Watchdog journalism

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Watchdog journalism is a form of investigative journalism where the author or the publisher fact-checks and interviews political figures and authorities, thereby verifying the validity of their actions and statements. Watchdog journalism usually takes on a form of beat reporting about specific aspects and issues.


Working as guardians and protectors is what watchdog journalists have to do. In this regard, journalists have to gather information about wrongdoings of people in power and deliver it to the public[1][2] so the public can understand what happens in society and stop wrongdoings. To do their job, maintaining a certain distance from people in power is necessary. This is because they have to challenge the actions of people in power.[1][3] It is totally different from propagandist journalists who serve the interests of people in authority and elite standing.[4] Due to watchdog journalism's unique features, it also often works as the fourth estate.[1][3] The general issues, topics, or scandals that watchdog journalists cover are political corruption and any wrongdoings of people in power such as government officials or corporation executives.[1] One of the important things that watchdog journalists have to do is uncover hidden evidence about wrongdoings.[1]

Three dimension of operationalization[edit]

The press working as a watchdog has been one of the fundamental components of a democratic society. According to what Ettema and Glasser (1998) argue, the watchdog of the press is the “stories implicitly demand the response of public officials.”[5] Playing a role as a Fourth Estate, the journalism is able to allow and force people with power, governments in other words, to meet their obligations to the public by publicizing several issues such as a scandal, corruption, and failure to address needs of the public.[6] Mellado (2015) identified and developed three dimensions of operationalization of watchdog role: the intensity of scrutiny, journalistic voice, and the source of news event.[7]

  • Intensity of scrutiny: Watchdog journalism has a few levels of scrutiny in terms of its reporting style. First of all, at the lowest level, questions and interrogations are a key way to investigate people with power.[8] At a next level, denunciation is still not necessarily needed. But it is consisted of more obvious and somewhat aggressive questions and interrogations.[9] Lastly, the highest level of scrutiny involves the strategy which is designed for people who are investigated to confess their wrongdoing. So at this level,  a variety of evidence of wrongdoing is ready to be used. [10]
  • Journalistic voice: Watchdog journalism needs a few types of voices which are required to address the scrutiny. Specifically, journalists' own voice or a third party's voice is the most general type.[10] In the case of a detached orientation of watchdog journalism, it is likely to use a third party's voice to question, criticize, and denounce wrongdoings what people with power do rather than using journalists' voices.[10]
  • Source of news event: There is a specific type of event that watchdog journalism is interested in to question, criticize, and denounce. Specifically, not only corruptions of the relationship between people with power and media, but also issues about judiciary processes or external investigations are likely to be handled by a detached orientation of watchdog journalism.[5] [11]

Predictors of watchdog role performance[edit]

Depending on the differences in a social and organizational level, a performance of the journalistic role also changes. In turn, there are a few factors that are likely to have an influence over the type of watchdog performance in the journalism.

  • Democracy: Watchdog journalism can work effectively in well-established democratic countries. This is because in such countries, there is high level of the freedom of the press and journalistic autonomy and independence.[12] Also, a low level of press censorship, state intervention, and institutional control are ensured at the same time.
  • Audience orientation: Audience orientation is one of the factors that affects the performance of journalistic roles. For instance, in China, market newspapers are more likely to play a role as the watchdog journalism than an official newspaper, which is supposed to publicize corruptions of people with power such as how they misuse existing policy or law, does [13] At this point, there is a huge difference in reporting styles between popular press and elite press.[14]
  • Media political leaning: The political orientation of the journalism is closely associated to the performance of the watchdog role. To be specific, according to what Mellado et al. (2017) found in five Latin American countries, the media that serves the interests of the right or of the moderation is less likely to work as the watchdog journalism than the media serving interests of left party do.[15] In addition, biased tendency of the media has a great impact on the coverage of the political issues or scandals.
  • News beats: The performance of the watchdog journalism is influenced by journalistic specialization. For instance, based on what Reich (2012) found, journalists who deal with political issues are highly likely to act as watchdogs than ones who cover business issues.[16] Similar tendency appears in other countries including China, Chile, and Spain. To be specific, in these countries, watchdog journalism can be found in the field that covers the political scandals, while business and economy journalists are less likely to act as watchdog.[17]

