21 Sep 2022


What is Watchdog Journalism?

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The perception of the media as watchdog is more than two centuries old. Classical liberal theorists in the late17th Century argued that transparency and publicity accommodate for protection from the excesses of power. Recently, watchdog journalism was revived in the 1980s and 1990s in transition states as they emerged from the collapse of authoritarian and socialist regimes. The watchdog press plays a role in keeping a democracy honest; it scrutinizes the actions of the political elite to ensure they abide by the democratic ideals.


Watchdog journalism is a model founded on the notion that journalists should be watching out for the public. Edmund Burke coined the phrase “fourth estate” to refer to watchdog journalism’s role of checking the powers of the three arms of the government (Narramore, 2011). On the other hand, Marder (1998) depicted watchdog journalism as, “an instrument of democracy.” Jebril (2013) asserts that watchdog journalism is a type of investigative journalism that holds the public institutions and personalities accountable for their action.

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Watchdog journalism can be traced to the 20th century U.S. According to Albaek et al. (2014) the U.S. journalism became too commercialized in the mid-20th century, with newspapers sensationalizing stories to increase sales. The commercialization of journalism inspired the rise of watchdog journalism. The Watergate scandal marked the climax of watchdog journalism (Schudson, 2004). Many journalists take pride in watchdog journalism; it elevates their role from delivering news to looking out for the public interests by exposing corrupt practices in the government.

Though there are different definitions of watchdog journalism, watchdog journalism is described as an important factor in a democracy. Jebril (2013) states that watchdog journalism must be guided by the following principles: objectivity, factuality, and critical coverage. Watchdog journalists must maintain objectivity by exercising neutrality, fairness, and professional distances. Journalists who are personally invested in the story should not report about that particular story because it will render them biased. Watchdog journalism must be factual too, in the process of uncovering secrets and corrupt practices, some journalists often resort to sensationalizing the story (Deuze, 2002). Watchdog journalism should be characterized by hard facts obtained from objective sources. Lastly, watchdog journalism should offer critical coverage; reporters should not offer facts only; instead, they should analyze every aspect of the story from a critical perspective.

According to Ramos (2015), the intention of watchdog journalism is not to stir controversy, though in most cases it brings controversy. Watchdog journalism aims to expose wrongdoing among public officials through aggressive and ongoing coverage in an attempt to discover the truth. Watchdog journalists attempt to be accurate and fair to maintain credibility. It is built on exhaustive research that presents all sides of the story (Kaplan, 2008).

Watchdog journalism is made up of two approaches. Investigative journalism is the common form of watchdog journalism whereby a journalist gathers facts and informs the public about a certain event involving corrupt practices among people in authority (Jebril, 2013). The Watergate scandal is an example of investigative reporting. On the other hand, interpretive reporting offers more analysis than the other form of watchdog journalism; the reporter puts the pieces together to make sense.


Coronel (2010) posits that the impact of watchdog journalism depends on the society. Democracies and Authoritarian governments have a different idea of the role of the media in the society. In an authoritarian government, watchdog journalism does not stand a chance because the government limits the freedom of the press (Coronel, 2003). Regardless, watchdog journalism plays an important role in the society. Many people view watchdog journalism as the same thing with investigative journalism that involves uncovering secrets. However, the crucial role of watchdog journalism is telling the truth. In the age of public relations, politicians and individuals in positions of authority rely on public relations to spin the message effectively so that it will be hard for the public to discover the truth. Only meticulous watchdog journalists can uncover the plain truth in such situations (Ramos, 2015).

According to Pinto (2009) watchdog journalism has been an advocate for public interest for centuries. Watchdog journalism covers a host of issues affecting the public, ranging from an outbreak of deadly diseases, corrupt political leaders, and greedy business people who take advantage of the public (Mellado & Van Dalen, 2017). Though many of the watchdog stores have had no real impact, they have exposed the flaws in the society and inspired a reaction from the public. Deuze (2002) refers to the muckrakers of the 20th century to show the impact of watchdog journalism on the society. Muckrakers practiced hard-hitting journalism that exposed moral, economic, and political forms of corruption responsible for the societal problems, for instance, they exposed greedy industrialists who put the health of the public at risk by exposing them to dangerous chemicals with fatal health effects. Marder (1998) notes that the muckrakers in the early 20th century exposed a wide range of abuses and played a crucial role in raising public awareness and public support for laws that addressed social issues such as the Meat Inspection Act. Hence, watchdog journalism paves the way for social reform when conducted in an effective manner.

