Patrick on Knobel, 'The Watchdog Still Barks: How Accountability Reporting Evolved for the Digital Age'

Beth Knobel
Justin Patrick

Beth Knobel. The Watchdog Still Barks: How Accountability Reporting Evolved for the Digital Age. Donald McGannon Communication Research Center's Everett C. Parker Book Series. New York: Fordham University Press, 2018. vii + 149 pp. $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8232-7934-0.

Reviewed by Justin Patrick (University of Toronto) Published on Jhistory (October, 2018) Commissioned by Robert A. Rabe

Printable Version:

Beth Knobel’s The Watchdog Still Barks: How Accountability Reporting Evolved for the Digital Age is a paradigm-shifting piece of qualitative research with potential to challenge the commonly held belief that the accountability reporting on governments and nongovernmental entities in the United States is not dying out in the digital age, or at the very least, is not going down without a fight. Knobel and her research team examined 5,571 front-page articles from nine US newspapers, including three large national papers, four medium-sized metropolitan dailies, and two local papers, in order to identify the percentage of accountability reporting stories in the month of April in 1991, 1996, 2001, 2006, and 2011. The accountability stories are further divided into deep accountability reporting that required substantial investigative methods and simple enterprise pieces, which, while tackling the same types of issues, are more surface level. The book is broken into three main sections for each of the three above newspaper categories plus an introduction and conclusion containing additional analysis. Knobel’s findings ultimately conclude that for most of the newspapers studied, the proportion of accountability reporting stories on front pages during the sample period increased, suggesting that newspapers are investing more resources into investigative pieces that cater more to their distinct audiences. The study not only has significant implications for perceptions of American journalism in the digital age but also provokes thought on necessary methodological changes for the study of journalism given recent technological advancements.

The three large papers Knobel chose, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, all indicated significant increases in the proportion of accountability reporting stories on the front pages between 1991 and 2011; both the number and proportion of deep accountability pieces for the three papers in total increased from five (0.87 percent) in 1991 to twenty-three (5.16 percent) in 2011 (pp. 24-25). The medium-sized papers, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Denver Post, and the Albany Times Union, also increased their proportions of accountability pieces with the exception of the Albany paper, though most were faced with staff cuts and lower overall story outputs, which leads Knobel to assert that to cope with financial strain, the papers are focusing on creating original investigative pieces as opposed to simply breaking news in order to stand out from their competition. The financial strain was most evident in the small newspapers, the Bradenton Herald and the Lewiston Tribune, with the proportion of accountability reporting for each peaking in 1996 and 2001 respectively and demonstrating notable decreases thereafter, though the 2011 percentages for both were still marginally higher than those in 1991. Neither of the small papers were able to do much in terms of deep accountability reporting, as the Bradenton Herald increased from a single deep-reporting piece in April 1991 to two in April 2011 while the Lewiston Tribune was unable to create a single deep-reporting piece for the length of the study period. Knobel maintains that her interviews with current and former editors of the nine newspapers reinforce her assertion that the commitment to accountability reporting has become an increasing priority since 1991 and suggests that American newspapers need to keep increasing their accountability journalism commitments in both quantity and quality to remain successful given declines in overall readership.

The study obviously has a number of limitations, most of which Knobel is cognizant of. Time and resource constraints prevented 2016 stories from being included, which would have provided additional insight into the effects of social media and the 2016 US presidential election. Given the qualitative nature of the research that required a thorough examination of thousands of newspaper articles, the time period of front-page stories of nine newspapers for one month every five years since 1991 leaves the conclusions inductive at best, yet this is understandable given the enormous breadth of information. Knobel mentions that the lack of available online archives of newspapers going back to 1991 posed another challenge, which leaves readers to wonder if the observed trends are indicative of the many articles resting in hardcopy archives in newspaper offices and libraries across the United States.

Despite the study’s constraints, its lasting significance to the study of journalism rests in its ability to draw attention to not only its counterintuitive conclusion that newspapers are working harder than ever to deliver higher proportions of accountability reporting amid massive financial obstacles but also the rather between-the-lines implications that raise questions on how journalism should be studied. While reading, I found myself consistently yearning for a more comprehensive quantitative study to complement and confirm Knobel’s research. I shared in Knobel’s frustration at the lack of digitized archives, a barrier that limits the potential to conduct more extensive academic research and must surely make it more difficult for journalists doing investigative reporting on stories that have deep historical roots. If more newspaper archives can be digitized in the future, the possibility of computer-based textual analysis as a research tool may become a solution to the large volume of content, though some of the qualitative article analysis would likely have to be sacrificed. Knobel’s work thus serves as a beachhead that addresses the issues facing both American newspapers and the academic discipline that studies them, highlighting a need to change research tactics and make primary sources more readily available.

Citation: Justin Patrick. Review of Knobel, Beth, The Watchdog Still Barks: How Accountability Reporting Evolved for the Digital Age. Jhistory, H-Net Reviews. October, 2018. URL:

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