Detached watchdog[edit]

Detached watchdog journalism, one of the four identified journalism cultures, puts emphasis on neutrality, fairness, objectivity, and impartiality.[1] This is the most familiar and pervasive type of a few forms of watchdog journalism. Detached watchdog refers to observing issues in a detached manner.[1][18] So it pursues a different approach in scrutinizing wrongdoings and publicizing them to the public from what interventionist approach does.[1][18] In addition this is the reason why characteristics including neutrality, fairness, objectivity, and impartiality are important.[1] But it does not mean that watchdog journalists do not take a skeptical and critical action. The detached watchdog journalism is predominant especially in the western countries such as Germany, the United States, Austria, and Switzerland.[1]

In the detached approach, the most predominant form of watchdog journalism, criticism and question which are done by sources are the least intense levels of scrutiny. Since the detached watchdog journalism generally consists of third parties (or sources) that question, criticize, and denounce wrongdoings, it tends to play a passive role in terms of investigating people in power.[19] In this regard, one of the characteristics that distinguishes between detached and the other type of approaches named interventionist watchdog journalism is the type of event that journalists handle.[19] The type of event that prompts the journalists to act as a watchdog to scrutinizing people in power by questioning and criticizing is different based on the approaches. Within liberal media systems, the phenomenon that journalists are highly likely to take the detached approach of the watchdog journalism can be often seen because of liberal media systems’ a few unique features such as the factuality and objectivity.[19]

Indicator of detached orientation and operationalization[edit]

  • Questioning by sources: People other than journalists can question people in power by expressing opinions and giving statements or quotes.[19]
  • Criticism by sources: People other than journalists can criticize those with power can through expressing negative opinions or giving a statement or quote.[19]
  • Denunciation by sources: People other than journalists can provide a testimony or an evidence about something that people with power do and say.[19]
  • External investigation: Corruptions, scandals, or issues of people in power are often scrutinized and covered by the news media even though journalists do not handle them directly.[19]
  • Questioning by the journalist: Journalists can work as a watchdog by checking the legitimacy and integrity of people in power's action.[19]
  • Criticism by the journalist: The journalists are allowed to judge and condemn what people in power do by making assertions.[19]
  • Denunciation by the journalist: The journalists can denounce and accuse something that is hidden illegally by people in power by making assertions.[19]
  • Reporting of conflict: The journalists can bring a source, an institution, or people in power that have to be scrutinized to the table.[19]

In practice[edit]

The logo of the Washington Post

Historically, a lot of examples have proven that watchdog journalism has a power to dislodge corrupt people in power from their position.[1] To be specific, the most famous example is how the coverage of Watergate scandal which was done by watchdog journalists named Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein led to resignation of the U.S President Richard Nixon in 1970s.[1]

Bob Woodward, the investigative journalist of The Washington Post

Washington Post's coverage of Watergate scandal[edit]

The Watergate scandal was one of the biggest political scandals in the United States. It involved Richard Nixon, the 37th president of the United States and led him to resignation. This scandal stemmed from the attempts of 5 former FBI and CIA agents broke in the Democratic National Committee headquarters which is located at the Watergate Office Building, Washington D.C. What they were trying to do was to plant a bug for Richard Nixon’s winning the re-election in exchange for receiving the cash.[20] After 5 perpetrators were arrested, several revelation and investigation were progressed until 1973 and it made the House decide to commence an impeachment process against Nixon. The Oval Office tapes, the significant evidence of the Watergate scandal, revealed that Nixon tried to cover up what he did to win the re-election such as breaking-in and using federal officials. As a result, the impeachment against Richard Nixon was approved by the House judiciary committee.[20] He resigned from all of offices on August 9, 1974.

