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The Watchdog’s New Bark

Margot O'Neill writes:

The Watergate era in which journalists played the role of heroic, independent investigators is receding, according to New Zealand's Dr Donald Matheson. Or perhaps it was always a myth.

Speaking at a lunchtime Reuters seminar, Dr Matheson, a visiting Reuters research fellow from the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, said a new narrative was needed to describe more collaborative, networked investigations that no longer put journalists at the centre.

"Watergate - style journalism was characterised by dogged investigations in which an independent journalist held the politically powerful to account with a driving moral force," he said. "These kinds of pieces tried to set agendas independent of politics and exhibited a sense that journalism can do good. But this idea is less convincing today."

Even Watergate relied on whistleblowers and leakers who probably better deserved recognition for their bravery than Woodward and Bernstein.

The rise and rise of scandal politics, with the media at its heart, means journalists are now less important as moral gatekeepers, Dr Matheson said. New groups from NGOs to activist groups had become frontline players in auditing and investigating the actions of governments and companies often with more time, people and resources than journalists.

Stories exposing the use of European airports by US agencies for the rendition of suspected terrorists utilised journalists working together across borders as well as plane-spotters. "A journalist at the fore of a front page story is now less significant," Dr Matheson said.

"We need to widen the field when we talk about investigative journalism. A whole new wave of people now want to share the investigative tag."

Dr Matheson is working on a book project about the role of understanding in good journalism.