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7 characteristics of effective accountability journalists

No matter what topics they cover, many journalists hold people and institutions responsible for their words and actions. This “accountability journalism,” whether it is political fact-checking, investigations or other forms of reporting, must still engage readers and impact audiences to be effective. All journalism, in the end, should strive to make the significant interesting.

Through its Accountability Journalism Program, the American Press Institute is trying to help journalists do that. One step we’ve taken is to identify the shared characteristics and processes of some of the most effective accountability reporters in the country. These include journalists who cover politics, investigations, education, sports, culture and society.

So what is “accountability journalism”? And what do we mean by “effective”?

A comprehensive definition of accountability journalism is provided in the recent book, “The News Media: What Everyone Should Know” by C.W. Anderson, Leonard Downie and Michael Schudson:

“Accountability journalism encompasses traditional investigative reporting, but much more. It includes fact-checking political speech, digging into digital data, and aggressive beat coverage to reveal as much as possible about what is really going on in every aspect of American society – from national security, government, politics, business and finance to the environment, education, health, social welfare, sports, and the media industry itself.”

And how do we identify effective accountability reporters? These are journalists who excel at reaching broad audiences with great impact, and are successful in communicating meaning and context in their stories. Their work is closely read and widely shared, and often has the power to change minds and policies.

These journalists are naturally immersed in successful, 21st-century journalism. They know they must understand and adapt to the needs and rhythms of different communities to be relevant.

Recently, we gathered 17 such reporters for two days in Washington, with the goal of identifying techniques and models that can be shared to help journalists everywhere make reporting on government and civic affairs more effective. Our working sessions were designed to unearth what these 17 reporters are doing that’s successful and to build teachable models from it.  Our draft report then was reviewed by experts.

In those sessions, we gathered some early ideas and information that will help inform our ongoing study. Looking at the specific characteristics of these highly impactful journalists and their work, we see a pattern. From listening to them, we have identified at least seven characteristics they have in common (listed in this report in no particular order). These journalists:

  • Exhibit broad curiosity; eagerly adapt to new technologies and platforms.
  • Think about multiple audiences.
  • Work hard to create context for their audiences.
  • Smartly balance their time on story choices and audience interactions.
  • Spend considerable time building relationships with sources, readers.
  • Build connections and teamwork within their own newsrooms.
  • Find their own way and direct their own work.
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