You may have heard the term ‘watchdog’ before, and it naturally brings to mind a guard dog that is watching out for you and your interests, keeping you safe. And that’s the implication when the term is applied to people or institutions. This is especially true about watchdog journalism, which not only brings interesting and important information to the public’s attention but also serves to maintain the very democracy it watches over.
What is watchdog journalism: definition
Watchdog journalism is journalism that seeks to increase transparency and accountability of our politicians and other public figures and institutions. It is a form of investigative journalism that often makes use of fact-checking, interviews, and research to bring greater transparency to issues or events.
The term ‘watchdog’ is often attached to agencies, organizations, or individuals who perform an oversight role that ensures everyone is playing by the rules. For example, Liberties is called a ‘watchdog organization’ because it monitors and publicizes government and business behavior to make sure that it’s respecting people’s human rights.
What is the purpose of watchdog journalism?
Watchdog journalism plays a critical role in democracy. In order to be able to make informed choices at the polls, citizens must have an accurate understanding of what is happening in their country. Are politicians playing by the rules, are public works free from embezzlement, are lobbying interests having unfair influence on the legislative process—all of these are questions watchdog journalists seek to answer.
In this way, watchdog journalism protects democracy on a day-to-day basis, calling out bad behavior when it happens. And by informing citizens, it also helps to protect the integrity of elections and the health of democracy in the long term. The very presence of watchdog journalism is also a sign of a healthy democracy. When journalists are free to scrutinize politicians and businesses, and free to publish their findings without influence or fear of reprisal, that means the country has a strong and independent media. And it’s no coincidence that authoritarian-minded leaders make investigative journalism a top target once in power.
Watchdog journalism: examples
There are many well-known examples of watchdog journalism uncovering stories that have brought down leaders, businesses and led to profound changes. Each example helps underscore the importance of watchdog journalism and, more broadly, a free and independent media landscape.
One of the best known recent examples of watchdog journalism was the Watergate scandal that brought down the US President Richard Nixon in 1974. Journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, writing for the Washington Post, used interviews and investigative research to prove links between the Nixon administration and burglars who broke into the rival Democratic Party’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Nixon resigned, and the story brought renewed attention to the importance of the media in uncovering corruption and other crimes.
In 2009, investigative journalists for The Telegraph published reports of widespread misuse of expenses by members of parliament. The journalists went through roughly a million pages of information and uncovered massive misuse of public funds. The investigation revealed the extent of this abuse of office and caused more than 20 MPs to leave office.
In 2020, Zimbabwean journalist Hopewell Chin'ono reported on alleged fraud within the national health ministry concerning the procurement of medical supplies to combat COVID-19. His work led to the termination and arrest of Health Minister Obadiah Moyo. Reportedly, more than $60 million was misused.
The work of Maltese Journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia played an important watchdog function in her country. She reported on corruption, misuse of funds and abuse of power by Maltese politicians, and the shady relationships that existed between them. She faced harassment, lawsuits and constant persecution for her work. In 2017, she was murdered because of it.
What do people think about watchdog journalism?
In countries with strong democracies and a healthy, independent media market, the public is generally supportive of watchdog journalism. People believe investigative journalists should be free to do their work and publish the story they uncover without fear or influence.
Public polling in the UK in 2013 shows people believe investigative journalists have a good and important – if not always strong – impact on their democracy.
In the United States in 2020, Pew Research found that nearly three out of four U.S. adults (73%) think it’s important for journalists to function as watchdogs over elected officials.
Public support for watchdog journalists is even strong in regions not known for having particularly strong or well-established democracies. The Afro Barometer found strong majority support for watchdog journalists.
How does watchdog journalism affect democracy?
Support for watchdog journalism should not come as a surprise. Investigative journalists bring new, relevant and often interesting information to light. This allows people to be better informed about how their government is behaving, whether there is corruption or rule breaking, and how it’s affecting society. This is also why authoritarian regimes place such importance on silencing watchdog journalists and bringing media outlets under their control.
Watchdog journalists don’t enhance democracy simply by bringing important information to public attention. The very presence of investigative journalists has the effect of helping keep politicians and business leaders in check – if they know they could get caught and exposed for breaking the rules, they’re less likely to do it.
What are the future possibilities of watchdog journalism?
There are rising threats to watchdog journalism, in particular from authoritarian-leaning governments in places like Poland and Hungary that seek to silence or capture media outlets, but also from new tools like frivolous lawsuits, known as SLAPPs, that seek to silence watchdog journalists with the threat of financial ruin.
That said, in some ways watchdog journalism is stronger than ever. The internet and social media make it much easier for information to come out, and gives more people a bigger platform than ever before. There are, of course, downsides to this – there’s also a lot of nonsense, often masquerading as investigative journalism, to sift through. But on balance, it is both easier for watchdog journalists to disseminate information to more people, and more difficult for their targets to silence them. And that’s a good thing.
The future of watchdog journalism will also depend on how well investigative journalists are protected. As the EU has seen, watchdog journalists have been threatened, put out of business, sued and even killed for their work. Strong legal protections are needed for watchdog journalists, and these protections must exist and be enforced at national level. This should include laws that guarantee a free and plural media environment, allow journalists access to publicly elected officials, and also protect these journalists from frivolous and expensive lawsuits.