Codes of professionalism; norms of conversation: How political interviews shape public attitudes toward journalists

Eran N Ben-Porath, University of Pennsylvania


The transforming media environment has rendered the interview a central form of news delivery particularly on the ascendant cable news platform. This television format, often marked by heated exchanges, allows viewers to form opinions about political and media institutions based on the on-air conduct of interviewers and interviewees. Interviewers reason that as journalists they are professionally licensed by the public to pursue politicians even if their questioning departs from established norms of conversation. However, the public and the press are often at odds on the question of news values and journalistic conduct. Employing a mixed methodology, this dissertation tests how interviewers' departures from civil conversation or from professional mandates impact viewers' attitudes toward journalists as a whole. Qualitative focus research provided insight into viewers' expectations from interviews. Participants were uneasy with exceptionally uncivil exchanges, but by the same token, they expressed dismay when interviewers tended to agree with their interviewees. Experimental research, informed by the focus groups, demonstrated, quantitatively, that viewers felt more of an unease with journalists and less affinity with them following uncivil interviews compared with more civil settings. This effect was associated with the viewers' sense that the uncivil interviews were uninformative and with the audience's concern with bias. Viewers who were positively predisposed toward the press expressed more trust in journalists in an environment marked by adversarial challenge to interviewees than in either a flat-out uncivil environment or in one typified by agreement. Younger viewers expected entertainment value from interviews, and rejected the ideal of journalistic detachment. Accordingly, they expressed the most comfort with journalists in the uncivil, yet engaging, interview environment. These findings indicate that in an increasingly discursive and adversarial television news environment interviewers are not as free to depart from social norms as they believe they are. At the same time, many viewers expect to see them confront their politician-guests. Furthermore, interviewers' actions affect public opinion about journalists as a whole and project onto attitudes concerning the news media's rights. Generational differences in reaction to interviews indicate that the turn to highly confrontational interviewing holds some possible benefits for journalists and news organizations. ^

Subject Area

Journalism|Political Science, General|Mass Communications

Recommended Citation

Ben-Porath, Eran N, "Codes of professionalism; norms of conversation: How political interviews shape public attitudes toward journalists" (2008). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3309396.