Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The weakening watchdog role

By Breia Brissey 

It only takes one journalism class to hear about the watchdog principle of journalism. For that matter, anyone who knows anything at all about journalism (classes or not), should probably know about the watchdog principle. The term has become synonymous with the work of journalists. 
“Today journalists continue to see the watchdog role as central to their work .... and the watchdog role was second, after informing the public, among the answers journalists volunteered as to what distinguished their profession from other types of communication” (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 143).

This idea that journalists are watchdogs stems from a completely different era. Journalists can easily point to the Watergate scandal or the Vietnam War as the golden age of watchdog journalism. But with few exceptions, most of us probably can't point to a story that holds the same weight as Watergate in recent years.

Kovach and Rosentiel go on to say this watchdog role has, in fact, weakened. As journalists we’ve gotten away from the idea of monitoring power, and instead our “investigative reporting is tabloid treatment of everyday circumstances” (151). Because we've let the principle of watchdog slip away, it's become more of amusement than any sort of help to the public. 

I came across this headline last week: “Don’t Bail Out Newspapers - Let Them Die and Get Out of the Way.” Click here to read the post from Newsweek. I was surprised that a journalist felt so strongly about the death of newspapers. He attacks the idea that journalism actually serves any kind of role as a public forum or watchdog. “As soon as papers got desperate for cash, they dropped their sacred principles as readily as a call girl sheds her clothes.” Ouch! (For a follow up, the author of the blog went on NPR earlier this week. Click here for a transcript of his interview.)
This article hit me because if journalists can have such a negative outlook on journalism, then how can we expect our audiences to look to us for guidance? 

Patterson and Seib attribute this decline to two main things: "For one thing, politicians' statements are often expressions of value rather than fact, and thus not subject to truth tests. Second investigative reporting requires a level of time and information that journalists do not routinely possess" (137). 

I believe that second principle is the heart of the matter. I understand there are certain financial pressures that are facing the journalists today, along with the pressure of our changing media structure. We've got advertisers to please and multimedia projects to produce. We've moved into this digital age that journalists haven't had to deal with in the past. So I understand how it's much easier said than done for journalists to uphold the same watchdog standards that our predecessors held. But I think if we're all truly honest, there is a level of laziness. I think it's the big elephant in the room. People don't want to admit that that is what is really going on. But like Patterson and Seib said, journalists just aren't devoting the time like they used to. And when journalists continually give stories tabloid treatment, posed as watchdog or investigative journalism, it means that the audience is less likely to trust us. Journalists have become the boy who cried wolf. (Thanks to Kovach and Rosenstiel for this analogy.)

Although there are a lot of obvious problems with the watchdog role from a journalistic standpoint, the general audience isn't faultless. Yes, journalists have a role in informing the public, but that doesn't always mean the public is going to listen. As Patterson and Seib point out, "... though most Americans cannot recall the names of their two U.S. senators, they have seen or heard the names many times over in the news" (134). This certainly doesn't make the job of journalists any easier. We're competing for the attention of people who have endless options for distractions.

So what do you all think? I think it's clear the watchdog role has, in fact, weakened. But do you see any hope for the future? 
And what do you think about that Newsweek post? If there are journalists out there who don't see much hope for the future of newspapers, then we've already got some major problems within the profession. Do you think those have to be dealt with before we can even address the issues of informing the public? 

1 comment:

  1. I think the watchdog role is the one of the most essential elements of journalism. By journalists doing good job of watchdog role, the news stories can be more objective, and gives the information that the public has right to know. But I agree with the journalism today weakening in watchdog role. I believe this is because of the new form of media which is online. What we see in online media are not as qualitative as the traditional media. But it has its good sides as well. So the journalists need to remember to think carefully about the core elements of journalism whether they are doing new types of media or the other.