Shane Eisenman

April 1, 1996


Watchdog Journalism:  Function and Future

            In the modern world, the media holds a very influential position over our lives.  To some extent it defines who we are as individuals by presenting opinion on everything from what to buy for lunch to who to vote for in the next presidential election.  The media collects, organizes ,and disseminates information about us as a society, allowing we as a people to choose our values, our identity from what we see on the television, here over the radio or read in the press.  The media has such a pervasive and unmistakable influence to the point of intrusiveness by the definitions of some. Whatever it is, though, we could not survive without it.  It has rooted itself in our culture and grown with it so that the two are now inseparable.  This should not necessarily be viewed as negative, however, for the media does much for us that we ourselves could not accomplish. 

            The media today can be seen as having four major responsibilities or functions.  These are to persuade or present opinion, to inform, to entertain, and to regulate.  Not least among these is the regulatory function of the media.  The practice of this function, called watchdog journalism, is a style of writing or broadcast aimed at identifying a current societal problem, either hidden or overt, and offering opinion on necessary action.  This style is intended to incite the readers into taking direct steps to change the agents or factors controlling the situation or issue.  Yet, sometimes overlooked in application of watchdog journalism is the “institution” of the media itself.  Explicitly stated, watchdog journalism has had in the past, and continues in modern times to have a positive influence on the lives of civilians throughout the world.  Inevitably, however, the regulator needs to be regulated.

            The regulatory function of the media, or watchdog journalism, as defined previously, came about in an effort to improve the lives of individuals living under what the author considers at the time oppressive or inadequate conditions.  When the press was started in the Colonies, papers were tied financially to the government because they relied on it for subsidies and printing jobs.  For this reason, political commentary voicing discontent with the government’s, at this time England, actions was virtually absent from the press.  Even as dependence on the government moderated, editors were reluctant to take a stance opposite the government ,or antiestablishment in any way, for fear that their businesses would be terminated by force.  Still some editors risked their businesses in order that their opinion might be freely expressed.  However, the earliest piece of watchdog press concerned health rather than politics. 

            Writing in the public interest started as early as 1721 with the New England Courant, a newspaper written by the older brother of Benjamin Franklin, James Franklin.  It was different from other newspapers of the period because it was not published “by authority of the government” and therefore was not tied down as to what facts and opinions, political or otherwise, it could present.  The Courant was the first newspaper in the colonies to crusade on a public issue.  During an outbreak of smallpox in Boston, it argued strongly against the newly invented medical procedure of inoculation.  Although its position turned out to be incorrect from a medical standpoint, using the newspaper to speak out against a situation seen as harmful to the public began an important tradition that would come to characterize American newspapers.  Increasingly, newspapers would become “watchdogs of the public interest”, a role they continue to play vigorously. (DeFleur, 78)

            This is merely one example among the thousands of articles written on behalf of the public throughout the years.  The authors of these works believed that there was something they could do about what they saw as a flaw in the society in which they lived.  Though many, like James Franklin’s, turned out in the long run to have little or no effect, this did not deter them from voicing their opinions.  Just where would we be without the efforts of watchdog journalists?  Let us take a look at the muckrakers of the American past and see what impact their contributions have on our lives today.

            The muckrakers were a group of early 20th century American journalists who wrote detailed, factual accounts of the political, moral and economic corruption caused by the power of big business in the United States.  “This journalism was hard-hitting in tone, often well-rooted in fact, and at times brutal in its exposure of venality and corruption.”  (Fitzpatrick, 1)  It dealt with critical social, economic and political situations in Progressive-Era America, the “tumultuous age of industrial expansion” that spanned the years from roughly 1880 to 1920.  Given their lofty title by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, most muckrakers sought to increase the power of individuals and to make business and government more responsive.  Muckrakers revealed that beneath the processes of the seemingly positive new technology were hidden horrors almost beyond description.  “There were un-sensed chemicals victimizing living things; machines all but crucifying their operators; trains mangling humans or dispatching them to oblivion; and industrial and chemical pollutants choking communities.”  (Stein, 403) 

             Historically, American muckrakers exposed what they considered to be the hidden actualities of a problematic situation or set of circumstances.  Second, they identified the agent or agents in control or capable of significantly affecting the situation or circumstances.  Third, they depicted in a prescriptive manner.  Fourth, they pressed for obligatory or preferred actions towards and/or ways of thinking about the exposed results of the situation.  Fifth, they avoided dedicating their accounts exclusively to any single social or political cause, institution or remedy.  Finally, they attempted to create or maintain audience outrage ,agreement or fear about whether and how the actual and/or wanted circumstances conformed to their own implied or stated norms and beliefs.  (Stein, 402)

