Watchdog journalism informs the public about goings-on in institutions and society, especially in circumstances where a significant portion of the public would demand changes in response. This might involve:
- Fact-checking statements of public officials.
- Interviewing public figures and challenging them with problems or concerns.
- Beat reporting to gather information from meetings that members of the public might not otherwise attend, and to observe "on the ground" in broader society
- Investigative journalism, which involves information-gathering on a single story for a long period of time
Like a literal guard dog that barks when it notices an intruder, a "watchdog" role involves alerting others when a problem is detected. Common subjects are the government decision-making process, illegal activity, immorality, consumer protection issues, and environmental degradation.
Watchdog journalism can be located in a variety of news media, such as radio, television, Internet, and print media where it may be seen as "a unique strength of newspapers", and additional new media and concepts such as weblogs and citizen journalism. Watchdog journalists also are called "watchmen", "agents of social control", or "moral guardians".
The role of a watchdog journalist can be that of a protector or guardian. The role of a watchdog journalist as a guardian is to supply the citizens with information they must have "to prevent the abuse of power", and to "warn citizens about those that are doing them harm". In order to conduct their role as a watchdog, journalists need to have a certain distance from the powers and challenge them, as opposed to "propagandist" journalists, who are loyal to the ruling powers and elites. Because of the power distance and its overseeing function, watchdog journalism often officiates as the fourth estate, or is used in the context of that term. The array of topics for watchdog journalism is wide and includes "personal scandals, financial wrongdoing, political corruption, enrichment in public office, and other types of wrongdoing". In order to expose wrongdoings the watchdog aims at "finding hidden evidence". The aforementioned aspects are necessary for the role of the watchdog journalist to help "maintain order" and "warn against disorder".
"Detached watchdog" journalism ("dedicated to objectivity, neutrality, fairness, and impartiality") is one of the four identified journalism cultures in a study conducted by communication researchers Thomas Hanitzsch, Epp Lauk, and others, between 2007 and 2011. The study comparatively surveyed 2100 active journalists worldwide. It exists next to the idea of a journalist as a populist disseminator, critical change agent or opportunist facilitator.
The goal of the study was to create a better understanding of journalism culture and journalistic views. The study detected four global professional milieus of journalists: the populist disseminator, detached watchdog, critical change agent, and the opportunist facilitator. The detached watchdog is an absolutely "detached observer". In addition to the watchdog functions described earlier, the detached watchdog is not interventionist, but uninvolved. In order to achieve that status he has to be objective, neutral, and impartial. Still, because of his watchdog function, he articulates his "skeptical and critical attitude towards the government and business elites". The detached watchdog milieu is accredited as the most prototypical of western journalism. Countries where this milieu predominated at the time of the study were Germany, Austria, United States, Switzerland, and Australia.
Watchdog journalism can lead to the successful resignation of power holders. A well-known example is the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein on the Watergate scandal for The Washington Post and the subsequent resignation of U.S. president Richard Nixon in 1974. Another more recent example took place in the Philippines, where president Joseph Estrada was arrested and resigned in 2001. The daily newspaper, Pinoy Times, covered the case of Estrada till "the ouster of Estrada". In a country that guarantees freedom of the press, watchdog journalism can be "a highly effective mechanism of external control on corruption". Yet, the mechanisms of watchdog journalism can also work in countries that abridge freedom of the press. A journalist in authoritarian contexts might not be able to cover all topics, but can still find an important journalistic niche. For example, in China where free press is still not established or guaranteed "the notion of the press as watchdogs of power is embedded in the self-definition of journalists". Here it makes a difference at whom the critique is directed. Journalists are able to criticize power abuse by individuals even when criticism pointed at major state policies is frowned upon and not feasible for established journalists. In free societies "the idea of the media as the eyes and ears" of the public is widely accepted.
The concept of watchdog journalism is not free of criticism. The whole field of watchdog journalism has decreased over time and parts of journalism and in 2005 observers affirmed that the current period was "not a time of rich watchdog reporting in any media". This comes with the framework and the problem that many journalists tend "towards reflecting the status quo, rather than radically challenging it". This decrease, however, cannot lead to the presumption that there are not enough critical topics to write or report about. In fact, the opposite is the case, and there is enough material to work with. While watchdog journalism in the U.S. helped to force Nixon out of office in 1974, the situation presented itself differently in 2003. During the Iraq War part of the established media turned out to take more of a "pro-war attitude", without adequately fulfilling their function of a critical watchdog. Many professionals in the media "appeared to feel that it was not their role to challenge the administration". Critics direct the blame in part to the general public itself, however, since their interest in watchdog journalism is "inconstant and fleeting at times". They also see the role of watchdog journalism as "driven by its own interests rather than by a desire to protect the public interest".
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