Journalists are the Best “Watchdogs” of Government

Story by Lacy Jamison

Many analysts are stressing the importance of watching government as the current elections progress, and according to Matt Canham, Susan Tolchin and John Daley, journalists are its main watchdogs.
Canham, Tolchin and Daley spoke during a Hinckley Forum at the University of Utah on Friday, Oct. 28. Canham works as a print reporter, Tolchin is a professor and Daley is a journalist.
The speakers recognized that the state of political journalism is in transition of finding new roles. However, according to Tolchin, who teaches public policy at George Mason University, “Journalism is the best watchdog over the failings of government. Media is terrific-it reveals government flaws.”
Journalists who work in politics are expected to explain to voters who the politicians are, what they believe in and what their actions are. Often this relationship between the politicians and journalists is fraught with tension. According to Canham, who works as a Washington correspondent, “We are one of the only people that confront them [politicians].”
Tolchin said she worries about the demise of print media in cities because this form of media often keeps politicians more honest.
The speakers also had strong views on what material should be emphasized in watchdog reporting, heading into an election year. Recently, most of the coverage has been of the polls and not anything else.
“Horserace politics and horserace political coverage does a huge disservice,” said Daley, who covers stories in the Deseret News and KSL. He claimed the coverage should not be about the polls, but about the policies that will affect millions of people.
Canham said the issue of horserace politics is overblown. He argued that news is more diversified in today’s day and age, and reporters have to find creative ways to get what the audience wants and needs. Each story can only be written once, so the reporter must pick his or her focus and determine which stories create the highest voter interest.
Tolchin said she believes that horseraces must be covered. She brought up the strong correlation between the debates and the money candidates raise. It is important to expose these events because money raising has a strong connection to who wins and who loses.
In reaction to the recent explosion of audience involvement in the journalism field, the speakers agreed that this participation helps journalists become better watchdogs. Reader participation is very important in guiding how journalists give their readers news. Any type of involvement is very important because it could have direct effects on how government is chosen, said Daley.
Audience participation is not always reflected in the polls. Daley said he believes many people do not value their democracy anymore because there has been a significant decrease in voter turnout. Issues and decisions in politics are important, but the public is less involved than it used to be, he said.
Other issues of audience participation include the fact that most people do not research both candidates.
“I always read the other side. Most people don’t like to see the other side and I really hope they do,” said Tolchin. It is important that people participate according to their beliefs, but it is also important that people research the opposing side in order to better understand it, she said.
Audience members of this Hinckley Forum claimed to have very valuable insights from the speakers.
“I think it’s interesting to hear the perspective of current journalists. Journalism, media and politics are intertwining more than they ever did before,” said Laura Schmitz, a senior at the U. of U. who will graduate with a degree in journalism.
Sheena McFarland, a reporter at the Salt Lake Tribune, also gained insight.
“I think what was most interesting to me was to hear the audience questions. People care about the source and credibility of things right now and we need watchdogs,” she said. (640)