Difference between Lapdog and Watchdog Journalism

Difference between Lapdog and Watchdog Journalism

Journalism is a tasking profession which requires dedication and professionalism to yield results. Based on the relevance of their job in any society, journalists are expected to play crucial roles in ensuring the sanity of existences, even beyond the role of merely informing the public about happenings of all kinds. The media play an indispensable role in the proper functioning of any society.

Metaphors are expressions used to conceptualise reality. They also explain how the social world and the identities and relations in this world are constructed. This also applies to journalism. The dog metaphor is used to explain the relationship between journalists and the society.

Media advocates, critics and scholars have used a variety of canine metaphors to describe the relationship between the media and other institutions in society. Dogs are used as a metaphor to explain the various ways journalists carry out their duties in the society. Here’s a quick look at the different perspectives of dogs used to describe various kinds of journalist in the society.

Advocates argue that the media serve as watchdogs, protecting the public from abuses by government, corporate and other institutions in society. Critics argue that the media more often are either 1) lap dogs, licking the hands of those in society with power, 2) guard dogs, barking to protect some institutions but not others, or 3) attack dogs, used by their political or industrial owners to launch campaigns against rivals.

Lap Dogs

This is a model of journalism where journalists are seen to be licking the hands of those in society with power. The journalists lack power to bite or hold public office holders accountable. The role the media play here is that of a civic booster. They are afraid of losing support of the elite they get advertisements from. This approach to journalism counters journalists’ self-proclaimed ‘watchdog’ responsibility It suggests that news media are channels through which the agenda of the society’s elites are achieved. The media are accused of supporting and perpetuating the exploitation and social inequalities on which they profit under this model.

The basic tenets of the lapdog theory, according to Franklin, et al., (2005) can be summarized in the following three assumptions. First, the news media do not have independent power so they rely on government, corporate and elite sources for both information and economic support. Second, journalists show neither understanding nor interest in the opinions, attitudes and information requirements of any other group other than those of society’s elite establishment. Third, the news media are characterized by a consistent argumentative and political bias to the benefit of these social and corporate authorities to the extent that they appear to act as their trained pooch. This is a disturbing approach to journalism which is detrimental to the success of democracies as the participatory and representative approaches which characterizes such systems is not upheld by the media.

Watch Dog

This is central to the role of independent journalism in a democratic society and most journalists take pride in adopting this role by following the principles of fairness, truth, balance and accuracy in their reporting. This model was popularized by the reports of Bob Woodward and Carl Beinstein of Washington Post on the Watergate scandal. It is a typical example of where journalists played the watch dog role in the society. To effectively perform the watchdog role requires ample independence and professional autonomy on the side of journalism. This is a highly valued and shared ideal among journalists that allows them to self­ affirm and legitimize their task and its contribution to democracy.

The watch dog model of journalism plays the Fourth Estate of the Realm function in the society. Here, journalism is able to allow and force people with power, governments in other words, to meet their obligations to the public by publicizing several issues such as a scandal, corruption, and failure to address needs of the public. This is believed to be the primary and professional function journalism should play in any society.

Attack Dog

This is a model of journalism where most journalists and news anchors play attack dogs when they interview public office holders. First, they ask them pointed questions like a courtroom lawyer, and halfway through their answers, they suddenly cut them off. You see this every on radio and television programmes. When some journalists want to put public office holders on the hot seat especially regarding failed implementation of policies in the society they also use this model to elicit answers. Trial by media also comes under this model.

Guide Dog

This is one of the new models in the society. This is a kind of journalism that not only gives people news and information but also encourages them to fulfill their responsibility as good citizens. It challenges them to get involved in resolving problem. This kind of journalism does not allow for passiveness of audience members but urges them to take action. Citizen journalists are noted for this.

Junkyard Dog

This is a kind of reporting that is harsh, aggressive and intrusive, anything goes philosophy. It rarely cares about the principles of fairness, truth, balance and accuracy which are the basic tenets of professionalism in reporting.

Junkyard journalism is also called junk food news reporting, junk news journalism or junk journalism.  This is a sarcastic used to describe news stories that deliver sensationalized, personalized, and homogenized inconsequential trivialities, especially when such stories appear at the expense of serious investigative journalism. Under this model, journalists do not give the public straight, well-documented, understandable information about those things that make societies ill economically, politically or physically. Instead, the news consists of sensationalized, personalized and unprofessional content. This practice is majorly characterized by biased presentation of news.

Guard Dog 

The Guard Dog Theory suggests that mass media and journalists basically support dominant political institutions, major economic groups, and their values, but can and do criticize those organizations, especially when elite class members of those groups violate system values or when they criticize each other. It is quite different from lap dog journalism (where the journalist is totally loyal to the elite class). In this scenario, journalists provide support for the existing power structures, even while occasionally producing content critical of it and elites.

In contrast to a passive “lapdog,” the guard-dog media occasionally attack an individual in power, but they focus the blame on the individual, not the system. Journalists rely heavily on official sources and explanations of events in news writing. They use official sources to make stories look robust and well investigated when in actual sense they are protecting the elite class.

This theory was developed by Phillip J. Tichenor, George A. Donahue and Clarice N. Olien (1995). It is premised on the middle ground between the Watchdog and Lap Dog models. It claims that mass media are neither lap dogs of the powerful, not watchdogs of the weak and oppressed. Because elites primarily control the media agenda and provide most news and information to the journalists, the media act as a guard dog not for the entire community, but for political and special interest elite groups that hold political and economical power.

The guard dog model posits that journalism is characterized by three features. First, the news media act as protector of particular groups within the power elites. Second, the focus and approach of the news media are shaped according to who is being protected and who is defined as the threat (external/internal, political/racial, etc.). Third, in times of political conflict and/or scandal it is common for the guard dog to turn on one of the masters.

While the lap dog gives total protection to the elite class the guard dog might attack them occasionally. The distinct difference between a guard dog and a personal protection dog is that a protection dog takes its lead from the owner and acts on command while a guard dog will maintain their duties on their own. This is why occasionally journalist operating this model may write stories that are not favourable to the elite class they are protection but could blame the elite for such stories, not the system.

For further reading, see:

Franklin, B., Hamer, M., Hanna,M., Kinsey, M., & Richardson, J. E. (2005). Key Concepts in Journalism Studies. London: Sage

Sabato, L. J. (1991). Feeding frenzy. Baltimore: Lanahan Publishers, Inc.

Donahue, G.A., Tichenor, P.J., & Olien, C.N. (1995). A guard dog perspective on the role of media. Journal of Communication 45 (2), Spring, 115-132.

Gleason, T.W. (1990). The watchdog concept. Ames: Yowa State University.

Spiess, M. (2011). From watchdog to lapdog? Media@LSE electronic MSc dissertation series. Retrieved 26-04-2020 from: http://www.lse.ac.uk/media@lse/research/mediaWorkingPapers/MScDissertationSeries/2010/2nd/Spiess.

Bednar, M.K. (2012). Watchdog or lapdog? A behavioral view of the media as a corporategovernance mechanism. Academy of Management Journal, 55, 1, 131-150.

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