What Is Watchdog Journalism? A Helpful Guide

What is watchdog journalism? Watchdog journalism is reporting style that keeps those in powerful positions accountable for their actions.

When people refer to watchdog journalism, they discuss a form of reporting where the reporter’s primary goal is to keep those in power accountable. It is a form of investigative journalism where the free news media produce articles that identify issues and concerns regarding those in positions of influence and governance. Then, they investigate those concerns, fact-check their work, and distribute the results within news stories.

Watchdog Journalism and Its Challenges

Watchdog journalists often keep a careful eye on the abuse of power. This makes them people of particular importance within societies with authoritarian governments. Watchdog journalists often deal with corruption and other dangerous activities and face many worries and challenges. A report in the Global Investigative Journalism Network discussed these issues. It did so about watchdog journalism in Southern Africa.

Detailing many of the problems watchdog journalists in this area face, it read: “Obstacles include a fear of reprisal for reporting on people in power, harassment, torture and death threats, journalists treated as spies and terrorists, increased surveillance, lack of access to information, and a lack of financial support.”

Even in areas where journalists’ safety is not as much of an issue, there are still logistical issues regarding this particular type of investigative reporting. Watchdog journalism often requires a significant amount of time and financial assistance to complete. Unfortunately, these resources aren’t always readily available within the news industry.

Muckrakers and Watchdog journalism

Muckrakers and Watchdog journalism
The main role of a watchdog journalist is to keep an eye on the hypocrisy and the misconduct of the government or government officials

Early examples of watchdog journalism include the muckrakers. These were Progressive Era journalists in the United States. They are known for exposing big business and government corruption at the time. U.S President Theodore Roosevelt used the term ‘muckraker’ to describe these reporters in a speech entitled ‘The Man With the Muck-Rake.’

The speech, which took place in Washington, D.C, was about reporters he felt spent too much time on negative news stories. An essential worry of Roosevelt was that these journalists would create an overly cynical society. Despite Roosevelt’s feelings regarding muckrakers, according to the University of Virginia, he did view the media as “reformers ( who could) bypass the corrupt machines and connect directly to the people.”

Watchdog Function & The Fourth Estate

When discussing the importance of watchdog journalists, The National Institute of Mass Communication & Journalism Ahmedabad perfectly distills their place within a functioning democracy.

Their website reads: “The main role of a watchdog journalist is to keep an eye on the hypocrisy and the misconduct of the government or government officials, departments, etc… In a democratic society, the role of watchdog journalists is so important that it is called the fourth estate.”The term fourth estate comes from the traditional European concept of the three estates of the realm: the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners.

As is stated here: “Describing journalists and the news outlets for which they work as members of the fourth estate is an acknowledgement of their influence and status among the greatest powers of a nation.”

Trump and Watchdog Journalism

Roosevelt had a nuanced attitude towards media outlets. However, more recently, those in power within the White House have shown hostility towards journalists acting in the public interest. This was particularly true during Donald Trump’s term. For instance, during the early days of the covid-19 pandemic, when reporters queried Trump’s lack of response towards the issue, he shot down their concerns. When it became clear that this was a more significant issue than he first believed, he reacted angrily at journalists who followed up on his earlier comments.

In watchdog journalism, their follow-up ticked all the boxes, as it was investigative reporting of how those in power were reacting to one of the issues of our time. But unfortunately, the incumbent president at the time acted with apparent hostility toward these reporters.

The result was The Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent nonprofit that promotes global press freedom, stating that Trump’s “unprecedented hostility toward the press,” — denigrating journalists as “scum,” “low life reporters,” and “the enemy of the people” — is orchestrated to dismantle the credibility of those who report on him.”

In the current era of ‘fake news and social media misinformation, media credibility is more important than ever. Dismantling disintegrates our democracy and allows politicians and others in powerful positions to act without consequence.

Watergate And Watchdog Journalism

What is watchdog journalism?
Exchanges Photos, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Trump isn’t the first US President to face difficult questions from a group of investigative journalists. Famously, watchdog journalists played a massive role in exposing one of the biggest political stories in history, the Watergate Scandal.

It led to the resignation of U.S President Richard Nixon. This was after his administration’s continuous attempts to cover up its involvement in the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who were Washington Post reporters, helped expose this. Until today, it remains one of the highest profile examples of watchdog journalism and how it can affect society. Another example, this time on the other side of the Atlantic, was when investigative journalists for The Telegraph published reports of the misuse of public funds by members of parliament. Not only was this 2009 story an excellent example of watchdog journalism, but it was also a detailed illustration of the power of data journalism. Over 20 MPs left office after reporters disclosed the information they found in over a million data pages.

Should Journalists Be Watchdogs?

A joint study between the University of Oxford and Reuters discussed both the positive and negative attitudes towards watchdog journalism. On the one hand, it revealed how generally speaking; the public has a positive perception of the role of watchdog journalists. But on the other hand, it also points to why some are critics of the practice.

Doing the latter, it states: “Critics argue that journalism has become indiscriminately critical and corrosively cynical of officials and candidates (and) this can lead to overemphasized sensational reporting that is argued to increase apathy and cynicism about politics.”This, of course, was a similar point to the one that Roosevelt made in his speech about muckrakers.

However, public officials need to be held accountable, a point that most people in a democratic society can agree with. This was demonstrated by the Pew Research Center, which conducted a study in which nearly three out of four U.S. adults (73%) agreed that it’s essential for journalists to function as watchdogs over elected officials.

A Duty Towards Watchdog Journalism

Unfortunately, the same Pew Research also revealed that the public opinion is that news organizations within the United States aren’t fulfilling their watchdog role. It showed that only three out of every 10 people believe that media outlets are undertaking the right amount of watchdog reporting.

Of course, efforts have been made to increase watchdog journalism in the United States. For instance, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University set up the Nieman Watchdog in 2004 in an attempt to increase to “encourage more aggressive questioning of the powerful by news organizations.”

There have also been several books written on the subject. For instance, Oxford University Press published Stephen Berry’s Watchdog Journalism: The Art of Investigative Reporting, and it has become a hugely popular book within journalism studies programs. The title gives reporters (both past and present) tools to conduct this type of journalism.

Its bio describes it as a book that doesn’t focus “solely on huge assignments that are out of reach for everyday journalists, (but instead) explores stories that could emerge on the beat in ‘Anywhere, USA.’” There is an appetite for watchdog reporting, and as we’ve discussed, its value to society is undeniable. Organizations, writers, and advocates are also doing their utmost to inspire the watchdog reporters of the future. These reporters will be needed if the past indicates the future.

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FAQs About What is Watchdog Journalism

What is a watchdog reporter?

A watchdog reporter is a journalist whose work involves keeping those in power accountable for their actions by investigating and reporting on abuses of that power.

If you’re interested in learning more, check out our guide on advocacy journalism!


  • Cian Murray is an experienced writer and editor, who graduated from Cardiff University’s esteemed School of Journalism, Media and Culture. His work has been featured in both local and national media, and he has also produced content for multinational brands and agencies.