UNIT 11: THE MEDIA: WATCHDOG OR LAPDOG OBJECTIVES:
After completing this unit, you should be able to:
• identify and evaluate the principal functions that the press fulfills in a free society
• explain the relationship between politicians and journalists
• draw your own conclusions about the importance of investigative reporting.
If transparency and accountability are society’s two great protections against corruption
in public life, the media has a crucial role to play. Because of that role freedom of the
press is protected in most democracies and is guaranteed in the constitutions of both
United States (First Amendment) and Canada (Article 2, Charter of Rights and
Freedoms). Journalists are not above the law. They are subject to the same laws and
penalties as every other citizen. But, unlike workers in other fields, their right to practice
their craft is recognized in law and in the constitution.
Journalists enjoy this special status because a free press is considered to be one of the
foundations of a democratic society. The press serves several essential functions:
1.It is society’s messenger. It attends events and witnesses activities at home and
abroad, and reports its observations to the public at large. Like a loyal
messenger, a good reporter is even-handed in his accounts and fair in his
interpretations of the things he sees and hears.
2.It is society’s interlocutor, a surrogate that asks the questions and records the
answers to questions that members of the public would ask if they could be
present at every event.
3.It assists the public to understand complex issues and happenings by providing
context and background in its reports.
4.It offers informed commentary and opinion, cutting though official rhetoric.
evasions and bafflegab.
5.It serves as society’s watchdog, monitoring the actions of the powerful and
investigating events and issues that those in power might prefer to leave
6.It alerts the public to misbehavior and malfeasance in high places.
In a perfect society, the press – or, if you prefer, the media – fills each of these functions
faithfully. Of course, there is no perfect society and no perfect press, just as there are no
perfect governments or perfect politicians. Journalists do get it wrong – not often,
perhaps, but often enough to cause cautious citizens not to accept at face value everything
they read or hear. The press can be biased; it can sensationalize; it can inflate ordinary
happenings into seemingly major events. On balance, however, the press, while imperfect, remains the essential link or conduit between the people and their political
In the political arena, the role of the press has two primary functions: keeping the people
informed about government activities, and keeping the politicians accountable to the
It is not surprising that a state of tension frequently exists between the journalists and the
politicians they cover. A wise politician will accept that the press has a job to do and that
it is not the same as the politician’s job. The two can be wary adversaries without being
enemies. A wise journalist will respect the politician’s privacy and will accept that,
barring evidence to the contrary, the politician is making an honest effort to discharge his
or her duties in a competent fashion. The journalist and the politician don’t have to like
each other. Their relationship will work as long as it is kept on a professional level, as
long as there is mutual respect. The relationship breaks down when professional becomes
personal, when distrust takes over from respect.
As a general proposition, opposition politicians get along better with journalists than
government members do. To opposition members, reporters are often useful allies in
ferreting out information that the government is anxious to keep secret or in raising issues
that have the potential to embarrass the government. That’s why the Parliamentary Press
Gallery in Ottawa is sometimes described as being a branch of the “small-o opposition.”
It is worth noting that the Sponsorship Scandal was the result of investigative reporting.
A series of stories in the Globe and Mail piqued the interest of Auditor General Sheila