U.S. news organizations and the public often clash over the role the media should play in society, but many reporters, editors and news consumers view journalists as watchdogs — especially when it comes to holding elected officials accountable.
A recent paper published in The International Journal of Press/Politics is among the first to explore associations between local news coverage and criminal corruption charges brought against public officials.
The authors find prosecutions for public corruption are more likely in U.S. communities served by a nonprofit news outlet, a relatively new business model that often aims to fill the void left by shuttered traditional local newspapers.
Defining watchdog journalism
News outlets don’t have to do deep investigative reporting to be watchdogs, says Nikki Usher, lead author of the paper and an associate communications professor at the University of San Diego.
Watchdog journalism is “the kind of public interest journalism that keeps regular watch on public institutions, lawmakers and businesses,” Usher explains. “That kind of removes the narrow focus on investigative journalism, because you can have watchdog journalism that never really breaks into an investigative mode.”
University of Cardiff professor Bob Franklin, founding editor of several academic journals that analyze the news media, wrote in a 2005 journalism textbook that “the watchdog metaphor imbues the press with the role of being a forum for discussion, investigators of impropriety, an adversary to monopoly over power and knowledge and the defenders of truth, freedom and democracy.”
Journalism, as an institution, does not always act as a watchdog, and particular news outlets or reporters may not be interested in striving for such status.
Yet the watchdog role remains an ideal for many news organizations in the U.S., where voters cast ballots based on their understanding of candidate policies, proclivities and scandals.
Nonprofit news organizations are increasingly offering an alternative model that often allows for editorial autonomy while employing reporters driven by a watchdog mission who do award-winning work along the way. For example, nonprofit news site Mississippi Today last year uncovered a $77 million welfare scandal involving former Gov. Phil Bryant and Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre. Reporter Anna Wolfe won the Pulitzer Prize and the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Legacy newspaper staffing in the U.S. fell from 71,000 employees in 2008 to 31,000 in 2020, according to the Pew Research Center. The internet disintegrated classified ad revenue over the past two decades, making the for-profit news model less viable for local and regional news outlets.
Nonprofit news sites, many of them digital-only, have stepped in to partially fill the void. National, regional or local nonprofit news outlets in the U.S. have grown in recent years, from fewer than 25 in 2009 to nearly 400 as of May 2023, according to an industry report by the Institute for Nonprofit News, a consortium of nonprofit news outlets. Digital-first INN member organizations employ 4,000 people nationally, with an average of five staffers — editorial and non-editorial — per outlet, according to the report.
Watchdog: Analysis of nonprofit news and corruption prosecutions
Usher and coauthor Sanghoon Kim-Leffingwell, a senior lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, started their analysis by looking at corruption-related prosecutions, such as bribery or obstruction of justice, against federal, local or state officials or other government workers across all 94 federal court districts in the U.S. from 2003 to 2019.
They also look at newspaper employment numbers and circulation by county, along with the presence of nonprofit news outlets that are INN members, plus figures on philanthropic donations to those nonprofit outlets, drawn from data compiled by Media Impact Funders, a membership organization for foundations and individuals that fund news organizations.
“What’s kind of the unique contribution of this paper, that I think really we have not seen before, is it asks, ‘How are these nonprofit news outlets supplementing public life’?” explains Usher. “And we find a really strong connection that they’re able to maintain accountability in these communities. And, actually, the better funded you are the more of a difference you’re able to make.”
The authors use newspaper employment data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics as a measure of the supply of news in a given county, while the circulation data is meant to get at demand for news.
The presence of an INN member organization “is a broader proxy for the commitment to alternative, philanthropic funding for journalism in an area,” Usher and Kim-Leffingwell write in their paper, “How Loud Does the Watchdog Bark? A Reconsideration of Losing Local Journalism, News Nonprofits, and Political Corruption.”
The authors did not find a statistically significant relationship between overall newspaper employment in a judicial district and public corruption prosecutions. But they did learn prosecutions were more likely in judicial districts where there was relatively high demand for news, as measured by newspaper circulation.
Prosecutions for corruption also rise after a nonprofit news outlet is established within a judicial district, and prosecutions are more likely in districts where those outlets enjoy greater philanthropic funding.
“It seems reliable, like a really high-quality finding, that you see more prosecution of public officials — that’s really interesting to me,” says Meghan Rubado, an associate professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University who researches how news coverage affects civic institutions but was not involved with the recent paper.
“I would love to come up with a way to explore this in future research, whether public officials view these independent, nonprofit-funded newsrooms as anything to take seriously,” adds Rubado, who worked as a reporter at the Syracuse Post-Standard in New York from 2004 to 2010. “Maybe local officials or public officials more generally are less likely to change their behavior when the newsroom watching them is an independent nonprofit than when it’s a traditional newspaper.”
Usher and Kim-Leffingwell write that their findings offer partial evidence that local news outlets succeed in their role as public watchdogs. But watchdog journalists, they write, can only illuminate corruption. What happens next is outside the scope of the watchdog journalist’s role.
“Journalism cannot act on behalf of the public to sanction bad actors; journalists can only expose wrongdoing and hope that the public, in turn, acts accordingly — either voting someone out of office or hoping that other public stakeholders exact criminal or civil sanctions,” they write.
Prior research on journalism and civic engagement
The recent paper builds on past research exploring the relationship between news and civics, a field of study that has grown since the widespread decline of for-profit local news.
In “Paper Cuts: How Reporting Resources Affect Political News Coverage,” published in October 2020 in the American Journal of Political Science, Rice University assistant professor of political science Erik Peterson looks at the relationship between newsroom staff cuts and local political coverage.
Across Peterson’s sample of 70 U.S. newspapers covering national, state and local politics from 1994 to 2014, every loss of 12 reporters was associated with 500 fewer political news stories each year.
“Although prior research focuses on how media outlets alter their coverage in anticipation of economic challenges, this account more fully details the consequences when these efforts fall short,” Peterson writes.
Another paper exploring the journalism-civics nexus is “Political Consequences of the Endangered Local Watchdog: Newspaper Decline and Mayoral Elections in the United States,” published in April 2019 in Urban Affairs Review. In it, Rubado and Jay Jennings, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, examine whether the presence of well-staffed local news organizations affects mayoral races.
For many cities and towns, the outcomes of mayoral elections can shape local government policies and programs for years. The dataset Rubado and Jennings developed includes 11 newspapers serving 46 cities in California, from Oroville in the north down to Solvang, roughly two and a half hours west of Los Angeles. They focus on 246 mayoral elections held from 1994 to 2016 — a period when local newsrooms nationally suffered major staffing cuts.
They find less political competition in cities with newspapers that severely cut staff — when newsrooms shrink, fewer candidates run for mayor. They also find smaller margins of victory for mayoral winners in areas with relatively more reporters.
“One way that quality candidates emerge is through vigorous and rigorous coverage of local government,” says Rubado. “So, when local government is perceived to not be doing a good job, you get quality challengers trying to unseat an ineffective public official.”
Usher, lead author of the recent paper on nonprofit journalism, maintains that even if a nonprofit news outlet has a fraction of the reach that a traditional newspaper used to have, it still provides a crucial civic function and helps drive the local news agenda.
“An open question that’s going to depend on each nonprofit is how well integrated they are into a local community’s existing media infrastructure,” Usher says. “Is one of these nonprofits regularly pumping coverage into local televisions, local newspapers? That’s what gives reach to the ordinary public.”