Coronel (2010) explores the dark side of watchdog journalism. Watchdog journalism is exposure journalism; the ethical standards guiding it are a bit blurred; thus journalists find it hard to distinguish what is in the best interest of the public. The public often wonders what motivates a journalist to investigate a particular individual or an organization, could it be personal interests or the journalist is genuinely concerned about the public? Critics of watchdog journalism argue that it has presented the government as a wasteful and inefficient institution for years such that it can no longer make a difference in the society. Watchdog journalism is known for its adversarial relationship with the government, and this endangers the democratic institution (Coronel, 2010).

Froomkin (2013) observes that watchdog journalism is no longer objective in today’s society. Reporters rely on many sources such that the possibility of being misled or manipulated is quite high. There are recent cases where journalists made catastrophic mistakes when reporting about significant issues in the society. For example, the media coverage of the war in Iraq and the role of the U.S. government is still deemed a controversial issue because the media was used to spread the U.S. agenda rather than the truth (Froomkin, 2013). The media, including watchdog journalists, were labeled “complicit enablers” of the 2007 financial crisis (Boyd-Barrett, 2015). The public was surprised when the financial crisis occurred, yet the media had dismissed the naysayers and whistleblowers who were worried about the state of the economy. Froomkin (2013) argues that the two examples show that watchdog journalism is not playing its role well.

With the shrinking of the newsrooms, watchdog journalism has taken a hit (Narramore, 2011). Watchdog journalism is expensive, time-consuming, and uses a lot of organizational resources. When watchdog journalism took over the society in the mid-20th century, media houses invested in investigative teams and in-depth programs to reveal corrupt practices and social ills (Hellmueller et al., 2016). Currently, media houses no longer have the time and resources to fund months of investigative journalism that might not produce the desired results. With little resources on their hands, watchdog journalists find themselves using unconventional means and sources to back up their story. Some critics claim that investigative journalists are sponsored by individuals or organizations with hidden agendas (Mellado & Van Dalen, 2017).

Hellmueller et al. (2016) also talk about the public cynicism regarding watchdog journalism. In certain cases, investigative journalists have failed to uncover significant controversial issues in the society. The post-9/11 investigative reports failed to uncover the truth and instead popularized the U.S. government agenda that led to Iraq invasion (Kaplan, 2008). The 9/11 controversy is yet to be solved, and so are the many controversies in today’s society. The public is now cynical about investigative journalism because of its past failures.


Coronel (2010) posits that the institutional structure of a democracy provides the most conducive environment for investigative journalism. In western democracies, investigative journalists are protected by the legal and constitutional provisions. The freedom of press implies that journalists can exercise their curiosity concerning almost all aspects of the society without any consequences (Berger, 2000). Additionally, western democracies avail information to the public, which forms the background for watchdog reporting. Though democratic government prides itself as a government for the people, it still needs checks and balances. Democratic government legitimized journalism as part of the government regulatory framework (Voltmer, 2010).

However, Coronel (2010) also complains about the western democracies’ inability to provide adequate protection for investigative journalists. Investigative journalists often face legal actions from the government officials and public offices that they are reporting about . For example, a recent investigative report in the Alja Zeera exposed the U.S. top athletes to be involved in doping (Dean, 2016). Though the story could be true, the media house and the journalists responsible for the story found themselves in expensive lawsuits from the many professional athletes mentioned in the story.

Western democracies have failed to build a positive relationship with investigative journalists (Voltmer, 2010). Some developed nations are undergoing communication crisis just like authoritarian nations. Developed democracies still lack accountability, and they frustrate investigative journalists who want to keep the public informed.

Investigative journalists in western democracies face unique challenges that prevent them from fostering public dialogue and engaging with the people (Graber, 2003). Investigative journalists want to expose issues affecting the community, foster public dialogue, and inspire response from those in authority, which is almost impossible to achieve when they face objection from those in power. It is worth noting that the ownership of media houses in western nations is in the hands of the few rich individuals with symbiotic relationships with those in power (Voltmer, 2010). The owners are after their business interests, and if reporting a scandal might hurt their interests, they chose not to do so.

Party loyalty is another issue affecting watchdog journalism regarding political matters in Western nations, particularly the U.S. (Tumber & Waisbord, 2004). Biased media presents news and investigative reports from a particular point of view while dismissing dissent. Eventually, the audience of the biased newspaper or the media will learn half the story, which leads to more controversies between the opposing audiences. Though the journalists do not openly declare the ideologies they ascribe to, it affects their narrative, and the public can easily tell.

