Western journalism: watchdog or lapdog? Provide arguments for each position, and reach an overall conclusion.
By Poppy Power
A watchdog journalist’s role is to impart news fairly, allowing the readers to make-up their own mind without influence coming from the reporting itself. It is a journalist’s role to gather information and facts and present them to the reader in a digestible manner so the reader can form their own views on the news item at hand. “Central to this journalistic paradigm is the belief that journalists should carry out an investigative and watchdog role on behalf of the public” (N. Jebris 2013). “Recent research suggests that, the watchdog role for journalism is most pervasive in Anglo‐American democracies, where a long tradition of liberalism has encouraged scepticism towards the potential abuse of power.” (Norris, 2012: 12). On the other hand, lapdog journalism is viewed as a control of the press, monitored and omitted news stories being released to the public as facts. “Digital culture has radically changed the operating environment of traditional journalism and the challenges we face as guardians of the truth” (Berrisford 2016).
As an example, The Telegraph newspaper, refused to cover a news story involving a ‘client’, which happened to also be a source of one of their key advertising revenues. When doing so, they immediately became a prime example of lapdog journalism in western media.
In 2015, HSBC Bank was discovered to be helping their wealthy customers with tax evasion and money laundering. When this became public knowledge, every newspaper covered it. Every newspaper that is, except for the Telegraph, who has HSBC as one of their primary advertising clients. “…The paper deliberately suppressed stories about the banking giant, including the last weeks revelations that its Swiss subsidiary aiding wealthy customers to dodge taxes and conceal millions of dollars in assets, in order to keep its valuable advertising account” (J. Plunkett & J Quinn, 2015). It is evidential that lapdog journalism is part of the common practice if news outlets intentionally deciding to omit information in news article. By doing so, have they not already bent the truth to work around the facts to present their political views? “If major newspapers allow corporations to influence their content for fear of losing advertising revenue, democracy itself is in peril” (P. Oborne 2015).
More recently, the President of the United States of America, Donald Trump was recently a victim of an omitted news story when news outlets labelled him as giving out false information on what is, according to A. Boult (2017) a “non-existent refugee incident in Sweden”, when in fact, when further research was done regarding his statement, Donald Trump made it quite clear later-on via Twitter that in his speech, to what he was referring to was the crime rate increase as well as sexual assault increase in Sweden, since they opened the gates to migrants (Government offices of Sweden 2017). Whether or not that this statement is true, the media made it out to make him look as though no one had an inkling on what he was referring to. His speech was referring to a news program that he had viewed the night before and thus this marginal error in his speech was later corrected through his twitter account, stating, “My statement as to what’s happening in Sweden was in reference to a story that was broadcast on @FoxNews concerning immigrants & Sweden” (Trump 2017). Many major news outlets misreported this “non-starter” incident alluding to his speech as woefully misinformed and eluded to the fact that Trump did not know what he was talking about. The misreporting went so far as one media outlet contacting the prime minister of Sweden and eliciting a comment from him stating that the American President did not know what he was talking about and that no isolated incident of any note occurred in Sweden on the night in question, even when the correction in the tweet had been released. It could be said that this was a gross misrepresentation of the facts and a clear example of lapdog journalism when the mainstream media have been pandering to a popular leftist narrative in order to appeal to a larger portion of it’s audience where omitting of the facts are just as damaging as are warping of the facts. Despite whom it is they’re covering, a journalist should always state the truth without manipulative journalism to lean on one side more than the other.
“The histories of journalism and democracy are closely linked. The origins of journalism, as we recognise it today, parallel the turbulent birth of the first democratic societies four hundred years ago. While the concepts of news, and the role of the correspondent as a professional dispatcher of newsworthy information, predate the bourgeois revolutions of early modern Europe, the modern notion of a political journalism which is adversarial, critical and independent of the state was formed in the early seventeenth century against the backdrop of the English Civil War and it’s aftermath. In that conflict, which pitted the forces of absolute monarchy against those in favour of democratic reform and the sovereignty of parliament, journalism played a key role” (Jorgensen & Hanitzsch, Conboy 2004 et al.).
Moving on to the opposing argument of watchdog journalism, the main goal of a watchdog journalist is to uncover and report on the truth. “The truth is a struggle. It takes hard graft. But the struggle is worth it: traditional news values are important and they matter and they are worth defending” (Viner 2016). By doing so, this means watchdog journalists should be backing up everything they report on. Ultimately, this makes your report more reliable as well as evidentially truthful. The backlash that some watchdog journalists may receive would be that occasionally, it is said that the journalist would have to break the law to retrieve the evidence needed to back up their story. But could you not argue that it is sometimes necessary for the urgency of the information being a matter of public knowledge?
Martin Conboy says; “Commonplace with reference to the news media, particularly to the newspaper in Britain. It is high on emotive value but low concrete evidence. It implies, at best an idealistic claim that the press functions as a watchdog of the powerful in society and brings their misdemeanours to the attention of the public. Investigative journalism of all forms is a vital strategy in the claims of the press to act in this fashion” (Conboy 2004 p110). It is believed to be vital for a journalist to investigate its stories before it is published as fact.
