Watchdog Journalism & Democracy

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PART I
What is Meant by the Term ‘Watchdog” Journalism’?
Why is this Idealised Approach to Journalism Considered so Important and What are its Limitations?

The ‘journalist as investigator’ moniker arose when reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered the illegal activities in the Watergate debacle which led to President Nixon’s demise in office in the 1970s. Matheson stated recently that the Watergate chapter still has “enormous resonance around the world (as) it symbolises so successfully…the good that reporting can do, independently monitoring power and aligning itself with the interests of the people” (2010, p.82). Marder described watchdog journalism (WJ) as an “instrument of democracy” at the first Nieman Foundation Watchdog Conference in 1998, asserting that journalists be tasked to ask the hard questions at every level of public life on behalf of the populous (1999/2000). Gans confirmed that journalists still see themselves charged with exposing “corruption, malfeasance, dishonesty, hypocrisy, scandal and the violation of other mainstream rules of behaviour” (2010, p.96). WJ is important because the public are entitled to know what is really going on, why, and who is responsible – or not being responsible, as it were. Traditionally, there needed to be a facilitator between institutions and the public who lacked access.

Perplexingly, around the time of the Watchdog Conference, others were suggesting that such noble intentions were ideals, for could the news media really be expected to meet such challenges? There were attendant issues of commercial survival, questions of loyalty, and what actually constitutes the public interest (Schultz, 1998). Schultz further alleged the news media was a “flawed watchdog” because successes were random and the guardian role diminishing due to the emergence of agencies and legislation, nationally and internationally attending to societal ills. Ironically, the news media may have played a part in exposing the rot but now is more likely augmenting the bigger story via feedback from participants lower down the scale. Confounding this was a change in public attitude, exhibited in opinion polls, toward the media due to the latter’s surge for “political and economic power”, whilst avoiding “acting as a disinterested check on the abuse of such power by others” (Schultz, 1998, p.4). This decline in support of WJ was iterated not long after by the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press, which maintained the public, had for some time, viewed news media as an “an ill-mannered watchdog that barks too often - one that is driven by its own interests rather than by a desire to protect the public interest” (Kohut, 2001, p. 52, cited in Poindexter, Heider, & McCombs, 2006).

Newspaper sales and circulation have been falling for some years despite news proprietors’ bids to overhaul paper profiles and recruit new readers (Poindexter, Heider, & McCombs, 2006). Decreasing funds meant that WJ became less of a priority for editors since it sapped resources compared to daily reporting. There are also questions as to how irregularities are pinpointed - who decides what topics reporters should pursue – and how can anybody know if journalists have been able to identify all, or enough of, pertinent issues. All these activities require commodities that are not so available in the on-going, globally depressed financial climate. It is also noticeable that news media were seduced by sensationalism and the cult of celebrity, perhaps believing this is what people wanted, however, it may have fuelled a growing lack of respect for what constituted news.

Schultz maintains that “the news media is at its most influential when it is local”’ (1998, p.7). At least one study has shown that “being a watchdog” was not a paramount expectation of readers compared with that of journalists: 49% and 70% respectively. It appeared that young and old wanted to see more “good...
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