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Why Watchdog? And why questions?

Questions the press should ask.

Great questions are a key to great journalism. But often, in the press of deadlines, the flood of raw information, manipulated news, deliberate misinformation and just plain junk, great questions are hard to develop. Reporters and editors need to know what's happening, why it happened, who's involved, who's affected and what happens next.

The premise of watchdog journalism is that the press is a surrogate for the public, asking probing, penetrating questions at every level, from the town council to the state house to the White House, as well as in corporate and professional offices, in union halls, on university campuses and in religious organizations that seek to influence governmental actions.

The goal of watchdog journalism is to see that people in power provide information the public should have.

The Nieman Watchdog Journalism Project grows from this premise and this goal: to help the press ask penetrating questions, critical questions, questions that matter, questions not yet asked about today's news. NiemanWatchdog.org seeks to encourage more informed reporting by putting journalists in contact with authorities who can suggest appropriate, probing questions and who can serve as resources.

What sets us apart.

There are already many very good journalism Web sites. Nevertheless, we think our function at NiemanWatchdog.org – suggesting questions the press should ask – sets us apart.

The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University was founded in 1938 "to promote and elevate the standards of journalism in the United States." For many years now the program has included international reporters and editors as well. Nieman Fellowships enrich outstanding practitioners by bringing 24 of them to Harvard University for a year of study in fields of journalistic specialty.

NiemanWatchdog.org carries this process a step further. It seeks to bring the richness of Harvard and other centers of learning to journalists around the world and to other interested groups and individuals as well.

Independent experts are often eager to help journalists identify what is important, what can illuminate and expand a story. NiemanWatchdog.org will give journalists access to such experts at Harvard, the home of the Nieman Foundation, and at other campuses across the country. NiemanWatchdog.org will also seek out the expertise of authorities in the professions, activist groups, politics, commerce and government – perceptive thinkers who are experienced in and care about public affairs.

Through NiemanWatchdog.org, these authorities will suggest questions and provide background on topics in the news. We will supplement their knowledge with a Web log, links to other informative Web sites and additional resources.

Why questions?

Some may wonder about our emphasis on asking questions, since politicians and most of the rest of the world – even schoolchildren – are adept at sidestepping them. What's the point of asking good questions if the answers aren't forthcoming?

First, the ability to ask appropriate questions comes only with an understanding of the subject at hand. When experts help with questions and background, they also help deepen the reporter's knowledge of the issue.

Second, targeted, insightful questions are typically more difficult for public officials, candidates and others in public life to dodge, mislead or even lie about.

Finally, the questions don't disappear simply because a president, or someone else in a high position, won't give a straight, complete answer. The answer may lie in documents or in interviews with other sources, or both. But assuredly, a key to great journalism comes mostly to reporters and editors who ask the right questions, who have a full understanding of what they are looking for and who can recognize what rings true and what doesn't.

We encourage your comments about NiemanWatchdog.org. Your feedback will help us make this site an even more useful resource for you.

Barry Sussman
Editor, Nieman Watchdog Project
May 24, 2004

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The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.