Watchdog Journalism

19 Mar

“Journalists must serve as an independent monitor of power.”

The role of a journalist as a watchdog is, I think the single most important role we play. This nation was founded on government suspicion and fear of abusive power. We fought for a free country, and to be a free, self-governing people. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the very first right listed in the bill of rights, it mentions the people’s right to a freedom of the press. Journalism, and a free press is the driving force behind our democratic-republic. It is a force against corruption, and a protector of our free, self-governing society. We have a duty to uphold the constitution, and encourage honesty and transparency in our government.

I stumbled upon a rather brilliant website, that many of you may have seen before. It’s the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard’s website. They have hundreds of articles on the importance of journalism, and what we as journalists must do to fulfill our watchdog role. This one’s from 1998, but I find it’s still very relevant.

Click Here to read it.

I really like this article because it talks about, first, the importance of watchdog journalism, but also the way we as journalists should conduct ourselves. It ties in really well with chapter 10.  I don’t know if I’ve stressed how important I think watchdog journalism…or not…just to be clear…I find it VERY important. However, that doesn’t mean that we should lose sight of who we are as journalists, nor does it give us the right to trample on other people’s lives. We have an important role, we are an important part of this country, as because of that, I think we should show dignity and pride in ourselves and our work. We aren’t paparazzi. We aren’t criminals. I believe there are ways to do investigative reporting that are A: legal, and B: dignified.

The article says,

“…we should have the strength of our own convictions to disassociate ourselves wherever we can from crude, discourteous behavior whether by packs of elbowing news people lying in wait for Monica Lewinsky, or by shouting, snarling participants in a television encounter posing as news commentators.”

Being a watchdog isn’t “gotcha” journalism, or getting the most sensational news at any cost. It’s getting the truth. It’s making sure the government is telling us the whole truth. It’s raising questions were questions should be raised, and it’s having the courage to tell the story even when it may upset your advertisers, or embarrass the government.

I thought this was kind of a cool report done by a reporter named Mike Mason. It’s about the Son of Sam, or David Berkowitz (a famous serial killer from the 70s, for those of you who may not be familiar). He talked to some of the Berkowitz’s supposed victims…people that Berkowitz himself had admitted to shooting, and a few of them are convinced that Berkowtiz wasn’t actually the man who shot them. Berkowitz himself even admitted later that he had accomplices.


Now, I’m not sure whether this guy broke the story…or what the deal is, but I do know that the Berkowitz case was reopened…and remained open until at least 2004. Clearly, it’s a good thing that Berkowtiz is behind bars…but if he wan’t the only one responsible for the murder of 6 people…shouldn’t that be looked at? Being a watchdog isn’t just about exposing corruption in the government, that’s a big part, but it’s about finding the truth and asking hard questions like, “Could the police have overlooked something?” , or “Could they have intentionally ignored evidence and rushed to the conclusion that Berkowitz was the only killer?” It’s our responsibility to ask those hard questions.

The last article I wanted to talk about is another one from the Nieman Foundation. This one talks about something that I feel very passionately about…the decline of watchdog journalism.

Click Here for the article.

I’ve become very critical of the news in recent years because the cheap and easy news that comes from PR firms and publicists is usually not…well…news, in the strictest sense. I’m sorry, but stories about Lindsay Lohan’s latest addiction are not news. A two minute piece on how good orange juice is for you, while flashing Tropicana’s logo…is NOT news. I understand that there are limited resources in the industry, and we are all restricted by time…but when the integrity of news stories starts to decline, so will the integrity of the government.

I think I have sufficiently expressed how strongly I feel about the importance of watchdog journalism. We have to put truth back into journalism, you guys. Rumors about Kim Kardashian and an ad disguised as a news story are just not going to cut it. People may argue that that’s what the public wants–but I tend to take journalism a little more seriously. Why should we pander to the viewers need for entertainment, or the advertisers want for money when we know how important it is to be a watchdog? Answer: we shouldn’t. Seek out the truth, and give the people what they need to be self-governing. Let them watch TMZ for the other…”news”.

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