Watchdogs and Squirrel Chasers

To be honest, I couldn’t help but stare at the “Beware of watchdog” shirts. As we were discussing exactly what it meant to be a watchdog journalist, I was thinking of how afraid I’d be of a dog (as pictured on the shirt) was coming after me. Then making the comparison of that dog to journalists, I realized that the watchdog would only go after the people who were trespassing on public trust. That’s when people should be afraid of the journalists.

Unfortunately, like some dogs, journalists seem to be distracted by the most insignificant things which not only forces them to lose sight of the real trespassers, but it also wastes the audience’s time with stories as insignificant as chasing squirrels. For example, while a non-profit company misappropriated over $800,000, the main-stream news coverage focused on Rush Limbaugh’s drug problem. Cox and Forkum made a wonderful editorial cartoon depicting the phenomenon which simultaneously gives these journalists a bad name (Aug. 4, 2005). It’s a wasted practice of watchdog journalism if you ask me.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel won the second annual Innovator of the Year award for its work in improving its watchdog journalism. In a video interview, one of the editors explained the process which eventually led to the award, and one of the questions they asked themselves was, “how do we be more relevant than anybody else?” That’s an important part of watchdog journalism, I think. Because this particular duty of journalists is to protect the public, reporters have to get to the stories that are most relevant to the public. Do celebrities fulfill this pertinence? Not on your life. But sometimes that’s easier to watch than one corruption story after another. Even so, I applaud the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for their interest in watchdog journalism. Interestingly, another editor in the same video interview expounded on the relevancy comment by listing off topics like local government, law and order, and other local happenings. Remember how the Pulitzer Prize category for Investigative Journalism used to be Local Journalism? Perhaps they’re more connected than I first thought.

Sri Lankan native Nalaka Gunawardene presented at a National Conference on Media Self-Regulation and he published his slide show (how nice of him). On slide 4/32 (for 7 September 2011), he has pictured a different Cox and Forkum comic depicting the role of bloggers in the realm of media and journalism. The strange divide between mainstream media and bloggers makes me question whether or not watchdog journalism is totally in one camp or the other. The bloggers picket, but it seems like picketing and watchdog-ery are not quite the same thing. Although picketing is a step closer to watchdog journalism than chit chat about the stupid and famous, I don’t feel like they give watchdog journalism the respect it deserves (like the Watergate reporters). But neither do I trust those business media men on the wall—their high position and seemingly apathetic attitude towards the protesting bloggers makes me question the real goings on behind the castle wall.

For me, the most vital medium for watchdog journalism isn’t blogging or television reporting. It’s old-fashioned newspaper (and few magazine titles) copies that retain the air of watchdog journalism. Perhaps that’s merely a stereotype, but television is for entertainment, and blogging seems to be more for people who don’t have the patience to write in journals. Not to say that television or blogging can’t have some watchdog journalism, but it seems to me that the most terrifying face of a watchdog, like the ones printed on the shirts, would be printed black and bold on a newspaper cover, not flashing on a t.v. or computer screen.

Carli Hanson

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