Historically, the role of the press has been to serve as a watchdog and hold the government and its members accountable to the general public. During the Watergate Scandal that plagued the administration of Richard Nixon, the diligence and persistent efforts of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, two reporters with the Washington Post, helped expose the criminal actions of the Nixon Administration and their role in bugging the offices of the Democratic National Convention at the Watergate Hotel. As a result, Nixon was forced to resign, members of his administration faced criminal charges and were imprisoned, and the Speaker of the House, Gerald R. Ford, eventually became the president.
Today’s media has evolved in many respects, largely due to technological advancements and how quickly information is shared and obtained. Yet at times, it comes up short in its role as the watchdog and fact checker, particularly in a world with a constantly evolving information cycle. The purpose of watchdog journalism is to inform the public about developments, particularly at the policy and governmental level. During the lead-up to the Iraq War of 2003, I specifically recall how there was an absence of tough questioning from the press about the Bush Administration’s plan to go to war with Iraq. Instead, there were noted members of the press, such as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who actively encouraged and openly supported the war effort and getting rid of Saddam Hussein and his alleged stockpile of “weapons of mass destruction.” In the end, no weapons of mass destruction were recovered, thousands of people perished, and billions of taxpayer dollars were wasted on a needless effort.
Another common failing of the news media can be seen in the aftermath of almost any large scale violent attack. The prospect of terrorism is immediately raised, particularly if the individual in question happens to possess a Muslim sounding name or has origins in the Middle East, Central, or South Asia. The criminal actions of the individual are sidelined while the focus quickly shifts to the individual’s past, the racial or ethnic origins of their families, and their supposed religious devotion, with various ‘experts’ appearing on news networks postulating about the role of religion and how it factors into the equation. However, there have been times when this method of speedily arriving at a conclusion has backfired. I distinctly remember how in April 1995, one of the deadliest domestic acts of terror occurred on U.S. soil in Oklahoma City, where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was targeted, resulted in the deaths of 168 people and nearly 700 injuries. Initially, before any concrete evidence was produced, some members of the press were quick to implicate people of Arab descent or Muslims as the culprits, but it turned out that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were the individuals responsible for carrying out the attack.
Perhaps it would better serve society as a whole if there were more of a focus on the policies and laws that specifically cause harm to communities of color and foster an atmosphere of discontent and disillusionment.
Furthermore, the coverage of unarmed black men who died at the hands of law enforcement raises some valid concerns about objectivity of coverage. Whether it’s Michael Brown, Eric Gardner, Alton Sterling, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, or Laquan McDonald, the focus somehow turned to their pasts. Their lives were examined, their clothing scrutinized, and finally, when everything else has been exhausted, the narrative of black-on-black crime is introduced. The coverage and airtime that are granted in the aftermath of cases of police brutality oftentimes display images of angry protesters, rioting, and looting. Perhaps it would better serve society as a whole if there were more of a focus on the policies and laws that specifically cause harm to communities of color and foster an atmosphere of discontent and disillusionment.
Regardless of where one decides to obtain their information from, it is imperative to fact-check the sources. My point is that the press may not always live up to their historical role of performing the role of watchdog and provide complete and objective coverage, especially when it comes to topics of great sensitivity, like police shootings of unarmed people of color. The power ultimately rests with the persons receiving that information. In today’s digital age, there is an abundance of reputable resources online to choose from. By applying methods of evaluating different sources of information and thorough research, one can acquire a better and a more nuanced understanding of the issues confronting society.