[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [Jhistory]: Patrick on Knobel, 'The Watchdog Still Barks: How Accountability Reporting Evolved for the Digital Age'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Fri Oct 26 13:12:31 MDT 2018

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From: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.msu.edu>
Date: Fri, Oct 26, 2018 at 3:08 PM
Subject: H-Net Review [Jhistory]: Patrick on Knobel, 'The Watchdog Still
Barks: How Accountability Reporting Evolved for the Digital Age'
To: <H-REVIEW at lists.h-net.org>

Beth Knobel.  The Watchdog Still Barks: How Accountability Reporting
Evolved for the Digital Age.  Donald McGannon Communication Research
Center's Everett C. Parker Book Series. New York  Fordham University
Press, 2018.  vii + 149 pp.  $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8232-7934-0.

Reviewed by Justin Patrick (University of Toronto)
Published on Jhistory (October, 2018)
Commissioned by Robert A. Rabe

Beth Knobel's The Watchdog Still Barks: How Accountability Reporting
Evolved for the Digital Age is a paradigm-shifting piece of
qualitative research with potential to challenge the commonly held
belief that the accountability reporting on governments and
nongovernmental entities in the United States is not dying out in the
digital age, or at the very least, is not going down without a fight.
Knobel and her research team examined 5,571 front-page articles from
nine US newspapers, including three large national papers, four
medium-sized metropolitan dailies, and two local papers, in order to
identify the percentage of accountability reporting stories in the
month of April in 1991, 1996, 2001, 2006, and 2011. The
accountability stories are further divided into deep accountability
reporting that required substantial investigative methods and simple
enterprise pieces, which, while tackling the same types of issues,
are more surface level. The book is broken into three main sections
for each of the three above newspaper categories plus an introduction
and conclusion containing additional analysis. Knobel's findings
ultimately conclude that for most of the newspapers studied, the
proportion of accountability reporting stories on front pages during
the sample period increased, suggesting that newspapers are investing
more resources into investigative pieces that cater more to their
distinct audiences. The study not only has significant implications
for perceptions of American journalism in the digital age but also
provokes thought on necessary methodological changes for the study of
journalism given recent technological advancements.

The three large papers Knobel chose, the _New York Times_, the
_Washington Post_, and the _Wall Street Journal_, all indicated
significant increases in the proportion of accountability reporting
stories on the front pages between 1991 and 2011; both the number and
proportion of deep accountability pieces for the three papers in
total increased from five (0.87 percent) in 1991 to twenty-three
(5.16 percent) in 2011 (pp. 24-25). The medium-sized papers, the
_Atlanta Journal-Constitution_, the _Minneapolis Star Tribune_, _The
Denver Post_, and the _Albany Times Union_, also increased their
proportions of accountability pieces with the exception of the Albany
paper, though most were faced with staff cuts and lower overall story
outputs, which leads Knobel to assert that to cope with financial
strain, the papers are focusing on creating original investigative
pieces as opposed to simply breaking news in order to stand out from
their competition. The financial strain was most evident in the small
newspapers, the _Bradenton Herald _and the _Lewiston Tribune_, with
the proportion of accountability reporting for each peaking in 1996
and 2001 respectively and demonstrating notable decreases thereafter,
though the 2011 percentages for both were still marginally higher
than those in 1991. Neither of the small papers were able to do much
in terms of deep accountability reporting, as the _Bradenton Herald
_increased from a single deep-reporting piece in April 1991 to two in
April 2011 while the _Lewiston Tribune_ was unable to create a single
deep-reporting piece for the length of the study period. Knobel
maintains that her interviews with current and former editors of the
nine newspapers reinforce her assertion that the commitment to
accountability reporting has become an increasing priority since 1991
and suggests that American newspapers need to keep increasing their
accountability journalism commitments in both quantity and quality to
remain successful given declines in overall readership.

The study obviously has a number of limitations, most of which Knobel
is cognizant of. Time and resource constraints prevented 2016 stories
from being included, which would have provided additional insight
into the effects of social media and the 2016 US presidential
election. Given the qualitative nature of the research that required
a thorough examination of thousands of newspaper articles, the time
period of front-page stories of nine newspapers for one month every
five years since 1991 leaves the conclusions inductive at best, yet
this is understandable given the enormous breadth of information.
Knobel mentions that the lack of available online archives of
newspapers going back to 1991 posed another challenge, which leaves
readers to wonder if the observed trends are indicative of the many
articles resting in hardcopy archives in newspaper offices and
libraries across the United States.

Despite the study's constraints, its lasting significance to the
study of journalism rests in its ability to draw attention to not
only its counterintuitive conclusion that newspapers are working
harder than ever to deliver higher proportions of accountability
reporting amid massive financial obstacles but also the rather
between-the-lines implications that raise questions on how journalism
should be studied. While reading, I found myself consistently
yearning for a more comprehensive quantitative study to complement
and confirm Knobel's research. I shared in Knobel's frustration at
the lack of digitized archives, a barrier that limits the potential
to conduct more extensive academic research and must surely make it
more difficult for journalists doing investigative reporting on
stories that have deep historical roots. If more newspaper archives
can be digitized in the future, the possibility of computer-based
textual analysis as a research tool may become a solution to the
large volume of content, though some of the qualitative article
analysis would likely have to be sacrificed. Knobel's work thus
serves as a beachhead that addresses the issues facing both American
newspapers and the academic discipline that studies them,
highlighting a need to change research tactics and make primary
sources more readily available.

Citation: Justin Patrick. Review of Knobel, Beth, _The Watchdog Still
Barks: How Accountability Reporting Evolved for the Digital Age_.
Jhistory, H-Net Reviews. October, 2018.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52875

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States


Best regards,

Andrew Stewart

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