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Journalism’s Role as “Fourth Estate” Gets Boost from Communications Professor


If Watergate happened today, would anyone find out?

Beth Knobel says watchdog reporting may be the key to the future of newspapers. Photo by Patrick Verel

Beth Knobel says watchdog reporting may be the key to the future of newspapers.
Photo by Patrick Verel

Given the current state of the news industry—newspapers take in half the revenue they earned 20 years ago—the answer is not so obvious. And that worries Beth Knobel, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication and media studies.

“Today, Woodward and Bernstein would go to their editor, and say ‘Hey, there was this break-in, and we want to chase it down.’ I’m afraid that their editor would say, ‘What are you, crazy? I can’t afford to put the two of you on this story. Look into it in your spare time,’” she said.

Knobel, a former correspondent, producer, and Moscow bureau chief for CBS News whose coverage of the 2002 Dubrovka Theater hostage crisis won her an Emmy, is interested in the ways the press affect policymaking, and the ways politicians use the media.

She is currently investigating the state of “watchdog reporting,” which has the potential to—as with Watergate—expose crimes at the highest levels, but which is also inherently more time-consuming and expensive to produce.

With the help of graduate and undergraduate students, Knobel has been analyzing 20 years’ worth of front pages of three small, three mid-size, and three large newspapers. The team is also looking at the content of NBC News, Time magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, and some online entities.

The project divides non-breaking news stories into three categories: enterprise, investigative, and watchdog.

In May, she presented her preliminary findings in “How Watchdog Reporting in U.S. Newspapers is Changing During these Challenging Economic Times,” a paper she delivered at the annual conference of the International Communication Association in Phoenix.

“The conventional wisdom in the news business is that watchdog reporting is dead, and people aren’t doing a lot about it, and people don’t care about it anymore. What I’m finding out is that it really varies,” she said.

The New York Times still does quite a lot of digging, and terrific reporting—even though it does less than it used to—while other papers are actually doing more digging than ever before. The Atlanta Journal Constitution, which did almost no watchdog reporting 10 years ago, now does a lot of really innovative, deep reporting.”

As the categorizations indicate, not all stories about government are created equal. Some are “low-hanging fruit” that can be done in a day or two, while others, like a Times exposé in June of New Jersey’s halfway houses, require reporters to “climb up the ladder to the top of the tree to dig out something that people wouldn’t see otherwise.”

It’s the latter that Knobel’s research has found is in decline. And according to her, editors (who Knobel hopes to reach when the book is published in 2014) would be wise to invest in them.

“You have to give your readers a reason to buy your paper. You have to give them something that they’re not going to get anywhere else, and that they’re actually willing to spend money to support,” she said. “Or else your newspaper is not going to survive in this era where a lot is available for free, and where there’s heavy competition.

“It may take money to do watchdog reporting, but it also brings awards, viewers, and prestige, and that’s the kind of thing that people will put on their Facebook pages and write ‘Hey, you gotta read this.’”

Having covered Russia extensively, Knobel is acutely familiar with a society where a strong, independent media that can challenge government abuses is lacking. The tools of social media have given average citizens there a glimmer of hope in the power of protest, but it’s still not a sufficient replacement.

“Without a free press, it’s very easy to slide into authoritarianism, and the press is a balance on the government for a reason. Even in this era of citizen journalism, there are still things that citizen journalists can’t do,” she said.

Knobel co-wrote, with the late 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace, Heat and Light: Advice for the Next Generation of Journalists (Random House, 2010). When it comes to advice for students who are pondering a career in an industry that’s in flux, Knobel insists that her students be aware of world events and learn how to listen to others.

“I use the analogy of going on a first date. If you ask a question and the person gives an answer, and you just go to the next question without actually listening to what they’ve said and reacting to it, you’re never going to have a second date with that person,” she said.

To succeed in an era when the lines between print, video and sound are blurred, Knobel said the ability to be skeptical without being cynical, and a fire in the belly for truth, are still paramount. But students still need more.

“There are fewer jobs today than there were. So if everybody can write, and everybody can think, then the people with the technical skills will be the ones that get hired. This isn’t to say you can’t take pride in being a writer, because writing is incredibly important, but our students have to realize we’re in a multimedia world, and that’s the world of journalism.” 


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