Carl Bernstein, the investigative journalist of The Washington Post

The role of Washington Post as watchdog journalism in the case of Watergate scandal[edit]

The case of Watergate scandal is the most famous example showing the role of watchdog journalism, how it works and even further, its impact. The media, especially, The Washington Post, significantly contributed to highlight the fact that there’s the rotten connection between the breaking in the Watergate Office and Richard Nixon’s re-election committee.[20] In addition, its coverage led to an explosion of publicity and public attention. To cover the scandal, anonymous sources became the main material that The Washington Post heavily relied on. Specifically, the Washington Post’s investigative journalists named Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein played a really important role. [20] They uncovered information and evidence that proved the agents' break-in to plant a bug and attempts to conceal it which result in the intervention of the Justice Department, FBI, CIA, and the White House.[20] In addition, they conducted interviews with a witness named Judy Hoback Miller. He was the book keep who worked at the Richard Nixon’s re-election committee and had an evidence showing how Richard Nixon and his committee mishandled the funds and destroyed the records, the evidence of conspiracy.[20] The most valuable and reliable anonymous sources came from person who didn’t reveal his identity at the time. He was called Deep Throat by Woodward and Bernstein.[20] Every meeting between investigative journalists of The Washington Post and Deep Throat was held secretly.[20] And through these meetings, involvement of the Richard Nixon, his committee and the White House was revealed. Later, it was also revealed that Deep Throat, the anonymous informant, is the deputy director of the FBI during 1970s named William Mark Felt, Sr.[20]

Crisis in watchdog journalism[edit]

University of Illinois at Chiage circle logo

Journalism’s role as a watchdog is in danger of disappearing in a lot of societies and countries across the world. Basically, watchdog journalism has to force people in power, for instance government officials, to take a responsibility of their actions that affect public's way of living.[21] However, since local news media and newspaper have faced closing or consolidation, it is hard to see journalism that watches those in power.[21] To be specific, in the case of the United States, the phenomenon of disappearing a local newspaper has happened in more than 1,400 cities since 15 years ago according to an Associated Press's research which was conducted through data gathered by the University of North Carolina.[21] And those cities are where watchdog journalism that reports issues and problems caused by actions of a corrupt people in power is necessarily needed. As a result, several negative outcomes for the community has been brought. Foremost, rotten actions of people in power such as politicians are unable to be criticized and watched. This is because there is no transparency that can solve problems and achieve a healthy democracy. [21]

