Student guest post: Why editors need to push for more watchdog journalism

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the fourth of those posts. Keith Larsen is a first-year master’s student in the business and media track at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is also a reporter at GreenBiz, where he reports on the intersection of sustainability and business. Previously, he interned at the Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation, where he investigated corporate fraud and misdeeds in the capital markets.

I have undoubtedly become a better journalist during my time as a graduate student at UNC. My knowledge of AP style has improved, I can write better leads and I have gained some semblance of how to tell stories visually.

Yet, while I have been inundated with the fundamentals of journalism and I have enhanced my writing skills, rarely has the question been asked: Why does it all matter? Why do any of us want to become journalists or editors given the obvious decaying economics of traditional newsrooms? Why would any of us take out student loans and subject ourselves to an intense job market only to be rewarded with mediocre pay?

Well, we do it anyway because it matters. We do it because we believe it’s important. And we do it because we want to be the first recorders of history and the tireless watchdogs who hold our institutions accountable.

It is important to remind ourselves why we chose to pursue a job in the news business, not only in journalism schools, but also in the newsroom. It is equally integral that editors continue to fight complacency and push for more watchdog journalism.

The importance of these conversations has become none more evident than with the national media coverage of the Flint water crisis, and the question of whether the national media acted appropriately as a watchdog.

New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan attempted to answer this question in her blog, The Public Editor’s Journal, and concluded that “If The Times had kept the pressure on the Flint story, the resulting journalism might not have made the ‘trending‘ list — but it would have made a real difference to the people of Flint, who were in serious need of a powerful ally.”

Sullivan’s remarks highlight the daunting challenge that editors and journalists face today of providing watchdog journalism despite its marginal financial returns. Subsequently, there is no apparent answer to this challenge. Watchdog journalism can be expensive, it can be more time intensive, and, much to our chagrin, its clicks often pale in comparison to a BuzzFeed list about breakfast food.

However, I believe it is important for editors to continue to hold these conversations in newsrooms and to push back against the business side of news organizations, which might argue that this type of reporting is too costly, or inefficient, or doesn’t affect our core audience.

Undoubtedly, these are all fair points and especially poignant for a concerned shareholder of a media company, but we must never forget why we decided to be in this business in the first place. We must continually think of new ways to make this type of reporting economically viable as well as how it can enhance a media organization’s credibility and bottom line.

Editors must continue to push back against reporting stories simply for convenience and clicks, and push for stories that inform readers about serious issues in our societies through an objective lens.

We owe it not only to ourselves by upholding our most deeply held beliefs as journalists and editors, but we owe it to the children of Flint, who will forever be devastated by lead poisoning.

We owe it to these children not just to report intensively on a crisis, but to make sure that we will always put people ahead of profits because what matters more: a satisfied shareholder or a child’s life?