Home Communication Contemporary Journalism in the US and Germany: Agents of Accountability
Distance to Politics
Appeasing and role distancing boundary performances often accompanied confronting political actors. These performances separated reporter from confidant in an effort to maintain the appearance of professional distance. A simple example of this is the devil’s-advocate question, which means asking a question from a confrontational position while dissociating oneself from that position. One—in this regard—rather aggressive LCA reporter illustrated this:
The most effective questions that get politicians to respond are the most direct. And the most direct questions usually come from a bent. So, while you may not be a right-wing conservative or a left-wing liberal, you might ask a question that ... on its own would sound left wing or right wing. I think a lot of us might even ask a question self-censored in order to maintain the appearance of objectivity. (Interview, LCA reporter, April 14, 2010)
As I have argued elsewhere, “besides compelling the respondent to make a case in a more pointed way, the devil’s-advocate question is a way to be aggressive without appearing partisan, which would undermine a performance of professionalism” (Revers 2014a: 48). It occurred frequently in press conferences when reporters prefaced adversarial questions by referring to a third party (“some would say that...”), thereby deflecting the controversial stance (S. Clayman and Heritage 2002: 152-162, 213-217). LP reporters were again more matter-of-fact in this regard. Neither my observations of them in practice nor the interviews suggested that they engaged in this kind of performance.
The risk of asking critical questions was relatively low regarding source relations and impartiality reputation. The stakes were higher, however, when reporters worked on stories that potentially harmed political actors. Boundary performances in these situations had to be more resolute in order to maintain the appearance of fairness:
I found out that whenever you crucify somebody you look him in the eye and be fair to him, you give him a chance to say it. And they will forgive you or they will continue the relationship ... you learn fairness when you have to look a guy in the eye on the next day, when you have written something about him or her. (Interview, LCA reporter, May 18, 2010)
Mostly I’ve beaten the shit out of people, but if you’re right, if it’s true and it’s fair, if you listen to them, if you’re polite and cordial and professional of all things, it doesn’t matter. It’s not your fault. (Interview, LCA reporter, January 21, 2011)
Apart from working for a powerful news organization, the second reporter said being extroverted, well liked, and going for drinks with sources helped against long grudges after damaging news stories.
What also helped alleviate these often emotional situations was when the stories in question were perceived as sound and professionally justified— that is, motivated by public relevance rather than partisanship, profit, sensation- or scandal-mongering—and when reporting itself was conducted in an unbiased manner. At the same time, reporters needed to establish distance from this dutiful and, therefore, inevitable professionalism that generates these news outcomes, conveying an amiable personal impression to sustain relationships. In other words, this boundary performance involved role distancing (Goffman 1972), signaling that one is obliged to confront the opponent to superimpose presumably unprofessional intentions, be they personal sensitivities, ideological convictions, or selfinterests. It also confronts anticipated pejorative counter-performances by political actors that impute unprofessionalism.
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