What do we know about interactions between political actors and journalists, and how do we know it?

by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Politicians, other political actors like interest groups and government agencies, as well as PR professionals who work for them in-house or on a consultancy-basis, constantly interact with the political journalists who produce the news content that—across television, digital, and print platforms—remain most people’s number one source of information about public affairs in most democracies.

The social world these people move in is generally seen as quite secluded and self-referential, witness notions of a “Beltway bubble” in the US, the “Westminster village” in the UK, the Berlin “spaceship” in Germany, and so on. It is opaque to outsiders, though the things that happens in this world shapes what all of those of us outside it who follow politics in large part through the news get to know about what is going on, how billions are spent, what services are offered to whom and when, how consumer standards and labor regulations are set, and so on.

Several classic works on journalism and political communication highlight the importance of these interactions in shaping political coverage, what Herbert J. Gans in Deciding What’s News calls a “tug of war” between sources and reporters, what Timothy Cook in Governing With the News called the “negotiation of newsworthiness”, and is increasingly subject to what Aeron Davis in his work on journalist-source relations in the UK Parliament calls “mediated reflexivity” where everyone involved constantly and sometimes explicitly and publicly examines the nature of the interactions at hand (who is talking to who, why, and what does it mean).

Both Gans, Cook, and Davis point to the ongoing interactions between people who differ in their interests, who they are accountable to, and in their personal ambitions, but who remain dependent on one another when it comes to the ongoing “co-production” of political news, and who generally know that whatever happens during this 24-hour news cycle, there will be another one tomorrow, and the tugging and negotiation will start anew (actually, really never stops for people at the top of politics and breaking news organizations).

But the hard part for academics is not to write the opening paragraphs of this blog post, pointing out these interactions matter, or coining a term that captures the combination of conflict and collaboration that characterize them. The hard part is to study them. Surveys of those involved is a start, but to really get at the texture of interactions between political actors and journalists, we need in-depth interviews, ethnographic observation, and perhaps participation-observation to get at the very practice of political PR and political journalism. This takes time, and these methods, while commonplace and popular in anthropology, sociology, and much of media and communication studies, are not in vogue in political science and parts of political communication research.

And yet, hard as it may be to study these interactions, we need to study them, and we need to study them qualitatively, to understand political communication and the information made available to citizens.

All too often, journalistic meta-coverage of these interactions, memoirs and other forms of self-narration by some of the most prominent actors involved, and sensationalized and sometimes entertaining accounts dealing in simple moral dichotomies (journalists good, “spin doctors” bad) or wholesale damnation (both journalists and political actors are fundamentally corrupt). These genres all have their own value, but we need to add scholarly voices to this mix. We can’t rely solely on the self-presentation of political actors and journalists if we want to understand the world they inhabit.

The opportunities for studies are endless, both at the level of the individual scholar or graduate student looking for a dissertation project and for larger teams interested in comparative studies. I’d highlight three areas in particular, based on my experience editing (with Raymond Kuhn) Political Journalism in Transition: Western Europe in a Comparative Perspective (blurb and first chapter here, Amazon here)—

First, we need up-to-date studies of the interactions between political actors and journalists especially in the US. We are still largely reliant on path-breaking studies conducted in the 1970s and early 1980s. It is obvious that much has changed since Jimmy Carter lived in the White House, and just as we have seen a resurgence of newsroom ethnographies, we need new qualitative studies of the relations between reporters and officials (like Leon Sigal’s 1973 classic). (Other countries, especially the UK with Aeron Davis’ work, but also Germany and Scandinavia, have more recent studies—summaries of much of this work is available in the chapters by Philip Baugut and Carsten Reinemann on Germany and Mark Blach-Ørsten on Denmark in Political Journalism in Transition.)

Second, we need more studies that move beyond the very important but also highly unusual interactions that dominate interactions between political actors and journalists in national capitals to take into account the often equally important substantially, but much less frequently studied, interactions between political actors and journalists at the local level, the regional level, in wider governance networks far away from the legislative arena and day-to-day partisan exchanges, and in international foras like the European Union. (The work of Olivier Baisnee is particularly interesting here, also represented in the above-mentioned book.)

Third, we need more cross-national comparative studies that take seriously that differences in the structure of political systems, media systems, and perhaps also wider cultural variations in citizens’ interest in and engagement with politics, shape the interactions between political actors and journalists, the balance of power between them, the diversity and texture of information made available (or not) to citizens through the news, and so on. Barabara Pfetsch’s forthcoming edited book on “political communication cultures” will take a step towards addressing this, as will, I hope, the book Raymond and I have edited.

But much, much more work needs to be done on interactions between political actors and journalists, especially primary, qualitative, research based on fieldwork and interviews that can really advance our empirical understanding of how these processes play out, and what they mean for democracy.