Watchdog Culture: Why You Need it, How You Can Build it

By Butch Ward

Your editor sends a message to the newsroom: We need to do more “watchdog journalism.”

Great idea. But what, exactly, is watchdog journalism? Orlando Sentinel Editor Charlotte Hall, summing up the views of several colleagues meeting at Poynter last week, put it like this:

Watchdog journalism is a state of mind for the whole newspaper: Journalism that gives power to people.”

Watchdog journalism is at the heart of a newspaper’s commitment to public service. More than 30 publishers and editors, together with members of the Poynter faculty and representatives from top public service journalism organizations, gathered at Poynter last week to discuss how newspapers can create newsroom cultures that allow great watchdog journalism to flourish.

The conference, “Creating A Watchdog Culture: Claiming An Essential Newspaper Role,” was called at the request of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and its new president, Rick Rodriguez of the Sacramento Bee, who has made “unleashing the watchdog” the theme for his presidency.

Following opening night conversations with investigative reporter Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker and Mark Bowden, author of “Blackhawk Down” and “Killing Pablo,” the publishers and editors spent the next day and a half considering the various factors that affect newsroom culture and its connection to great watchdog coverage.

From the outset, the group emphasized that newspapers must pursue watchdog journalism in order to carry out their responsibility for public service. There also was broad consensus that the pressure on newsrooms to achieve the highest standards of accuracy and fairness has never been higher.

Midway through their discussions, the participants formed small groups to discuss seven of the questions that newsrooms should consider when evaluating the effectiveness of their watchdog cultures. Here are their reflections, offered to the journalism community in the spirit of helping watchdog journalism flourish:

How can the people in a newsroom measure a company’s commitment to watchdog journalism? What can an editor and publisher do to underscore that commitment? What actions might undermine such commitment?

Every department across the company hears this message: Watchdog journalism is a daily public service of the newspaper. Because this work must be of the highest caliber, the newspaper will offer resources, training and non-news assets (marketing, etc.) toward carrying out that commitment. The strength of that commitment can also be measured by story play, by the kinds of people we hire, by the attention such journalism gets and by year-end measurements.

The publisher and editor will stand united in their commitment, talking about watchdog journalism so often that it will become part of the culture.

This will be undermined only if the editor and publisher throw each other under the bus, if either blinks or — more importantly — if the stories produced are of poor quality.

Mike Connelly, Executive Editor, Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Cheryl Dell, Publisher, The News Tribune
Mike Levine, Executive Editor, The Times Herald-Record
Edward Manassah, Publisher, The Courier-Journal
John Mellot, Publisher, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

How can readers determine that their newspaper has a watchdog culture? How could they identify or measure it? What should they expect from a watchdog paper?

Establishing a watchdog culture is a matter of both perception (finding ways to explain that culture to the reader) and reality (making sure that the culture is evident on the page.)

1. Readers should expect to see stories that hold institutions accountable; aggressive ongoing coverage; a skeptical, investigative attitude that extends through every story and every section of the paper; attention to what’s under the radar as well as to big international and national stories; consumer focus; enterprise reporting.
2. Readers should feel that the paper is looking out for their interests.
3. The paper encourages reader feedback and connection, and maintains clear, specific and open avenues for that purpose, including published phone lines and e-mail addresses, a Tipline and a Web site that offers multiple ways to interact.
4. Encouraging a watchdog culture means the paper is also willing to scrutinize itself, by hiring an ombudsman or readers’ advocate. When the paper itself becomes the news (because of business decisions, Jayson Blairs, etc.) there is a mechanism in place that facilitates full disclosure and coverage of those stories in the paper.
5. The paper makes its mission–and the goals of watchdog journalism–clear. Statements of the paper’s goals and its code of ethics are prominently available in print and on the Web. (Never underestimate the power of explaining to readers what we do.) The firewall between editorial and advertising is clearly stated.
6. The paper lets readers know, through its content and through its marketing, that is on the readers’ side (taking a page from the way TV markets itself.)
7. For newspapers hoping to clarify or create a watchdog culture: Readers have long memories. A change in culture does not get established overnight.