In a way, one could say that the press as a whole acts as a watchdog due to the fact that many organisation or individuals may refrain from acting in a nefarious manner due to the exposure they may get from those very same institutions. It has been shown in many cases; where there has been injustice that wide spread media exposure has come to the aid of individuals or organisations. In those cases, when people have been unjustly treated and to that end, as their story unfolds, the watchful eye of the press has enabled people to act justly and fairly in matters of dispute.
Such a scenario would be in general political elections. The press holds politicians to account for the promises they make to their potential voters. The people rely on the press to monitor carefully on their behalf the actions of these politicians and ensure that the people are well informed to make an educated decision.
For a prime example, Pétry and Collet studied the statistics of the presidential candidates between 1968 and 1999. Between all of these years the average promises kept by all of these presidents were 67% (PÉTRY AND COLLETTE 2009). “In recent years, the fact-checking website PolitiFact has been paying close attention to this question, and it’s numbers are largely in line with what scholars find. Examining more than 500 promises President Obama made during his two presidential campaigns, PolitiFact finds that he has fully kept or reached some compromise on 70% of them (ibid). Similarly, Republican leaders made, by PolitiFact’s count, 53 promises before taking over Congress in 2010, 58% of these have been partially or fully kept” (Hill 2016).
In conclusion, some of the core values attached to ‘true’ journalism, where duty, morality, conviction and fortitude and the unending search for the truth, is today mixed with commercialism, shareholder value, sensationalism, and agenda linked lies. It could be argued that, the art of journalism in its truest sense could be revived again if one could remove the commercial aspect or monetization required for the media industry to run smoothly. To quote Jürgen Habermas (2007), “When reorganisation and cost-cutting in this core area jeopardise accustomed journalistic standards, it hits at the very heart of the political public sphere. Because, without the flow of information gained through extensive research, and without the stimulation of arguments based on an expertise that doesn’t come cheap, public communication loses its discursive vitality. The public media would then cease to resist populist tendencies, and could no longer fulfil the function it should in the context of a democratic constitutional state”. In other words, journalists in the western world should go back to the root of journalism and refrain from publishing tabloid themed stories or to manipulate and omit the truth. This is what is tainting the name of a journalist in today’s society.
- Adam Boult (2017) February 18th Title of news article from the Telegraph; ‘Donald Trump refers to non-existent refugee ‘incident’ in Sweden during rally.’ (Online) Available from:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/02/19/trump-refers-non-existent-refugee-incident-sweden-rally/
- Donald Trump (2017) February 19th Posted on Twitter.com. (online) Available from: https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/833435244451753984
- François Pétry & Benoît Collette ‘Measuring How Political Parties Keep Their Promises: A Positive Perspective from Political Science’- ‘Do they walk how they talk?’ Statistic sourced from page 65-80. June 2009. (Book)
- Government Offices of Sweden. 23rd February 2017 (online) http://www.government.se/articles/2017/02/facts-about-migration-and-crime-in-sweden/
- John Plunkett and Ben Quinn (2015) first published on Tuesday 17 February 2015. The guardian article; ‘Telegraph’s Peter Oborne resigns, saying HSBC coverage a ‘fraud on readers’ Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/feb/17/peter-oborne-telegraph-hsbc-coverage-fraud-readers
- Jürgen Habermas, Philosopher (2007). Signsandsight.com 21st June 2007. ‘How to save the quality press?’ Available online: http://www.signandsight.com/features/1349.html
- Katherine Viner 2016. The guardian. An article published on the 12th July 2016. ‘How technology disrupted the truth.’ Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/jul/12/how-technology-disrupted-the-truth
- Martin Conboy (2004) et al. (Chpt 17 page 237) ‘The Handbook of Journalism Studies’ Edited By Karin-Jorgensen & Thomas Hanitzsch.
- Martin Conboy. ‘Journalism: A critical history’ Page 110. SAGE 13th May 2004. Language Arts and Discipline.
- Neil Jebris (May 2013), Waisbord 2000 et al. ‘Is watchdog Journalism satisfactory Journalism?’ https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/Is%20Watchdog%20Journalism%20Satisfactory%20Journalism_0.pdf
- Norris, Pippa (2012). ‘The watchdog role of journalists: Rottweiler’s, Alsatians or Poodles?’ In the Oxford Handbook of Public Accountability. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Page 88
- Oborne (2015) ‘Why I have resigned from the Telegraph.’ 17th February 2015. Open Democracy UK Available from: https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/peter-oborne/why-i-have-resigned-from-telegraph
- Sam Berrisford (July 2016), Ashbourne, Derbyshire. ‘A postmodern take on guardians of the truth.’ The Guardian. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/jul/13/a-postmodern-take-on-guardians-of-the-truth
- Timothy Hill 2016. ‘Trust us, Politicians keep most of their promises.’ (online) Available from: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/trust-us-politicians-keep-most-of-their-promises/