The media has been described as the fourth estate of the realm and watchdog of the society. The watchdog concept, according to which the media is expected to monitor the activities of government, is one of the oldest beliefs in the practice of journalism. The role of the media as a watchdog that will put government in check was reputedly coined by Edmund Burke in late eighteenth century in England to refer to the political power possessed by the press of that time. According to Burke, the press was at the same level with the other three estates of power in the British realm namely Lords, Church and Commons.
In the beginning, the idea of the press as the fourth estate was considered as an independent check on the activities of the state, particularly government. On the other hand, the development of the watchdog role goes further than the borders of government investigation to take account of many other institutions of societal power, including powerful individuals who may have no official relationship with public office.
In democratic countries and in societies like Nigeria where there is a high level of political culture, the watchdog role of the media is highlighted very strongly.
The media, as watchdog, is expected to reveal abuse of state authority and protect the democratic and constitutional rights of the citizens. Like a literal guard dog that barks when it notices an intruder, a “watchdog” role involves alerting others when an anomaly is detected. Common subjects are government decision-making process, illegal activities, immorality, consumer protection issues and environmental degradation.
The media typically performs its watchdog role through fact-checking statements of public officials, interviewing public figures and challenging them with problems or concerns, beat reporting to gather information from meetings members of the public might not otherwise attend, and to observe on the ground in broader society and investigative journalism, which involves information-gathering on a single story for a long period of time.
It is however important to emphasize the need for the media to adhere strictly to its code of ethics whilst performing its watchdog role. While the media, in exercise of its professional responsibilities has right to free access to all sources of information, it must hold this right in pursuit of truth, the affirmation of the ideals of communication and the unity of the society. The responsibility of the media must lead its practitioners in the exercise of their profession to disseminate to the public, true information, to avoid all distortions and all manipulations of messages.
In gathering news, journalists must not resort to the use of illicit means to obtain information or suppress essential information or represent or falsify texts or documents.
According to established code of ethics, respect for the private life of persons, the human dignity in conformity with national and international rules on matters of rights concerning the protection of individuals by avoiding defamation, calumny, slander and malicious insinuations must form an integral part of the media professional norm.
In turn, government officials and the general public must understand that the role of the media is essential if citizens want to hold public officials accountable for their actions and in addressing oppressive tendencies by privileged individuals.
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