which includes any event where cameras were rolling, members of the public or journalists from more than one news organization were present. Rather than non-performance, backstage talk was a different kind of performance, more precisely: a performative blurring of institutional boundaries to enable some extent of cooperation between news media and politics. The spatial proximity of state houses further promoted this inclination. As mentioned earlier, the spatial organization of reporting differed in both state houses: LCA reporters were permanently present and available for political actors. Interactions seemed incidental and I had to remind myself that they most probably never were. LP reporters were not as accessible at the state house. However, general interactions between reporters and politicians themselves were much more sociable when the legislature was in session, including gastronomic offerings right outside the legislative chamber in Munich. Furthermore, it seemed there was more informal contact between officials and reporters after business.

This is how one senior LCA reporter characterized the State Capitol conversational culture among political insiders, including journalists, lobbyists, politicians and their staff: “They are there all the time. They’re talking. They’re talking to one another. They’re passing on information. They’re passing on disinformation. They’re spinning. Some tell the truth. Some tell half-truths. Some pass along rumors” (Interview, LCA reporter, May 5, 2011).

Another journalist, who himself had worked as a spokesperson for a while before he returned (“from the dark side”) to journalism,10 talked about reporters who do not go off-the-record on principle, which no LCA reporter holds unconditionally. He found it “a little unrealistic” to want everything on-the-record.

It’s not that [sources] always want to mislead you but sometimes ... they have real personal concerns for their own job, their working life that is important to them. The fact that they don’t make your story and your publication the number one priority and therefore tell you everything they know on-the-record? You can’t blame them for that. (Interview, LCA reporter, April 11, 2011)

He explained that having a “human interaction” with someone requires being off-the-record sometimes before he explained how this information could be useful: leading reporters to other sources who may talk on-the- record and, most importantly, understanding strategies and motivations. Most reporters therefore found backstage talk essential to do a good job, albeit the first rule was to always discern the intention of disclosure before using the information. One LCA reporter provided the most comprehensive list to determine reasons for why sources speak off-the-record:

Because it makes them feel powerful; because they like you. They are lying to you because they don’t like you; because it’s their job to; because you’ve asked a reasonable question; because you have asked at all; because telling me something advances another interest of theirs; because they’re explicitly trying to make something happen; because people like to gossip; because they’re angry; because they’re sad; because their friend got fucked over something; because they got fucked over something; because they hate somebody in their office; because somebody in their office hates them; because they are rivals with somebody. It’s endless! You just have to try to know why you’re getting it. It doesn’t mean you can’t use it. You just got to know... you just have to be conscious of motive. It’s always better to know what the motive is if you can figure it out. Sometimes you just ask them: “Why are you telling me this?” Sometimes you figure it out. I know that this official and that official hate each other and they are rivals. Or that person thinks they rival with that person [so] they’re gonna subtly undermine them. (Interview, LCA reporter, January 21, 2011)

Though all reporters in both case studies engaged in backstage talk, they disagreed in terms of the extent to which it yields good journalism and how information ought to be used. When I asked one LCA reporter how he got along with his competitor-colleagues, he said the relationships were friendly exactly because he and his company did not use anonymous sources and thus were not competing on that level. He was most skeptical of the culture of backstage talk at the Capitol:

Look at the New York Post and the Daily News, look at how many unnamed sources: a lot! Now, most of the time it’s true but let me point out, for example: ... Weapons of mass destruction in the country of Iraq - unnamed sources. “Well oops, sorry!” You know, there’s a good way to avoid that and that is: if somebody says something that’s important enough that they want to say then let them say it! If they don’t want to say it on-the-record then [don’t let them say it]. (Interview, LCA reporter, April 21, 2010)

There were others who shared his view to some extent, though arguing it would only work if all reporters stopped going off-the-record or on background. None of my informants in the LP thought there was too much anonymous sourcing, in contrast. One reason for this is that Munich reporters had more consensus about professional norms in general and about how to use anonymous information in particular. Though a few LP reporters distinguished themselves from one tabloid reporter, boundary work was noticeably less strong and did not concern anonymous sourcing at all. In the LCA it was, and particularly in terms of how tabloids and blogs used anonymous information.

 
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