W. Joseph Campbell

Assessing the propellant effect: Was Watergate a powerful stimulant to journalism?

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on March 10, 2012 at 4:34 am

The April number of Vanity Fair brushes against an entrenched media myth in declaring that the cinematic depiction of the Washington Post’s Watergate reporting stimulated great interest in careers in journalism.

Vanity Fair, April 2012

Alas,Vanity Fair offered no data or documentation to support its claim.

Instead, the magazine referred broadly to “the noble, sleeves-rolled sleuthing of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein in All the President’s Men,” saying the movie which came out in 1976 “prompted legions of baby-boomers to dream of careers in journalism.”


Anecdotally, it’s not uncommon to hear that the movie, or Woodward and Bernstein’s award-winning reporting for the Post, did inspire boomers to become journalists.

But beyond impression and anecdote, what supports the claim that Watergate reporting — or All the President’s Men — was a powerful stimulant for career-seeking in journalism?

Not much, as it turns out.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong (which includes a chapter on what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate), two scholarly studies about enrollments in collegiate journalism programs found no evidence that Watergate was a propellant.

Enrollment data are reasonably good proxies, in that they would have captured heightened interest in careers in the profession. If Watergate and All the President’s Men inspired broad interest in careers in journalism, evidence of the stimulus should be apparent in surging in college enrollments.

But the evidence is not there.

A study conducted for the Freedom Forum media foundation and released in 1995 found that “growth in journalism education result[ed] not from specific events as Watergate … but rather to a larger extent from the appeal of the field to women, who ha[d] been attending universities in record numbers. The growth also in part reflect[ed] the applied nature of the field and its link to specific job skills.”

The study’s author, Lee Becker and Joseph Graf, stated flatly:

“There is no evidence … that Watergate had any effect on enrollments.”

A separate study, conducted by veteran journalism scholar Maxwell E. McCombs and published in 1988, reported that “the boom in journalism education was underway at least five years before” the Watergate break-in in 1972.

McCombs also wrote:

“It is frequently, and wrongly, asserted that the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein provided popular role models for students, and led to a boom in journalism school enrollments. The data … reveal, however, that enrollments already had doubled between 1967 and 1972….”

I write in Getting It Wrong that the notion that Watergate reporting made journalism appealing and sexy endures “because it seems irresistibly logical and straightforward— too obvious, almost, not to be true.”

The presumed stimulus on journalism is an appealing yet simplistic story, easy to grasp and easy to understand.

And such characteristics — easy to grasp, easy to understand — often are propellants. Propellants of media-driven myths.


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