Way to go, watchdogs!

In this time of shrinking newsrooms and shrinking budgets, it’s tougher and tougher for reporters to do good watchdog journalism. But I just read two great examples in local newspapers.

What do I mean by “watchdog” journalism?

I mean journalists going out and checking up on public officials and making sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to.

Rarley can blogs or online “news” sites pull off these kind of stories. (In fact, there are some online “news” outlets that just run government press releases verbatim! For shame!)

These stories are not exactly  Watergate, but you’ll see that they are still pretty important.

The first example comes from my own newspaper.

Ever since the July 5 deadline to file to run for office, my colleagues Scott Daugherty, Liam Farrell and Elisabeth Hulette have been poring over public records related to the candidates who are running for county government offices.

My colleagues have done a great job poking around to find out the kind of things candidates don’t want you to know. I’m sure we’ll be poking around all the way through November.

Check out this story, where we learn that one County Council candidate has a warrant out for his arrest, and another County Council candidate had two charges related to her work in a group home. A sidebar explains the mostly minor legal issues related to other candidates.

My second example is a project by the fine reporters at The Daily Record.

The Daily Record focuses on business and legal news. Their reporters went out to check if public court documents were, indeed, available to the public.

"Discontinued" item? More like illegal item. As of July 1, dishwasher detergent can no longer contain phosphorus. I went out and checked to see what was on store shelves.

I wasn’t surprised to read that clerks tried to thwart the public records requests, often without good reason. Click on over and check out their story.

And last but not least, I’m going to plug a little story I did about dishwasher detergent, although it’s more of a consumer and environmental story than a true watchdog story.

I know, dishwasher detergent is not as exciting as political candidates with court records! But hey, laws are made because we’re supposed to be better off for following them.

Well, I found out that five of 10 local stores were still stocking illegal dishwasher detergent, which was banned because it contributes a bit to the Chesapeake Bay’s water quality woes.

Have you seen good watchdog journalism lately? I’d love to hear some examples. Reading these stories gives me hope for journalism!

2 thoughts on “Way to go, watchdogs!

  1. Agreed 100%. But that is the difference between running a business by the seat of your pants and having a ton of ad revenue to support salaries and the ability to operate with a budget deficit.

    And the pieces you referenced were good, but I have to wonder if the election piece was more of a reactionary piece based on the Zina Pierre fiasco when Paul Foer, a blogger, broke that story and all media (Capital/Sun/Post, etc went scrambling to catch up.

    The Fourth of July fight was reported at Eye On Annapolis first on Monday morning. We had confirmation first of the pepper spray. The Capital ran it as a sidebar item on Thursday.

    And I will also comment on the “government press releases” as well, since we are guilty as charged on that. See the initial paragraph. Most new media do not have the budget or staff to fact check and investigate every piece of propaganda that comes into our email box. We also think that our readers may be a bit more savvy and know the difference between spin and news. But we do identify the source and allow the readers to draw their own conclusions.

  2. John, thanks for your comments.

    I didn’t intend to malign all online news sites in one fell swoop, but there clearly is a huge range of quality out there. The more media, the better as far as I’m concerned. More competition is better for everyone. That said, I think my newspaper and most mainstream media do the best job of broad coverage, and we are usually the only ones who have the staff and resources to pull off investigations, as you point out. This is a good reason for people not to abandon mainstream media for new media — rather, a good news diet includes both the mainstream media and new media.

    I know that you usually write something like, “From Anne Arundel County Police” and then include the cops’ latest update. That’s good. Other websites don’t do that — I’ve seen at least one that runs government press releases as if they are stories. Government press releases often have good information, but they also often don’t tell the whole story or they attempt to obscure the real news.

    I do think readers do have difficulty distinguishing between news and opinion, articles and columns, etc., as evidenced by my blog post on this issue and the subsequent comments: https://pwoodreporter.com/2010/06/16/for-the-record-i-write-articles-not-columns/.

    I think all media — mainstream media and new media — need to do a better job making it clear to our readers what they are reading.

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