Demystifying Watergate

December 17, 2013 • Ethics and Quality • by

Watergate forever changed American journalism. That’s how many American journalists, especially political reporters, remember the relentless, investigative reporting that brought down Richard Nixon. After Watergate (1972-1974) there was no going back to journalistic practices—so prevalent in the 1950s—of cozying up to politicians. But was it solely the Watergate scandal that made journalists assert themselves more aggressively and question political authority? In a recent study Katherine Fink and Michael Schudson from Columbia University argue that there might be other reasons for that shift.

They agree that over the past 50 to 60 years “journalists have come to present themselves as more aggressive, that news stories have grown longer, and that journalists are less willing to have politicians and other government officials frame stories and more likely to advance analysis and context on their own.” In their view, however, a less noticeable but more global change in the culture and mentality of media practitioners took place.

The researchers analyzed The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, by reviewing front pages published between 1955 and 2003 to determine how journalism changed during this period. Their findings show that the number of short descriptive pieces, “just the facts” stories, has declined. On the other hand, Fink and Schudson detect a significant rise of what they call “contextual reporting.” The academic attention paid to this area of study was previously “little enough that standard accounts have not even come to [an] agreement [on how to] name it,” they write. For their study, the authors selected a year in each decade, steering clear of pre-election years to avoid heavy campaign coverage. The content was then divided into five types, including conventional, contextual, and investigative reporting.

Conventional articles were those which provided answers to four of the five journalistic W’s – who, what, when, where – and either ignored or only superficially touched on the “why” question. These articles mostly described one-time events that had occurred within the past 24 hours.

Articles categorized as “contextual stories” provided more information and more context. These stories could be descriptive or explanatory, helping the reader to better understand complicated issues.

Stories in which the media clearly played the role of watchdog – for which journalists took the lead to detect corruption, or came to the aid of people suffering from injustice – were defined as investigative stories.

The authors note that investigative stories have always been rare due to the difficulties connected with finding such a story. Even when a journalist has a lead on such a story, this lead does not always turn out to be true. Yet in many cases, contextual articles carry the same function as investigative reporting, by pointing out important facts that are accessible but haven’t otherwise gained the public’s attention.

The researchers demonstrate that unlike investigative reporting, which still remains rare, contextual journalism has seen a significant increase. The share of contextual stories on front pages have almost doubled from 8 percent in 1955 to 15 percent in 1967. Since then the numbers kept only growing, reaching a high 45 percent in 2003. The share of the simpler and shorter conventional stories on the other hand, decreased from 85 percent in 1955 to 47 percent in 2003.

Fink and Schudson underline that journalists have emphasized the Watergate scandal, while forgetting that an overall culture change had already occurred in the 1960s. While Fink and Schudson do not identify the driving force behind the cultural shift, they doubt that it can be attributed to any single event, such as the Watergate scandal or the Vietnam War.

“Explaining this change grows more complicated still when we recognize that European journalism moved simultaneously in the same direction, even without Vietnam and Watergate … Whatever explanation one arrives at, it has to account for changes that effected European as well as American journalism, public broadcasting as well as commercial news output, broadcast news as well as print,” they write.  Leading the researchers to agree with Steven Clayman, a prominent sociologist from the University of California and author of research on a similar topic, who asserts that “a change in newsroom culture is key, more than changes fixed by particular economic, political, or technological trends, or tied to specific events beyond the newsroom.”

Source: Katherine Fink and Michael Schudson (2013): The Rise of Contextual Journalism, 1950’s-2000’s. In: Journalism, February 17, 0(0), 1-18

Photo credit: Joanne Fong / Flickr Cc

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