What is accountability journalism and its role in news media today?
Investigative reporting that gives voice to the voiceless in our society and holds accountable those with power over the rest of us has played a growing role in American journalism since
Watergate. A number of newspapers and television networks, even after drastic downsizing in recent years, still have assigned journalists to do investigative reporting as a specialty or on their beats. Increasing numbers of television stations have expanded their investigative reporting, even though much of it may be "watchdog" consumer investigations for competitive branding. And, as we've discussed, a number of nonprofit startups have primarily done investigative reporting, which they have shared with other news media.
The Investigative Reporters and Editors organization, with about 5,000 members, has been training more reporters at more news organizations than ever before. Digital technology has given reporters unprecedented access to data and other sources of information and enabled computer-assisted analysis of what they have found. Collaboration among news media has enabled sharing of shrunken staff and resources and wider exposure for investigative reporting.
Accountability journalism encompasses traditional investigative reporting but much more. It includes fact-checking political speech, digging into digital data, and aggressive beat coverage to reveal as much as possible about what is really going on in every aspect of American society—from national security, government, politics, business, and finance to the environment, education, health, social welfare, culture, sports, and the media industry itself. Accountability journalism has exposed, among much else, local, state, and national government corruption; frauds committed by businesses and charities; citizen abuse and unwarranted shootings by police; unpunished child molestation by Catholic priests; performance-enhancing drug use and spousal abuse by professional athletes; neglect of military veterans' medical problems by the US Veterans Administration; and plagiarism and fabrication by journalists and authors.
Accountability journalism has prompted change and reform. In one example, a 2013 investigation by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel found that newborn screening supervised by hospitals and state agencies across the country was failing to have hundreds of thousands of blood samples examined by laboratories in time to save babies from life-threatening conditions that could have been corrected. Hospitals and states soon changed their procedures, crediting the newspaper.
The widespread criticism of the news media for not being more aggressive in digging into the Bush administration's rationale for going to war in Iraq or Wall Street's financial manipulations leading to the 2008 financial meltdown shows that Americans have had high expectations for accountability journalism. However, practicing it can be challenging, especially in places around the country where newspapers no longer have sufficient staff or resources, television stations have not increased their investigative reporting, and no one has started an investigative nonprofit.