Friday, June 10, 2005
The importance of a watchdog culture in newsrooms
What is watchdog journalism? And why is it important for newspapers to incorporate it in their reporting? The Poynter Institute hosted a conference last week with more than 30 publishers and editors to address such questions. The conference, “Creating a Watchdog Culture: Claiming an Essential Newspaper Role,” touched on strategies to create newsroom cultures that allow watchdog journalism to flourish. Comments from Charlotte Hall, editor of Orlando Sentinel, sum up the participants’ general consensus: “Watchdog journalism is a state of mind for the whole newspaper: Journalism that gives power to the people.” Here’s a quick summary of participants’ reflections after they held small discussion sessions.
1. How can a newsroom evaluate its commitment to watchdog journalism? What actions from an editor and publisher, or in general, may underscore such a commitment?
To measure the commitment departments must examine the caliber of their work, the extent of resources and training devoted to the commitment, and the type of staff the newsroom hires. If the editor and publisher stand united in their commitment and speak of it often, it can become a part of the newsroom culture. The culture will be undermined if the editor and publisher step down from their strong stance of commitment or if stories produced are of poor quality.
2. How can readers evaluate the watchdog journalism in their papers? And what should they expect from a watchdog paper?
Newspapers have to first find ways to explain what a watchdog culture is to readers and then must make sure the culture becomes apparent through the pages. More importantly, from good watchdog papers readers should expect to see aggressive reporting that holds institutions accountable. Readers should also expect reporting with both an international and national mindset and look for stories with a consumer focus. Papers should make readers feel they are looking out for there interests, and should encourage reader feedback and connection. The paper should also be willing to scrutinize itself and must make its goal of watchdog journalism clear to readers, perhaps through a printing copy of the paper’s code of ethics. Paper’s should remind readers that they are on the reader’s side and must remember that a change in culture cannot happen overnight.
3. What role can innovation play in a watchdog culture?
A watchdog paper must be innovative in itself, deciding what to cover and involving readers in its agenda-setting. Online technology and multimedia partnerships can pull out story ideas from the community. Above all journalists should frame their stories with their audiences in mind, with better graphics, design, and information boxes.
4. To whom should an editor entrust the responsibility of promoting watchdog journalism – to which reporters, photographers, editors?
All reporters new and old, photographers, graphic artists and designers, copy editors, and editors should be committed to promoting the watchdog culture.
5. What role should newsroom policies and systems play in the health of a watchdog culture?
Newsrooms should conduct training sessions to promote a watchdog sensibility and help develop techniques. Moreover, editors need to make sure to hire staff that will be committed to the culture and should ensure that everyone in the newsroom is on the same page.
6. What values and assumptions should be associated with the watchdog culture?
A wide range of values should be ingrained in a newsroom committed to watchdog journalism, including: fairness, honesty, collaboration, transparency, and interest in the community. Moreover, staff members need to understand how essential the watchdog culture is to the value of the newspaper.
7. What priority should be given to watchdog journalism? Is there a good business argument to support it?
Since watchdog journalism is critical to newspapers’ mission, it should always be one of the top few priorities. The business advantage to good watchdog journalism will surface not in the short term, but in the long term. A good watchdog paper will eventually become an essential part of the community.
Source: The Poynter Institute
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