University of Notre Dame seal

In addition, disappearing of a local newspaper that plays a role as a watchdog journalism is related to putting a financial problem directly on members in a community.[21] Based on the research conducted by the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Notre Dame, it is found that increasing in borrowing costs after a local newspaper is closed has a close connection with municipal government. [21] It indicates that the absence of a watchdog journalism leaves public out of a discussion and helps people in power such as government officials to refuse to increase working people’s wages and in payrolls.[21] People in power is highly likely to engage in wasteful spending because there is no journalism that watches and criticizes their actions, decisions, and policies. To simply put, if there is no investigative journalism, important issues that public must know are not covered. So instead of reporting on fraud, abuse, and waste, useless and meaningless topics will be handled as if they are the only a problem that a community faces.[21] For instance, a corruption which is related to various public infrastructures such as hospital that require more resource with a high quality to provide better service to public will be less likely to be told.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Salas, Branden (2018). Basic Concept of Journalism. Scientific e-Resources. ISBN 9781839472886.
  2. ^ Coronel, S. S. (2008): The Media as Watchdog, Harvard.
  3. ^ a b Hanitzsch, Thomas (2007). "Deconstructing Journalism Culture: Toward a Universal Theory". Communication Theory. 17 (4): 367–385. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2885.2007.00303.x.
  4. ^ Pasti, Svetlana (2005). "Two Generations of Contemporary Russian Journalists". European Journal of Communication. 20: 89–115. doi:10.1177/0267323105049634.
  5. ^ a b "Custodians of conscience: investigative journalism and public virtue". Choice Reviews Online. 36 (5): 36–2584-36-2584. January 1, 1999. doi:10.5860/choice.36-2584. ISSN 0009-4978.
  6. ^ Allan, Stuart (October 20, 2009). The Routledge Companion to News and Journalism. doi:10.4324/9780203869468. ISBN 9780203869468.
  7. ^ Mellado, Claudia (June 27, 2014). "Professional Roles in News Content". Journalism Studies. 16 (4): 596–614. doi:10.1080/1461670x.2014.922276. ISSN 1461-670X.
  8. ^ Sperry, Benjamin O. (April 2006). "The Press Edited by Geneva Overholser and Kathleen Hall Jamieson New York: Oxford University Press (Institutions of American Democracy Series), 2005. 473 pp". American Journalism. 23 (2): 173–174. doi:10.1080/08821127.2006.10678018. ISSN 0882-1127.
  9. ^ Clayman, Steven E.; Heritage, John; Elliott, Marc N.; McDonald, Laurie L. (February 2007). "When Does the Watchdog Bark? Conditions of Aggressive Questioning in Presidential News Conferences". American Sociological Review. 72 (1): 23–41. doi:10.1177/000312240707200102. ISSN 0003-1224.
  10. ^ a b c Johnson, M. A. (June 1, 2002). "Watchdog Journalism in South America. By Silvio Waisbord. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. 288 pp. $49.50 (hard), $18.50 (soft)". Journal of Communication. 52 (2): 467–469. doi:10.1093/joc/52.2.467. ISSN 0021-9916.
  11. ^ "Trump, Journalists, and Social Networks of Trust", Trump and the Media, The MIT Press, 2018, doi:10.7551/mitpress/11464.003.0029, ISBN 978-0-262-34661-0
  12. ^ Hallin, Daniel C. Mancini, Paolo (2004). Comparing media systems : three models of media and politics. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-511-21075-2. OCLC 896991703.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  13. ^ Wang, Haiyan; Sparks, Colin; Huang, Yu (September 2018). "Measuring differences in the Chinese press: A study of People's Daily and Southern Metropolitan Daily". Global Media and China. 3 (3): 125–140. doi:10.1177/2059436418806022. ISSN 2059-4364.
  14. ^ Skovsgaard, Morten; Albæk, Erik; Bro, Peter; de Vreese, Claes (April 13, 2012). "A reality check: How journalists' role perceptions impact their implementation of the objectivity norm". Journalism: Theory, Practice & Criticism. 14 (1): 22–42. doi:10.1177/1464884912442286. ISSN 1464-8849.
  15. ^ Mellado, Claudia; Hellmueller, Lea; Márquez-Ramírez, Mireya; Humanes, Maria Luisa; Sparks, Colin; Stepinska, Agnieszka; Pasti, Svetlana; Schielicke, Anna-Maria; Tandoc, Edson; Wang, Haiyan (November 2, 2017). "The Hybridization of Journalistic Cultures: A Comparative Study of Journalistic Role Performance". Journal of Communication. 67 (6): 944–967. doi:10.1111/jcom.12339. ISSN 0021-9916.
  16. ^ Reich, Zvi (September 20, 2011). "Different Practices, Similar Logic". The International Journal of Press/Politics. 17 (1): 76–99. doi:10.1177/1940161211420868. ISSN 1940-1612.
  17. ^ Wang, Haiyan; Sparks, Colin; Lü, Nan; Huang, Yu (October 6, 2016). "Differences within the mainland Chinese press: a quantitative analysis". Asian Journal of Communication. 27 (2): 154–171. doi:10.1080/01292986.2016.1240818. ISSN 0129-2986.
  18. ^ a b Hanitzsch, Thomas (2011). "Populist disseminators, detached watchdogs, critical change agents and opportunist facilitators". International Communication Gazette. 73 (6): 477–494. doi:10.1177/1748048511412279.
  19. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Márquez-Ramírez, Mireya; Mellado, Claudia; Humanes, María Luisa; Amado, Adriana; Beck, Daniel; Davydov, Sergey; Mick, Jacques; Mothes, Cornelia; Olivera, Dasniel; Panagiotu, Nikos; Roses, Sergio (September 6, 2019). "Detached or Interventionist? Comparing the Performance of Watchdog Journalism in Transitional, Advanced and Non-democratic Countries". The International Journal of Press/Politics. 25 (1): 53–75. doi:10.1177/1940161219872155. ISSN 1940-1612.
  20. ^ a b c d e f g h i Schudson, Michael (May 2004). "Notes on Scandal and the Watergate Legacy". American Behavioral Scientist. 47 (9): 1231–1238. doi:10.1177/0002764203262345. ISSN 0002-7642.
  21. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Loss of local news hinders ability to watchdog government". AP NEWS. March 11, 2019. Retrieved April 12, 2020.

External links[edit]