Module JG400

Watchdog Journalism

Module author

Margaret Altizer

Suffolk Country Community College

Learning objectives

After studying this module, you will be able to:

  • define and explain watchdog journalism;
  • give an overview of the historic development of the genre, including key persons who established this genre;
  • reflect watchdog journalism critically.
Study point 1
Reading extract Watchdog Journalism


Why Open School of Journalism believes that watchdog journalism is important zu know

Watchdog journalism is the aptly named form of journalism in which a reporter investigates a person or an institution, and if crime, corruption or harm to the public is found, exposes the wrongdoing. It seeks to both inform and incite the public, so that whatever is revealed – government corruption, toxic waste or even a school board member with a secret that makes him/her unfit for that position – is addressed and made right.

It's not known who the first watchdog journalist was, and some researchers claim that it was used as early as the 1700s. But it was certainly in full flower by the in the late nineteenth century, when writers like Nellie Bly and William Stead reported on topics like the inhumane conditions in lunatic asylums and the horrible poverty and squalor that immigrants lived in. Novelist Upton Sinclair wrote of the filthy conditions in the meat packing industry in 1906 in The Jungle, and Jack London wrote about the poverty in East London in 1903 in The People of the Abyss. 

Today's watchdog journalists have the same aims as their predecessors - to make the public aware of corruption or crime that impacts them. On a tip or on a hunch, the watchdog journalist will decide to root around a certain situation to see if there is anything suspicious about it. In order to get to the truth, the reporter will want – and usually have – an insider feeding him the secrets and information that might otherwise be impossible for him to get. 

Watchdog journalism is often confused with investigative journalism, but there is a big difference. Both styles of journalism include digging deeply into events, governments, businesses or individuals to find that hidden – and verifiable - nugget on which a story will be based and a problem publicly revealed. But whereas investigative journalism stops with the exposure of misconduct, watchdog journalism takes the issue further, trying to make sure that the wrongdoing is rectified.

One of the primary aims of watchdog journalism is to impact the public so successfully that the community will take whatever action is needed to counteract the problem. Not all investigations turn up wrongdoing, and watchdog journalists may find themselves spending endless months on one issue that ultimately proves to be no problem at all. 

Jump back in time to 1972 and the Watergate scandal for one of the best and most publicized examples of governmental malfeasance that has ever occurred in this country's history. When the truth about the president's involvement in Watergate was revealed, the scandal rocked the entire country to the point that the word "Watergate" has come to symbolize government corruption at the highest level and the subterfuge used to cover it up. 

It was Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who ferreted out the connection between the Watergate burglars and – ultimately – President Richard Nixon. In the most public of circumstances, Nixon's involvement in the Watergate burglary was revealed; the subsequent House Judiciary committee appointed to investigate passed the first of three articles of impeachment charging the president with obstruction of justice and ultimately, Nixon had to resign from the highest office in the government. 

Watergate was a seminal moment in U.S history exactly because of these reporters who kept digging and kept asking questions until they got to the truth. Woodward and Bernstein were watchdog journalists who were determined to let the public know that their elected president was involved in illegal activities. 

Watchdog journalism ideally involves the press or investigators getting their information from a primary source, in this case, a man identified only as "Deep Throat," who was closely tied to the White House. It was more than thirty years before Deep Throat was revealed to be Bob Felt, who was the associate director of the FBI during the Watergate scandal. Felt was an unimpeachable insider primary source, and thus, the perfect source for Woodward and Bernstein's investigation and revelations. 

So the Watergate scandal contains all of the major elements of watchdog journalism. It has investigative journalists (Woodward and Bernstein) receiving evidence of the president's (a high official) involvement in a crime (the burglary of the offices of the DNCC) from an unimpeachable source (Felt). It has the public who elected Nixon learning that the president had been involved in secret, illegal activities from the articles in the Post. And those revelations produced the kind of public outrage that resulted in the problem being corrected by the president's resignation. 

The First Amendment is about freedom of the press, a concept that is an extension of one of the major ideas that propelled the American Revolutionary War: a revolt against the abuse of power. And that is exactly what watchdog journalism is all about. It shines a bright light on the misconduct of individuals and corporations who would much rather have their secrets remain in the dark. It arms the public with the truth about those who are doing harm to them, and with that information, the public is empowered to change things for the better.