The Watchdog Still Barks: How Accountability Reporting Evolved for the Digital Age

The Watchdog Still Barks: How Accountability Reporting Evolved for the Digital Age

The Watchdog Still Barks: How Accountability Reporting Evolved for the Digital Age

The Watchdog Still Barks: How Accountability Reporting Evolved for the Digital Age

Synopsis

Perhaps no other function of a free press is as important as the watchdog role—its ability to monitor the work of the government. It is easier for politicians to get away with abusing power—wasting public funds and making poor decisions—if the press is not shining its light with what is termed “accountability reporting.” This need has become especially clear in recent months, as the American press has come under virulent direct attack for carrying out its watchdog duties. Upending the traditional media narrative that watchdog accountability journalism is in a long, dismaying decline, The Watchdog Still Barks presents a study of how this most important form of journalism came of age in the digital era at American newspapers.

Although the American newspaper industry contracted significantly during the 1990s and 2000s, Fordham professor and former CBS News producer Beth Knobel illustrates through empirical data how the amount of deep watchdog reporting on the newspapers’ studied front pages generally increased over time despite shrinking circulations, low advertising revenue, and pressure to produce the kind of soft news that plays well on social media. Based on the first content analysis to focus specifically on accountability journalism nationally, The Watchdog Still Barks examines the front pages of nine newspapers located across the United States to paint a broad portrait of how public service journalism has changed since 1991 as the advent of the Internet transformed journalism. This portrait of the modern newspaper industry shows how papers of varying sizes and ownership structures around the country marshaled resources for accountability reporting despite significant financial and technological challenges.

The Watchdog Still Barks includes original interviews with editors who explain why they are staking their papers’ futures on the one thing that American newspapers still do better than any other segment of the media: watchdog and investigative reporting.

Excerpt

I am a big fan of the comedian John Oliver, who often aims his edgy humor at important issues in American society. in August 2016, the object of his attention was the importance of watchdog journalism—the very subject of this book. in a nineteen-minute rant on his television show Last Week Tonight on hbo, Oliver explained that accountability journalism was under threat at American newspapers, particularly local ones, as a result of a combination of falling circulation, low advertising revenue, and a tendency to produce the kind of soft news that plays well on social media. Oliver explained that newspapers still produce the lion’s share of hard news and investigations—the kind of journalism that really matters. “It’s pretty obvious [that] without newspapers around to cite, tv news would just be Wolf Blitzer endlessly batting a ball of yarn around,” he explained, referring to the Cable News Network anchor. “The media is a food chain which would fall apart without local newspapers.” Oliver expressed worry that newspapers would cease trying to fulfill the watchdog role in light of revenue pressure, going for “clickbait” instead of serious journalism.

To keep that from happening, Oliver begged his audience to support newspapers by paying for content, to try to keep the newspaper industry going strong. Oliver explained that keeping news organizations financially healthy allows them to pursue serious journalism, like accountability . . .

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