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Raking the Muck: The Importance of Watchdog Reporting

Examples of investigative journalism watching the government can be traced back through the foundations of our nation’s creation. The first amendment encourages Congress to respect the freedoms of press, speech, religion, peaceful assembly, and the right to petition the government. Arguably, the sole purpose of journalists is to be the watchdogs of the government or be the eyes and ears on behalf of the people. “Give a voice to the voiceless,” echoes professor after professor in the School of Communication at American University. But even after major government scandals were revealed such as Watergate or The Pentagon Papers, there was still an understood relationship between government officials and journalists: everyone was just doing their job. So what has changed in recent decades?

Confidently after the election of President Obama in 2008, Pew Research Center released a statement that states, “As he marks his 100th day in office, President Barack Obama has enjoyed substantially more positive media coverage than either Bill Clinton or George Bush during their first months in the White House, according to a new study of press coverage.” However by the beginning of 2014 with the start of Obama’s second term, the Columbia Journalism Review was pitching a different view explaining that “the dynamics have changed dramatically with the current president, especially with the escalation of technology, social media, and an increasingly sophisticated ability to identify and reach niche audiences”. CJR went on to boldly claim that the relationship between the president and the press is more distant than it has been in a half century. However, even prior to the complications with the Trump administration, his election process, and the claims of “fake news,” many news organizations went as far as critiquing President Obama for “declaring a war on journalism” .

Most famously, the government’s aggressive relationship with the press has been on display in its legal battle with James Risen, a New York Times reporter who refused to testify against a source accused of leaking him classified information. In Risen’s article, he called the Obama administration “the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation,” and said he would spend the rest of his life “fighting to undo damage done to press freedom in the United States by Barack Obama and Eric Holder”. The biggest problem with this case against Risen from former President Obama and the Justice Department’s pursuit of him is this “war on leakers” as noted by Margot Susca. Acknowledging this “unspoken bargain of mutual restraint” between the press and the government, Susca elaborates on this relationship being more strained since 2009 especially in the public eye.

The importance of watchdog journalism cannot be overstated. The purpose of journalism as stated in the SPJ Code of Ethics “strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity”. In my Journalism Ethics class, guest speaker John Sullivan struck a chord with me when he said to “master their side of the story better than the critical side you’re covering”. This explanation of how journalists should operate allows for news organizations to gauge what is ‘fair’ all the while following the code of ethics. Likewise, the concept of facilitating a watching reporting culture is meant to serve the people who cannot attend every part of democratic events that occur. Therefore, journalists strive to keep institutions accountable, especially when they have made major mistakes and then try to cover them up from the public. Even so, this is very different from “gotcha” reporting that aims to take down an institution or public figure out of spite or for the sake of revenge. The distinguishment between the two should be seen as watchdog reporting seeking to tell the untold story that will benefit the people and enrich the news organization as well.

Hence our society reaches this new era of “fake news” with the Trump administration blatantly attacking journalists and news organizations behind a veil of being a ‘victim’. In the fall of 2017, critical reporter Margaret Sullivan comments that “with a nation of reporters focused on President Trump, the echoes of Watergate have been well worked over: the appointment of a special prosecutor, the firing of top officials, the talk of obstruction of justice, even speculation about possible impeachment”. But what will the legacy in this Trump-fake news era bring about for the political accountability to journalism? Sullivan argues against journalism history repeating itself. With Attorney General Jeff Sessions threatening to prosecute journalists—as well as sources—for their role in publishing leaked material, it’s possible that reporters may go to jail during the Trump administration. Similarly, in association to terms such as ‘fake news’ and ‘scum’, students may not seek out journalistic careers fearing being seen as biased and untrustworthy. Consequently, with the foundations of watchdog reporting being shaken by government, the basis of our present-day democracy is at stake.

In spite of that, what matters for the public when news organizations pursue excellent watchdog reporting is the ability to see through the institutions they are supposed to trust. Take for example The Marshall Project and ProPublica’s collaborative “An Unbelievable Story of Rape”, where an investigation spanned several months with numerous interviews, a review of previously undisclosed law enforcement records and exchanges with experts on investigating rape. Commendably, the news organizations followed up the story with another article about how they researched and reported the way they did. This act, while uncommon among news organizations, should be utilized more often within this new age of not trusting journalists and other media coverage. Step by step, the organizations brilliantly detailed where they got their information, how they obtained the information, and the specific statistics they pulled to back up their argument.

This is not the only example of reporting done well. With numerous other examples, Jim Sheeler’s book Final Salute transcends this course’s readings thus far by personally showing the effects of our presence in Iraq after 9/11. The purpose of Sheeler’s intimate look at the lives of the families who would never see their soldiers again, was to focus on the system failure within the military. In 1990, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait ended quickly after we bombed the country. Thinking we would get a similar result in 2003, the Bush administration and other government officials were depicting an end to the war in the near future. In 2018 we know this is not the case.

However, Sheeler unveiled the understaffed and underpaid military death notifiers and the amount of soldiers that were coming home in caskets in passenger-carrier planes. Following the casualty notification Major Beck, Sheeler painfully explains the reactions and aftermath of the families of fallen soldiers in Iraq. This heartbreaking book is not meant to glorify military service nor romanticize the soldier’s deaths. Rather, Sheeler points to the system failures on behalf of these families. Due to a lack of resources, Major Beck had a difficulty evenly spending time with each family he had to notify. Similarly, a vivid example of a father seeing his son come home in a casket on a forklift at the airport shows just how unprepared airlines, the military, and the United States population was for the aftermath of invading Iraq. In fact, many families were not followed up with after their notification nor were the spouses given an ‘appropriate’ amount of funds to adjust to the loss of their spouse. Final Salute, originally a newspaper series, addresses this specific system failure through focusing intensely on individuals.

With these two strong cases in mind, the antithesis of well-done watchdog reporting can be seen with The Rolling Stone’s UVA rape story. In November of 2014, The Rolling Stone published a story, 'A Rape on Campus', that centered around a UVA student’s paralyzing account of her alleged gang rape at a campus frat house. Within days, several other news publications began fact-checking the accuracy of these allegations. This story became subject to public controversy across the nation and a catalyst for perpetuating the debate on whether or not to question a rape victim’s side of the story. Deciding that they would not be able to accurately find where they went wrong, The Rolling Stone reached out to the Columbia School of Journalism to analyze and report on the errors. While startling to read, this report on The Rolling Stone’s “in its own way, a fascinating document ­— a piece of journalism,... about a failure of journalism”. Seeking truth and getting it wrong is a huge deal for journalists, however, the way in which The Rolling Stone handled their mistake was admirable and honorable. With several mistakes along the way - from giving Jackie automatic anonymity while the fratern