Jun 7, 2010

Where have all the watchdogs gone?*

Jodi Enda at American Journalism Review chronicles the decline of watchdog reporting on government regulators - including those that oversee mining and oil operations. As media companies decided to cut back on all that boring reporting (and the expense of paying for reporters to cover those boring beats), we ended up with less coverage overall. Instead, the journalists increasingly arrive after the tragedy and start to ask 'why?'.

Funny how that happens.

From the story:
Nine years ago, AJR documented how newspapers and wire services had shifted from covering government "buildings"--shorthand for a blanket approach to reporting on departments and agencies--to covering issue-oriented beats. (See "Where Are the Watchdogs?" July/August 2001.) Reporters abandoned their desks in what once had been bustling pressrooms in stately federal buildings all across the capital and worked from modern news bureaus in staid rooms that often resembled insurance offices. At the time, bureau chiefs explained in what might be described as lockstep language that the change was a way to bring alive coverage of dry policy issues, to engage readers who had tuned out incremental Washington stories.

"There's been a real castor-oil quality of coverage," Kathleen Carroll, then Knight Ridder's Washington bureau chief and now executive editor of the Associated Press, said in 2001. "If you look back at the way Washington stories were written in the past, you see that it's just boring as hell."

Bureau chiefs trumpeted their move to issue-related coverage, saying that by leaving the daily drudgery to the wires, they had more time and more resources to devote to investigative and enterprise reporting.

But toward what end? Did journalists use their newfound freedom from daily coverage to keep closer tabs on what really was happening behind the imposing fa├žades of federal buildings? Did they do a better job of telling readers what was going on before and after, rather than during, press conferences? Did they forgo the dull, incremental stuff to better serve the American people, to make sure their elected and appointed officials were using taxpayers' money wisely and honestly, using sound judgment, serving the public good? Were they better watchdogs?

The evidence suggests the answer is no. Certainly, there have been some standout stories in the past decade--Knight Ridder stood virtually alone in questioning the Bush administration's march to war in Iraq; Copley News Service sent a corrupt member of Congress to prison. But it is no secret that the story of Washington newspaper bureaus in the 2000s is one of cutbacks and closures, and less coverage.
*Update: Jodi Enda will be a guest on today's "To The Point" to talk about her article. The segment will air just after 12:45 p.m. Pacific on KCRW 89.9, or stream it here.

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