            Although isolated articles in a few magazines were published in the late 1800s, muckraking did not emerge as a movement until the 1900s, when a revolution in printing technology made it possible to produce inexpensive and extensively illustrated popular magazines.  Several of these magazines, such as McClure’s and Cosmopolitan published many articles in the form of exposes concerning societal ills.  Early muckrakers detailed how state, local, and federal governments were ineffective in overseeing and regulating product quality and new technology that provided unsafe conditions for the workers.  Progressive Era muckrakers looked to local legislatures and Congress to correct these wrongs by passing new legal doctrines and new and better-enforced health and safety laws.

            The muckrakers treated a wide spectrum of abuses.  Well known muckrakers include Ida M. Tarbell, who wrote about the Standard Oil Company, Lincoln Steffens, who wrote on city and state politics, Ray Stannard Baker, who dealt with racial discrimination, and the novelist Upton Sinclair, whose book condemned the meat-packing industry.  Others included Thomas W. Lawson (insurance and stock manipulation), David Graham Phillips (senatorial corruption), and Samuel Hopkins (patent medicines).  The muckrakers believed that they were doing something important for American society, and they were.  They exerted their influence in election campaigns and played a major role in raising public support for the passage of the federal Pure Food and Drug Act, Meat Inspection Act, and Hepburn (railroad regulation) Act (all 1906).  Most importantly, by combining moral indignation and fact, they helped to prepare the American public for further social reform by making them aware and calling them to action to improve on their present state of affairs.

            The year 1912 is generally regarded as the end of the muckrake era.  Muckraking, however, continued on in some form since that time and, in fact, exists in today’s media forum.  Modern muckraking, or “new muckraking” as it is sometimes called, started in earnest after World War II.  At this time, mass media in the form of radio and television in addition to the established venue of print media brought back investigative reporting into the main stream.  These commentaries focused on issues such as the plight of migratory workers, the abuse of publicity by the Pentagon to influence public opinion, The Richard Nixon “Whitewater” affair, consumer problems, and environmental issues.  Muckrakers in the 1960s and 1970s stressed business responsibility for emerging health and environmental hazards from industrial and commercial biological and chemical products.

             One of the products formed in this era of new muckraking was a public interest group called Nader’s Raiders, established by Ralph Nader.  This group initiated several reforms including safety standards in the automobile industry and the technologies involved in intrastate meat processing.  On the latter, Nader wrote an article titles “We’re Still in the Jungle” referring to Upton Sinclair’s novel on the meat packing industry earlier in the century, and emphasizing the industry’s overly profit-hungry nature and willingness to sacrifice quality for this cause. 

            Other new muckrakers included Morton Mintz, who detailed how profit hungry pharmaceutical companies put out their new products on the market before completing extensive research to make sure the products were safe, and Rachel Scott, who deeply rooted her Muscle and Blood in the muckraking tradition.  She began with a quote about working conditions from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.  Her depictions of modern workplace diseases and injuries went along with the same themes and arguments presented in the Progressive Era muckraking of William Hard in “Making Steel and Killing Men” and of Edwin Markham in Children in Bondage.  Scott ended her article with a quote from Markham’s book:  “To what purpose, then is our ‘age of invention’?  Why these machines at all. if they do not help to lift care form the soul and burden from the back?”  Thus, not only the physical peril and hardship that workers experience is addressed, but also the wear and tear such working conditions can have on the psyche of an individual.  This hardship wore not only on the individual.  Because the individual is a member of society in the broad sense and more specifically identified with cultural subgroups, the entire community, to some extent feels the effects of injustices afflicting the individual.  Muckrakers attempted to point out who was truly responsible for these injustices and who had the power to remedy the situation by whatever means the particular injustice required.

            Today television documentaries carry on the majority of the mass media muckraking load from the broadcast angle.  Since the 1960s there have been several attention-grabbing documentaries presented including “The Selling of the Pentagon”, a controversial examination done by CBS of Defense Department public relations efforts.  “What Price Health” was a special on NBC investigating the costs and shortcomings of the American medical system.  To name another, “Hunger in America” was a CBS inquiry into poverty and malnutrition in the United States.  Magazines and newspapers also continue to publish exposes on matters of public interest.  Although articles in the printed media may not attract as much attention as television specials such as 60 Minutes or 20/20 because of the limit inherent in the medium itself, muckraking articles can be found in almost every publication of national magazines and newspapers in some form and continue to provide the largest volume of investigative reporting of any source.