Roberta Baskin, Executive Director, Center for Public Integrity
Betsy Brenner, Publisher, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Anders Gyllenhaal, Editor, Star Tribune
Joe Rowe III, Publisher & President, The Free Lance-Star
David Warner, Editor, Weekly Planet

What role can innovation play in a watchdog culture? How might that happen?

Creating a watchdog culture is an initiative in and of itself. We start by not allowing the black hole of institutional process to dictate our agenda.

We need to be more innovative in deciding what we cover. It is too easy to let the routine control our content. We need to de-insularize the newsroom, break down our silos and involve readers in our agenda-setting.

We can use technology — online, multimedia partnerships — to seek out story ideas from the community.

Reading is a voluntary act. Watchdog journalism — all quality journalism — needs to be more accessible, more digestible to readers. We need to frame our stories with our audiences in mind, not journalism contests.

Our stories are too long, too often impenetrable. We need to present our stories with better graphics, design, information boxes. (Some stories are best told graphically; some stories can become charts.) And we need to promote it. We need to use the Internet to help with story-telling and follow-up interaction with our readers.

Too much of our watchdog journalism feels like scolding. We need to put more energy into solutions — not just problems. We need to invite the community — through the Internet, through partnerships with broadcasting, through forums, to help us with this.

Technology is our friend.

Technology allows us to be more accessible — we need to use it. We need to reach out to non-readers — young people — to ensure we’re reaching the broadest possible audience. We need to ask the community for ideas — what are the most under-covered stories we should be reporting on.

And we can use technology — our online sites, for instance — to talk to our readers about how we get the story. And we can use their help to do it better.

Andy Barnes, Chairman of the Board, The Poynter Institute
Jeff Bruce, Executive Editor, Dayton Daily News
Doug Franklin, Publisher, Dayton Daily News
Diane McFarlin, Publisher, Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Orage Quarles III, Publisher, The News & Observer

To whom in a newsroom should an editor entrust the work of watchdog journalism — which reporters, photographers, editors? What level of expertise and commitment is expected?

The editor should entrust the whole newsroom to fulfill a mission of watchdog journalism. If the culture values watchdog journalism, all disciplines and levels will bring forth ideas and participate in the process.

  • Reporters: All reporters, from new arrivals in suburban bureaus to beat reporters to investigative veterans have a stake and a responsibility in watchdog journalism. All should approach their beats with an investigative spirit and look for the untold story. Junior reporters who come up with ideas should be allowed to pursue them but be teamed with more experienced reporters who can mentor and train them.
  • Photographers: As with writers, photographers are part of the watchdog reporting process. Photographers should see their role as generating ideas as well as being full partners with the word people. Their work conveys journalism at an emotional level. The skills of the photographers may vary greatly and need to be matched carefully to reporters on projects. For example, individuals may be suited differently for handling everything from dangerous assignments to intimate settings with children.
  • Graphic artists and designers: Their role of explaining things visually and clearly is particularly important in lengthy projects involving complex subjects. They need to be involved at the early stage of a project.
  • Copy Editors: They not only fix the grammar, but also play an important role in providing the last set of eyes on a story. As headline writers, they need to have a clear and full understanding of the story. They also should be made to feel that they are part of the investigative culture and contribute ideas. The skill of copy editors varies greatly and they, too, should be afforded training opportunities.
  • Editors: From the assistant city editor who assigns beat reporters to the project editor who “prosecutes” investigative stories to the assistant managing editor who champions and orchestrates projects to the managing editor who is responsible for developing the staff, all need to be entrusted by their editor with the work of watchdog journalism. The editor must encourage collaboration, training and teamwork. Not all editors are capable of directing major projects. They should not be excluded from stories their reporters originated, but should be teamed with experienced editors. Such collaboration avoids territoriality and develops expertise.