The pervasiveness of the media in western democracies can be interpreted to mean that the power rest in the hands of the citizens, but this is not always the case (Coronel, 2003). A democratic government should engage the citizens in all aspects of governance, and yet watchdog journalists from western societies are constantly exposing issues corrupt public officials and discrimination among other societal ills that show that the few people in power are the ones who shape the society. Nonetheless, watchdog journalism in the western nations manages to keep people informed so that they can learn about the truth and alternative facts surrounding societal issues.


Watchdog journalism plays a more crucial role in emerging democracies. According to Sullivan (2013), emerging democracies are in the process of building social, economic, and political aspects of their society, and corrupt practices can take the society back. The political framework of emerging democracies are yet to mature in comparison to western nations, hence the need for investigative reporting to drive out corruption and make sustainable improvements to the society (Hanusch & Uppal, 2015).

Voltmer (2010) notes that watchdog journalists in emerging democracies face more challenges in comparison to their counterparts in western nations. In emerging democracies, there is functional interdependence between politics and the media derived from the old authoritarian rule. Political leaders can intimidate the journalists or use their influence to censor the work of investigative journalists. In emerging democracies, political leaders even those who claim to be democratic, find it hard to accept adversarial press that portrays them in a negative light to the public (Nyamnjoh, 2005). According to Coronel (20100 watchdog journalists in emerging democracies like Mexico face threats, and some of them have disappeared mysteriously. According to Sullivan (2013), each year, approximately 30 to 70 journalists were killed across the globe. These are watchdog journalists who are courageous enough to die to keep the public informed.

Additionally, the rules and ethics of watchdog journalism are uncertain. Camaj (2015) refutes the assumption that investigative journalists in emerging democracies in Europe such as Albania, Estonia, and Bulgaria get the necessary legal and other forms of support from the government. State-owned media houses are used to spread government agenda, and investigative journalists in such media houses cannot portray the government in a negative light.

Sullivan (2013) supports Voltmer (2010) by claiming that there are many challenges to watchful journalism in emerging democracies. The challenges are poor financial support, lack of skilled investigative professionals, poor legal framework, low professional standards, and the existence of many societal problems. Watchdog journalists in emerging democracies lack adequate resources, both human and financial resources, to facilitate their work. Media houses in emerging democracies do not have many resources in comparison to renowned media houses in developed nations. Such media houses operate on tight budgets, and the talent is yet to be fully developed . The low professional standards imply that the investigative journalists lack the ability to explore all sides of the story to deliver an objective and factual report.

Sullivan (2013) adds that certain emerging democracies discourage investigative journalism especially when it is concerned with certain subjects that are considered taboos. Emerging democracies in Africa, Middle East, Asia, and South America still consider themselves traditional societies. Religion and culture play an important role in those societies; hence they have a long list of taboos that should not be investigated by the watchdog journalists (Pintak & Setiyono, 2011).

According to Stetka & Ornebring (2013) watchdog journalism is yet to achieve much in emerging democracies because the governments are yet to accept criticism from the media and the public. Issues that are considered to be serious scandals are not deemed as serious issues in emerging democracies. Even after being exposed for corrupt practices, political leaders in emerging democracies still retain their positions because there are no frameworks in place to enforce accountability. Stetka & Ornebring (2013) labels watchdog journalism “toothless dogs” because their reports do not directly lead to some form of accountability, the politicians being investigated hardly face legal action and most of them retain their positions.


Watchdog journalism often raises awareness on abuse of power in an effort to bring change. Individuals in power have the responsibility to safeguard public interests; the same way journalists have the responsibility to inform the public. Watchdog journalism focuses on controversial and corrupt practices in all aspects of the society, though it focuses mostly on politics. Watergate scandal remains the most popular case of watchdog journalism that shaped America’s history. Investigative journalism has significant contributions to the society, but journalists have to be careful about its dark side. Watchdog journalism today tends to focus on scandals that create an adversarial relationship between the media and the government. Watchdog journalists must be careful and must observe the principles of objectivity, factuality, and critical coverage in their work.


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Boyd-Barrett, O., 2015. Book Review: The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism, by Dean Starkman. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly , 92 (3), pp.750-751.

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Graber, D., 2003. The media and democracy: Beyond myths and stereotypes. Annual review of political science , 6 (1), pp.139-160.

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