            Investigative journalism, however, is not isolated only to the United States.  During the Industrial revolution in Europe, many of the same atrocities occurred which plagued domestic society.  Irresponsible action on the part of industry likewise provoked public outcry in nations such as England in the late 1800s.  This negative attention causing public unrest eventually lead to the reform and regulation of European industry.  In South Korea, journalists all but brought as end to that country’s previously authoritarian form of government.  In Tanzania, a press exists today which resembles the beginning stages of the American press.  Although legally no longer under the control of the government, the content of printed material is still greatly influenced by the political figures in control of the country.  Even so, the press has made some attempt to publish information concerning the state of the country, its problems (many political in nature) , and to offer solutions to its readers.  Unfortunately, both at the collection and at the dissemination ends of the journalistic process, completeness is hindered by the great difference in status between the different “castes” of citizens, both readers and reporters.  The concerns of the poor ,rural citizens covered by the less educated journalists, therefore, often go unpublished, while the elite urbanites, covered by the reporters with more journalistic schooling, receive the vast majority of media attention.  This, of course, is decidedly unsatisfactory to the over 80% of the population who live in poverty in the country, but at the same time who can do very little to improve their condition.  Thus, the press in Tanzania has far to go before it can be said to be representative of the public interest.

            This is but one among the many criticisms that individuals in our society have of the American media.  The American public believes that the press often acts irresponsibly.  Many have become very much disenchanted with a press they perceive to be “arrogant, biased, dishonest, unfair, inaccurate, shallow, sensational, and abusive of people’s right to privacy or fair trial.”  (Kaggwa, 19)  More specifically, the press has been accused of political prejudice, letting the political views of the management and reporters influence what is reported and in which light it is portrayed.  Also, the press has been criticized for the way it responds to acts of terrorism by giving the miscreants the media attention that they want, thus proving that terrorist violence is a productive means of achieving goals.  Some say that media control is becoming to centralized to allow for the dissemination of a broad enough spectrum of messages to ensure freedom of speech.  Media has been accused of gross insensitivity in times of personal trauma.  Many are upset that they must pay more and more for programming that was once either free or much more affordable.  Critics, ironically, also accuse and disapprove of the press being a negative vibe merchant, focusing only on what is wrong with everything.  Thus, the dual nature of the media, its responsibility to inform and its existence as a business in a free enterprise system, is brought into question and conflict.

            The current public is concerned not so much with the freedom of the freedom of the press but with accuracy, honesty and fairness in reporting and broadcast.  These criteria are not being met in the opinions of most Americans.  However, journalists are often unwilling to live up to the moral expectations of the public.  Therefore, the need is evident, some say, for some sort of regulation of the media.  One area in the media that has been concentrated on, as far as legal action is concerned, is the requirement that journalists reveal their sources upon demand in a court case.  Prior to 1972, reporters had been protected by shield laws that allowed them to keep their sources confidential.  Shield laws have been defended vigorously by the media, comparing the reporter- source relationship to that between a doctor and his patient.  They make the point that if individuals who supplied information to the media, often at considerable risk to themselves, were subjected to public identification, the “wellsprings of critical journalism would quickly run dry.”  (Osiel, 172)

            In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Branzburg v. Hayes, held that a criminal defendants right to a fair trial required a reporter to disclose his sources “when subpoenaed by a grand jury acting in good faith, at least when the information was relevant and unavailable in another way.”  (Osiel, 172)

            At first this decision resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of defamation suits brought against members of the media, with some success.  However, the “professional solidarity” of modern journalists has made it easier for them to act jointly in defending their freedom from attempted government interference through legislation and enforcement regulation.  In fact, “Such professional solidarity among reporters, whether in formal associations or informal networks, has been an important weapon in resisting state interference in places as different as West Germany.”  (Osiel, 175)  To further offset this Court decision as a precedent setter, twenty six states have since passed modified versions of previously existing shield laws in the interest of greater press protection.

