Attack dog journalists

Journalists’ role in the political process should be to serve as intermediaries between politicians and the public. The average American does not have the means by which to get the news directly from the White House and other bureaucrats. Therefore, there are reporters, who exist to provide such information to the people. However, the recent influx of attack dog journalism has resulted in less investigative reporting and a misguided definition of news, both of which have serious, negative implications.

Woodward and Bernstein, as portrayed in All the President’s Men, should be the heroes of every news reporter in the country. By tirelessly digging up the dirt on the Watergate, they discovered a government scandal. The pair adhered to their journalistic duty of reporting the details to the public, despite hesitation from others and a warning from Deep Throat that their lives may be in danger. They did not cease their searching once they had enough to publish a story; rather, they kept probing until they got to the bottom of things. According to lecture, their investigative journalism is indicative of a shift from lap dog journalism to watch dog journalism.

Around the 1990s, American journalism lost its watch dog affiliation. Today’s reporters are rarely incited by the whispers of a government cover-up. For example, it took at least eight years for the public to learn that Iraqi detector Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi lied about weapons of mass destruction in an effort to influence Western war efforts (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/41609536/ns/world_news-mideast_n_africa/t/curveball-i-lied-about-wmd-hasten-iraq-war/#.UFzwiVGQTE0). Reporters should not be expected to question every government decision. Nevertheless, when the issue at hand is a war, they should be counted upon to look into why exactly one country proposes going to war with another – reporting not only why the government is saying it is time for war, but providing what evidence they are using to authorize their decision. This is an enormous responsibility that is vital to our very democracy.

That is not to say that investigative journalism or watch dog reporting has died out (e.g., http://watchdog.org/about/). Rather, their admirable tactics have been subsumed by the new news norm of non-news. In an effort to attract an audience, countless news outlets have transitioned to offering non-news items as news. For instance, the top story’s headline on one of Tucson’s local news station’s websites reads, “Donate hair this weekend to win tickets to “Disney on Ice.” Another is, “Man jumps off Bronx Zoo train, mauled by tiger.” While a contest and a novel story might be interesting enough for people to tune in, they are undoubtedly not the top stories of the day. One might find the protesters’ overtake of an Islamist group’s headquarters in Benghazi more pressing, especially considering the potential link to the recent attack at the U.S. Consulate in Libya (or perhaps Mitt Romney’s tax release).

The non-news news norm also includes what Larry Sabato referred to as attack dog journalism. That is, “the press coverage attending any political event or circumstance where a critical mass of journalists leap to cover the same embarrassing or scandalous subject and pursue it intensely, often excessively, and sometimes uncontrollably” (Sabato, 1991, p. 6). For instance, Obama’s “you didn’t build that” remark was immediately removed from context and spread by the mass media (so much so that the GOP then referenced it in their “We Built It” slogan at the Republican National Convention). His minor gaffe matters much less than his policy regarding taxes and social services. Even so, the media coverage did not focus on what his point was in the speech in which his misspoke. Rather, the attention was placed on the comment itself. The news should be what the President said he plans to do if he remains in office, not the poor wording choice.

The trend away from watch dog journalism toward attack dog journalism, as well as the warped definition of what is considered news, have serious implications for the country as a whole. The current nature of political news coverage can serve to place importance on non-issues, inspire and perpetuate misinformation, and leaves out what is not easily accessible. By giving so much attention to minor gaffes, rumors, and unimportant issues, the media make such items salient to the public and communicate that they are important. This can lead to skewed priorities, as people might find insignificant items to be much more relevant than they actually should be. Additionally, attack dog journalists’ mongering about Obama’s birth certificate led approximately 25% of the country to believe Obama was not born in the United States – according to 2011 polls, administered two to three years after the rumor’s origin. Finally, acting like attack dogs rather than watch dogs prevents journalists from investigating stories. Reporters might not act as politicians’ lap dogs but by attacking rather than digging, they fail as watch dogs.

Such a sociological shift in news norms and journalistic tendencies is difficult to reverse, but not impossible. In All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein did not act alone. While met with hesitation from most, a few people offered invaluable support, such as their executive editor and Deep Throat. The four of them (Woodward, Bernstein, Ben Bradlee, and Deep Throat) prove that it does not take an army to reveal a scandal. Both the moral of the film and the return to watch dog journalism is the belief that all it takes are a few people impassioned by a desire to get the story and to get it right.

(Sabato’s book is titled “Feeding Frenzy: How Attack Journalism Has Transformed American Politics”)

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11 thoughts on “Attack dog journalists

  1. The article is interesting and the aspect of non-news news is inspiring. I doubt about your definition of journalism in the first sentence; it seemed too narrow. I wonder if that is a personal opinion or fact. I guess journalists just bring more information to people, regardless of what the issue is about. The non-news news works well in a local newspaper, because that is what the local newspaper is for. They do not have access or the ability to reveal white house scandal. That potentially is the job of big networks nowadays. Local newspaper provides information about the locality that people cannot see on mainstream television, in which way they meet their market demand to ensure the survival of the business. They should not be blamed for doing so. Not necessarily only those who report big national events are journalists. Thank you for the interesting article though.