Charlotte Hall, Editor, Orlando Sentinel
Bo Jones, Publisher & CEO, The Washington Post
Marty Kaiser, Editor, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Keith Moyer, Publisher, Star Tribune
Rick Rodriguez, Executive Editor, The Sacramento Bee

What role should newsroom policies and systems play in the health of a watchdog culture?

It is vital to have policies and systems for watchdog journalism — you cannot get by without them.

  • Conduct training that establishes a watchdog sensibility and develops techniques. For example, the Atlanta Journal Constitution conducted mandatory training sessions on the Freedom of Information Act. Those sessions not only made more people aware of the FOI Act; it also established that kind of reporting as a high priority.
  • When conducting training, be vigorous in preventing dropouts in order to convey the importance of watchdog journalism.
  • Recognize that hiring is the first and most important step: consider the applicant’s track record, their commitment and their toolbox during a rigorous interview process.
  • Get everyone on the same page — sometimes we can’t believe what some in the newsroom don’t know.
  • Manage performance: Hold people accountable for watchdog reporting on all beats. Praise excellent work and encourage learning and execution on the topic.

Bennie Ivory, Editor, The Courier-Journal
Ron Royhab, Editor, The Blade
Barry Sussman, Editor, Watchdog Project, The Nieman Foundation
Gil Thelen, Publisher and President, Tampa Tribune
Julia Wallace, Editor, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

What values and assumptions should be ingrained in a watchdog culture?

These assumptions should be well-established in a newsroom committed to watchdog journalism:

  • Watchdog reporting is essential to the value of the newspaper
  • We are a pit bull, not a poodle
  • Watchdog reporting is a daily event
  • Everybody has a stake
  • Collaboration: The work is co-owned
  • Watchdog journalism reporting is our franchise

News organizations interested in creating a watchdog culture should promote the following values:

  • Fairness, truth-telling
  • Trust but verify
  • Collaboration between editors and reporters
  • Smart risk-taking
  • Transparency in newsroom and with readers
  • Learning from failure
  • A sense of urgency
  • Intellectual honesty
  • Setting a specific goal and assigning it a high priority
  • Hiring investigative editors and reporters
  • Caring about your community

Peter Bhatia, Executive Editor, The Oregonian
Ben Eason, President, Creative Loafing
Brant Houston, Executive Director, Investigative Reporters and Editors
Janet Weaver, Executive Editor & VP of News, The Tampa Tribune
David Zeeck, Executive Editor, The News Tribune

With all of the challenges facing newspapers today, what priority should be given to watchdog journalism? Is there a good business argument to support it? Does that matter?

Watchdog journalism is a unique strength of newspapers and is critical to our mission. Therefore, it should always be among our top few priorities.

There is a strong business argument for watchdog journalism, based not on short-term profit but on the longer-term idea of being essential in the life of the community. To remain essential, we must use our significant resources to tell people what is really happening and why — to get to the bottom of things.

Beyond the business argument, watchdog journalism is our core mission and cements our importance and influence in the community. In the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Katherine Boo, “We have a responsibility to give voice to the voiceless.”

Watchdog journalism must go beyond big projects to become an attitude that permeates everything we do. We should expand our idea of watchdog work to local reporting and issues in the lives of interesting people. It’s the idea of holding the powerful accountable to the rest of us — government, charities hospitals and others — serving the public interest in ways that truly interest the public.

Len Downie, Jr., Executive Editor, The Washington Post
Ed Jones, Editor, The Free Lance-Star
Jim Moss, President & Publisher, The Times Herald-Record
Melanie Sill, Executive Editor, The News & Observer
Kathy Waltz, Publisher, The Orlando Sentinel

CLARIFICATION:The original headline on this article urged newsrooms to approach their watchdog role more like a pit bull than a poodle, an idea drawn from the article. I replaced that headline (which I had written and attached to the story Friday) after hearing from two readers. One pointed out that newsrooms would be ill-advised to trade the intelligence of a poodle for the aggression of the pit bull. The other contended that the original headline was rendered especially inappropriate by Friday’s fatal pit bull attack on a 12 year-old boy in San Francisco. Points well taken, thus the new headline. – Bill Mitchell

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