            Regulation of the broadcast media has existed almost from its inception .  This was necessitated, however, in order to keep the industry afloat and functioning properly and was not meant to restrict or inhibit its development.  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), until recently, dealt primarily with allocating broadcast frequencies rather than with regulating program content.  Even now regulations are vague as definitions of what is proper vary immensely depending on the audience and other factors.  “The renewal of federal licenses [through the FCC] has required conformity to such regulations as the ‘fairness doctrine’ and the right of offended parties to reply.”  (Osiel, 166)  Thus, in the end, it is the standards, morals, and values of the community that define what is acceptable and what is a matter of concern that calls for regulatory action.

            As an example of the problems with the press and what is currently being done, actively or passively, to remedy them, we look to the newly liberated South Korean press.  Since the fall of the authoritarian rule in that country in mid-1987, the news industry has flourished, commercially.  The number of new publications and broadcast media has dramatically increased.  Competition for talent and enhanced worker’s rights have given journalists better pay and more say in management.  All is not as it seems on the surface, though.  “After decades of anti-authoritarian struggle, newsmen suddenly find themselves recognized as members of the establishment.”  (Hoon, 24)  These journalists have acted the part, involved in corruption and scandal sometimes reported on internationally.  As in the early stages of the American press, journalist often shuttle between their media employment and political careers with “unseemly ease” and journalists often accept cash bribes from government officials in exchange for a favorable write-up.  This practice is reportedly commonplace among political parties and governmental posts which “have yet to disband their notoriously cozy ‘press clubs’” (Hoon, 25) despite critical pressures applied from within the press itself and from the public. A journalism professor at Sogang University, Yu Jae Chon, describes the problem, “Now freed from direct, heavy-handed government intervention, journalists have yet to work out how to use their new-found freedoms for constructive social goals.”  Thus, the question arises:  while the press regulates the government, who regulates the press?  Since the government no longer has the power to license or do anything that could be perceived as an attempt at regulation, internal regulation in the form of self-censorship, both in action and in print, must replace the official censorship that the journalists fought to lift.   Attempts have been made by news organizations following international exposure of press corruption to curb the bribery and unethical press-political interaction, but success has been limited.  Newspapers published by church affiliates provide a stabilizing influence in the media by spreading their right-wing ideology.  Their anti-Communist and pro- free market economics messages regulate radicalism in the press.  Economics also lends a hand in regulation.  Following the end of authoritarian rule in South Korea the page limit was abolished, so there was room to publish information on a much wider range of topics.  This is a good thing.  However, supporting a newspaper requires an immense amount of money.  Those which do not satisfy the public’s moral, political, and economic needs will be forced out of the market.  The need for more concrete regulation in South Korea certainly exists.  However, the means of regulation are not presently available.  Thus, the South Korean press will have to undergo much the same maturing process that the American press went through in its colonial past and continues to go through today.

            So what are the solutions to the problems of the American press today?  Obviously, a resolution to every gripe, every accusation that has been leveled against the media as an institution is not possible since it is not possible to please everyone at once.  At the same time, it is clear that something must be done.  Otherwise, the public may take matters in to it’s own hands and assert its right to redress by petitioning the government to intercede in the press, possibly by returning to a strict interpretation and enforcement of antitrust laws and breaking up the increasingly concentrated media ownership.  This is but one possible application, however, and it would take months to come up with a suggestion for every grievance listed.  Therefore, an adherence by the members of the press to a situational code of ethics, such as the one laid out by the society of professional journalists, is a good start.  To make sure that journalists followed this code, an intra-media organization is needed, such as the now defunct National News Council.  This body would also serve a public relations function, settling conflicts that arose between a member of the press and the public.  This scenario would, hopefully, start a trend toward a media that, even if not perfect, would fulfill its function adequately while conducting itself in an ethical manner.

            In conclusion, the media is an institution quite necessary to the continued success of the democratic process and our nation as a whole.  Realizing its great responsibility, it continually strives to adequately exercise its expected function to the best of its ability.  Its role in the regulation of government and industry, and of society in general, is one without which this country would surely fall into ruin.  Thomas Jefferson once said that he would rather have newspapers without government than government without newspapers, underscoring the importance of the media in our society.  Theodore Roosevelt said, “Men with muck rakes are often indispensable to the well-being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck.”  This is where the media has faltered.  By acting in an unethical manner, the media has lost the faith of much of the public.  If the public is to restore its trust in the media, journalists must be willing to submit themselves to an impartial review, just as the public would expect of professionals in other fields.  Clearly defined rules and procedures to be enforced by the watchdog’s watchdog are essential if the public is to revive its perception of the press as an institution typifying impartiality and fairness.