Informal political communication cultures: characteristics, causes, effects.

Author:Baugut, Philip
 
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1 Introduction

The relationship between political actors and journalists is crucial for the democratic process, as their interactions can have a major impact on the substance and structure of the political public sphere (Habermas 2006: 416). The relations between journalists and politicians are grounded in communicative processes between those actors. Some of those communicative processes take place in situations that are characterized by a rather formal setting. These situations are planned, follow certain fixed rules, occur in the context of repeatedly held events, the use of standard language is common, and the situations have a more or less official character. The public may predominantly perceive this side of the politics-media relationship, as accordant interactions like interviews or press conferences can become transparent by media coverage. However, a lot of communication between politicians and journalists does not have the characteristics mentioned above. Politicians and journalists can also meet spontaneously and off the record, they can act beyond role expectations, and the content of their communication can remain invisible to the public. Communicative processes like these are often described with the label 'informal' (Lesmeister 2008; Wewer 1998; Jarren and Donges 2011). They are regarded as crucial by the actors in-volved but have not received the attention they deserve from political communication scholars (Lesmeister 2008; Baugut and Grundler 2009). Therefore, the causes, characteristics, and effects of informal communication like background talks during political negotiations are still unexplored. That is the reason why we want to take a closer look here at this often neglected, but nevertheless highly important type of political communication. Doing so, we will predominantly take the perspective of communication science on the informal side of the relationship between political actors and journalists.

One reason for the lack of research on informal political communication may be the definition problem, as informal and formal communication are interconnected. As a consequence, the core of informal communication is hard to identify. On the one hand, informal communication can be regarded as only a by-product of formal interaction. On the other hand, background talks can have a formal character like in the so-called "back-ground circles" in the German capital, where politicians and journalists meet planned, repeatedly and under specific rules (Lesmeister 2008; Baugut and Grundler 2009). Against this backdrop, it is at first essential to define informal political communication.

A second reason for the lack of research on informal communication between political actors and journalists may be its non-publicity. Announcements of meetings or documentations of informal communication are rare. Research that tries to illuminate the backstage of the politics-media relationship may collide with the actors' interest in keeping some aspects of informal communication non-public. Thus, to "research informal arrangements is generally a greater challenge" (Christiansen and Neuhold 2012: 2).

A third reason for the lack of research on informal communication may be its rather unexplored relevance. Although research on the relationships of journalists and political actors has increased (e.g. Pfetsch 2001; Pfetsch 2004; Barnett and Gaber 2001; Davis 2009; Aelst, Shehata and Dalen 2010), the effects of certain characteristics of their relationships still remain an open question. A closer look on potential effects may for example lead to the question of how informal contacts are connected with the intensively discussed mediatization in politics (e.g. Mazzoleni and Schulz 1999; Stromback and Esser 2009). But further research is needed here.

The overall lack of research on informal political communication seems problematic, as there may be intransparent processes that are not in accordance with the public functions of politicians and journalists. These are the "two types of actors without whom no political public sphere could be put to work" (Habermas 2006: 416). So in light of normative democratic theory, especially the deliberative paradigm that calls for publicity and transparency as the basis for reasonable outcomes, informal communication is under critical observation. As "transparency has become pervasive as a prescription for better governance" (Hood 2007: 192), backstage processes need to be justified.

Considering the research deficits and the normative back-ground mentioned, we aim to introduce a model for investigating the characteristics, causes and effects of informal political communication between political actors and journalists in this paper. This requires a clear understanding of what is meant by informal political communication. For this purpose we will present the concept of an 'informal political communication culture'. As we regard the characteristics of informal political communication cultures as strongly context-bound, we will discuss potential influencing factors and illustrate their likely importance with empirical findings. After that we will point out that the characteristics of informal communication between political actors and journalists may be an important variable for explaining mediatization effects on political negotiations that are informal, i.e. occurring outside established committees and procedures (Mayntz 1998: 59). On the basis of the model we will develop some hypotheses that could be a starting point of a research program that would provide a deeper understanding of what informal political communication is all about.

2 Informal political communication--definition and functions

There are numerous attempts to clarify the term 'political communication' (e.g. Schulz 2008; Norris 2001). Generally, it "involves interactive processes of information as well as formal and informal modes of message flow" (Pfetsch and Esser 2012: 26). Despite that reference to the informal mode, a concept of informal political communication is still missing. Regarding politicians and journalists as the main actors, three types of informal communication can be differentiated based on the kinds of actors involved: (1) communication between political actors and journalists; (2) communication among political actors; (3) communication among journalists.

In this paper we will focus on the first type and aim to clarify its relevance not least by asking, how this type can have an impact on the second type in the context of negotiations: Firstly, we will point out what can be meant by informal communication between political actors and journalists. Secondly, we deal with the strategic objectives of this informal communication. Finally we focus on the second type of communication and clarify what informal communication among political actors can mean in the context of negotiations.

2.1 Informal political communication between political actors and journalists

Generally, informality is associated with non-publicity or closed doors (Lesmeister 2008; Auel 2006: 264). The communication between political actors and journalists can be more or less public, depending on whether and how journalists present the content of their communication with political actors in the media coverage. Given the aforementioned continuum between public and non-public communication, a closer look at both ends of the spectrum might help to illustrate the characteristics of formal and informal communication.

The live-interview on TV can be regarded as a completely public interaction. Both sides interact on the assumption that the exact content of their communication is transparent in terms of media coverage. Therefore they are aware of being observed by the public and geared to norms as well as to public needs. A crucial norm, especially for journalists, is distance. Relationships at the proscenium can be characterized by this role expectation or at least corresponding presentations (Saxer 1998; Hoffmann 2003; Kepplinger 1994). Further norms can be derived from the theory of communicative action and the ethical principles of discourse that should affect communication in the public sphere (Habermas 1985a; 1985b). Communicative action refers to validity claims (like truth, rightness and sincerity), which means the actors seek to reach a common understanding and to coordinate actions by reasoned arguments. In contrast to that, strategic action means putting pressure on each other, for example by threatening or wooing with one's own power. Public communication between political actors and journalists is expected to be in accordance with communicative action, which for example means that politicians do not publicly threat to cut journalists off from information (Baugut and Grundler 2009: 86). Conversely, journalists do not publicly woo politicians with the power of their medium in order to get newsworthy information.

So on the one hand, public communication can be regarded as formalized by norms and role expectations. These can be more or less internalized by the actors, however, if not, external social control due to the awareness of public observation can strengthen these norms. On the other hand, public communication can be regarded as formalized by public needs, which is not necessarily the same. In an increasingly commercial media system, constraints like the need for entertainment have to be taken into account (Saxer 2007). This may also explain the dramaturgy of interviews and other situations of public communication between political actors and journalists. Against the backdrop of public norms and needs, the actors are interested in institutionalizing their public communication. Forms of public communication like interviews, press conferences and press releases and (pseudo-) events are therefore planned, ritualized, repeatedly occurring, and following certain fixed rules. What these forms of communication have in common is...

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