    • I am explaining journalists’ role in the political process — I definitely agree that journalists do much more. Additionally, I included the word “should” because I think that even within the political process, they do much more than simply serve as intermediaries.

      I think there is a difference between attack dog reporting and soft news or non-news coverage (not all attack dog journalism can be considered soft/non-news, not all soft/non-news can be considered attack dog journalism). I agree that it is much more difficult for local news publications to provide the quantity of hard news coverage that is present in the elite or major news publications. Even so, I think local news should focus on the implications of hard news issues for their communities, not necessarily provide non-news. Further, I do not think being a local publication makes it permissible for the outlet to resort to attack dog reporting — I think all journalists should hold themselves to higher standards, regardless of the size or prestige of the publication they work for.

  2. I find it interesting that you associated attack dog journalism with non-news type stories. It makes sense that this style would write about everything that could be considered “interesting.” I also liked how you explored the definition of what news really is. I think it kind of helps to make a distinction between watch dog and attack dog journalism. They’re both pretty similar, but it really depends on the journalist’s definition of printable material.

    • I think that is the easiest conceptualization of attack dog journalism, though of course attack dog reporting is present in hard news coverage too. Which do you think is more prevalent in the media landscape today: attack dog or watch dog coverage?

  3. While you herald Woodward and Bernstein as the journalistic standard of watchdog journalism, I would argue that they were not watchdogs at all, rather, they were attack dogs after one crucial point. See, the trail went cold. the information that was available had no more to give. So, instead of letting the intruder walk away, the journalists went into attack mode. They pursued leads by bothering and annoying them to a point where they finally submitted information they were not ready to give up. They went off the record in many circumstances to meet with people who would give them information that they could not use without more sources. They kept at it, attacking the president’s cabinet and campaign staff until they got what they wanted. I’m not saying that what they did was wrong, it shed light on an issue Americans should have known about- but they were anything but watch dogs. They were attack dogs.

    • What an interesting perspective, especially considering Watergate is generally upheld as the point in journalistic history effectively marking the transition from lapdog to watchdog journalism. My opinion differs from yours in defining “watch dog” and “attack dog.” When I think watch dog journalism, I think along the lines of this explanation:

      “Readers should expect to see stories that hold institutions accountable; aggressive ongoing coverage; a skeptical, investigative attitude that extends through every story and every section of the paper; attention to what’s under the radar as well as to big international and national stories; consumer focus; enterprise reporting.”
      (http://www.poynter.org/how-tos/leadership-management/what-great-bosses-know/67742/watchdog-culture-why-you-need-it-how-you-can-build-it/)

      I do not consider Woodward and Bernstein’s tactics to be of the attack dog style. Rather, I think they were striving to hold the government accountable. They did not endlessly pursue this story blindly — they had reason to believe there was a cover-up. I do not think they were attacking; I think they were trying to uncover the truth.

      I think attack dog journalism goes beyond questioning sources until they wear down and tell you what they know. Attack dog reporting is when journalists do not merely present the story, they attack the subject(s) or the message.

  4. Your first paragraph is quite enlightening, I agree entirely that the increase in attack dog journalism has led to a misguided definition of the news, and has also lead to inability to truly trust the mass media. When reading articles or viewing news channels there is always that nagging idea that the stories they’re producing may lack the investigative fact-checking that stories such as the Watergate scandal pride themselves in, simply because the journalists were too focused on the attack dog method to uncover the proper facts.

    • Why thank you! You mention a “nagging idea that the stories they’re producing may lack…investigative fact-checking.” Any idea how to combat that, as a media consumer?

  5. I think that proves to be the fundamental difference between watchdog and attackdog journalism. In today’s attackdog era we see much less adherence to facts and confirmation of truth when uncovering or even manufacturing scandals, whereas they were much more focused on presenting the public with the whole and honest truth in the watchdog era. This in some ways is proving to be detrimental to the political system in general as we are seeing many candidates be disqualified from contention due to exile by the media.

  6. I see the rise in attack dog journalism coinciding with the rise in more partisan media. In reality, if you constantly attack your sources you are going to be without comment before long. However, partisan media sources could care less if Obama wants to make a rebuttal on the ‘you didn’t build that comment,’ which is why Fox News can spread misinformation without ramifications.

    • Absolutely. Cable and entertainment news are awarded much more wiggle room in terms of getting away with attacks. Thus, it makes sense that cable and entertainment news reporters engage in attack dog journalism without raising any red flags. This obviously holds negative implications for media consumers (unless you consider attack dog journalism a benefit).

      I chose to focus on news more broadly because I think we see attack dog journalism across the board, and that is unfortunate.

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