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Downie Describes Need for Accountability Journalism

Posted on 2007-04-13 by William Nunnelley  (205) 726-2800

The Internet is irreversibly transforming the news media, Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie, Jr., said at Samford University Thursday night, and newspapers and their newsrooms face radical change to survive.

But news presented in ever-changing new forms, such as the Internet and hand-held devices, will not change the mission and content of news as long as people working in newsrooms adapt to the new media realities, he added.

For Downie, the mission of the news is to inform, and the journalism that matters most is accountability journalism.

"The journalism that I believe must survive all the change swirling around us in the new media environment is accountability journalism," he said during the annual Timothy Sumner Robinson Forum sponsored by Samford's journalism and mass communication department in cooperation with The Post.

The program honors the late Samford graduate and Post reporter who covered the Watergate scandal of the 1970s as The Post federal courts reporter. "Tim Robinson believed in accountability journalism," Downie said. "For years after he left our newsroom, his work was held up to his successors as a model for beat reporting."

Downie said accountability journalism "is the kind of journalism that the founding fathers intended to protect with the First Amendment to the Constitution" and noted that it separates free nations from those that "not only suppress political freedom but also do not allow a free press."

He listed several recent examples of accountability journalism, including The Post's series on poor treatment received by Iraq war veterans in Walter Reed medical center in Washington; The Hartford Courant's investigation of the high rate of suicides among American troops in Iraq, leading to new mental health screening for recruits; The Post's discovery of a network of secret CIA prisons for suspected terrorists; and The Wall Street Journal's stories exposing companies backdating stock options to inflate executives' compensation.

Downie said accountability journalism has exposed waste and fraud, raised significant issues about competence and honesty for politicians, freed wrongly convicted people from prison and made our food and vehicles safer.

"Accountability journalism is not easy to do," he said. He noted that it requires resources (both staff and time), expertise in using records and databases, good interviewing techniques, clear writing, and editors who know how to be devil's advocates to be sure that stories that could ruin reputations or worse are as accurate and fair as possible.

"Above all, it requires a news organization dedicated to accountability journalism–in other words, a news organization dedicated to public service," he said.

Downie said such reporting is at risk today at too many newspapers. "They have been losing readers and advertising to the Internet and other competing media," he said, adding that too many newspaper owners have been trying to maintain the large profits made in the old days of newspaper monopolies.

"Cost-cutting has shrunk most newsrooms, undermined their morale and threatened their ambition," he said, making it "harder to cover routine news well, much less to do accountability journalism."

While the Internet has had "an extraordinarily disruptive impact" on the economics of print newspapers, Downie said it had created "tantalizing new opportunities for news organizations." He noted that most newspapers have lost circulation, but attracted large audiences for their web sites. "The Internet has given our newsroom national and international reach."

Blogs have a role to play in accountability journalism, he said, because "some investigative stories begin with tips from blogs."

Downie said the Internet revolution "could mean more accountability journalism–not less," but added that it means "old journalists must learn new tricks" and universities must turn out journalists with traditional reporting and writing skills "who can present their journalism in new forms on the web, as well as in print."

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