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Article updated: 6/14/2012 10:17 AM

Watergate and watchdogs — the duty remains

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It would be less than accurate to suggest that The Washington Post's reporting on the Watergate scandal initiated modern-day investigative journalism, but it certainly gave the field an identity.

Two identities, really -- Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

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And for decades, perhaps even down to this day and enterprises like Jake Griffin's weekly Tax Watchdog column in the Daily Herald, their imprint has been evident in all public interest journalism. Yet, as the 40th anniversary of the break-in that started the whole mess approaches, it's worth noting that that has not always been for the good and that, whatever the Tax Watchdog column may owe to its predecessors, it is a measurably more authoritative and credible style of journalism than much of what emerged in the post-Watergate heyday.

This is not to demean an immense body of impressive and valuable investigative journalism that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. But it does bear noting that routine reporting techniques, in general, are considerably more disciplined today.

Newspapers are much less inclined, for example, to build entire reports around the whispering of anonymous sources. At one time, it was not uncommon for reporters to lean on the loosely drawn standard from Woodward and Bernstein's reporting that if you could get two unidentified people to say something is true, you could report it as fact.

No more.

The much-heralded revelations of Deep Throat notwithstanding, serious outlets, the Daily Herald among them, began to crack down on reporting standards involving sources in the 1990s. We still have plenty of occasions to rely on sources who cannot be identified publicly, but now when they occur, they have to pass a five-point probe of their own and get the OK from the newsroom's top editors.

Calculating politicians like Newt Gingrich like to call out journalists for leading interviews and "gotcha" questions, but the fact is that in the trenches of daily journalism, the use of sneaky techniques or outright deception to entrap politicians or other subjects is extremely rare. We are far more likely to rely today, as evidenced in Griffin's work, on painstaking research, endless interviewing and studious examination of records.

While investigative reporting has become more credible since the Watergate era, it also faces increasing obstacles. It is no secret that newsroom budgets have been strained during the online revolution, and the pressure has grown to give up the kind of labor-intensive, time-consuming work required for highly reliable investigative reporting in favor of more-routine day-to-day coverage that itself cannot be ignored. Still, we resist that pressure, and even now are studying ways, beyond the Tax Watchdog column, to infuse all of our work with a commitment to reporting that aims to dig beneath the surface of daily events to find misuse of funds and abuse of the public trust.

The stamp of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward -- not to mention Jack Anderson, Seymour Hersh and countless others -- may have undergone some revision over the years, but its value to the democracy, to keeping people informed about abuse of power and government waste, remains as important in the towns and counties that make up the Chicago suburbs as it has long been in the backrooms of Washington, D.C.

• Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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