The new watchdogs: Muckraking in a digital era

State of the First Amendment 2015

The tenets of American journalism can be distilled down to a couple of basics: Reporters should report objectively and serve as a watchdog on people in power. But the public appears to have reservations on both fronts.

According to the just-released State of the First Amendment survey, just 24 percent say they believe the news media try to report the news without bias, down from 41 percent in 2014 and a record low level of press support since the question was first asked a decade ago.

The survey from the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center also finds that 69 percent believe that the press should act as a watchdog on government, a significant percentage, but well below the 80 percent of the previous two years and a record low for the poll.

Those are discouraging results for those of us who have spent our careers in journalism. In 23 years in newsrooms, I saw consistent and concerted efforts to get stories right.  But clearly the public’s not persuaded.

Most surprising is the sense that the news media’s watchdog role is less important than it was. This nation’s founding generation insisted on a free press to act as a check on a strong central government headed by George Washington. It’s been an enduring principle over centuries.

It’s possible that the public perceives the news media differently today because journalism is in such a state of flux. MSNBC and Fox have established business models building a political orientation into their content, and online media increasingly embrace opinion and outrage.

As the Verge’s Casey Newton wrote recently, “The news organizations that are growing the fastest – Buzzfeed, Vice – excel at making their audience feel something every day.”

But there may be a silver lining. It’s possible that Americans see less need for a vigilant press because they feel empowered to speak out on their own via social media channels:

  • The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was launched by activists Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the death of Trayvon Martin, but it’s now a robust movement online and on the ground, giving voice to many.
  • Throughout the years, editorials and columns have questioned the prominence of Confederate flags on public grounds, but the tidal wave of tweets and posts  that followed the tragic murders in Charleston, South Carolina changed the landscape in a matter of days.
  • Soldiers who knew of Brian Williams’ fictional recounting of coming under fire in a helicopter had tried since 2003 to attract the attention of traditional news media, according to the New York Times. It was social media that opened the floodgates, and in turn led to an investigative report by Stars and Stripes.

“The advent of social media and everyday photography may be a new form of muckraking,” according to Vanderbilt University Sociology Professor Daniel Cornfield. People who don’t see mainstream media as being adequately protective of their interests may feel newly empowered by social and mobile media, he said.

Cornfield also notes that social media activism “doesn’t necessarily replace or even compete with investigative journalism.”

The truth is that many viral stories and movements either begin with or are documented by professional journalists.

“While the growing movement (to remove confederate flags) began on social media, it was galvanized by a searing article in The Atlantic by Te-Nehisi Coates, “Take Down the Confederate Flag – Now, ” observed GizModo’s Kalla Hale-Stern.

In an era of virtually unlimited spending to influence public officials and the political process, the historic role of a free press to keep an eye on people has never been more important.

Social media posts that call out unfairness and injustice don’t diminish this critical watchdog role. It just means a free press has many more allies.

Ken Paulson is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, president of the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center and the dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University.

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