discover the news

In Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers, Michael Schudson explained that social and political structures in society shaped the idea of “objectivity” in the American press. During the 19th and 20th centuries, changes in “economic, political, social and cultural life” affected how journalists gathered and reported the news (11). Schudson traced the history of the newspaper industry to show how the free market economy and democratic society changed the state of journalism. The United States involvement in wars and the rise of new journalism occupations also altered the role of reporters, shaped the way reporters presented the news in society and proposed a modern concept of objectivity that journalists use today.

The 1830s marked a revolution in American journalism. The circulation of penny press newspapers led to the rise of the middle class.  Known for its declining use of editorials, penny papers “made their way by circulating and advertising, rather than trusting to subscription fees and subsidies from political parties” (18). As the penny newspapers circulated in major urban cities, such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore, the “democratization of business and politics brought “equality” in social life (31). Literacy rates increased, and as Frank Luther Mott wrote in his chronicle American Journalism, newspapers “increased the popular interest in public affairs and technological advances of the press reduced the price of the paper and provided “access to the poorer people” (42). This revolution laid the foundation for the “belief in facts, a distrust of the reality or the objectivity of values” in society (60).

One newspaperman remembered the 1890s as the “Age of the Reporter” (65). Reporters became “actors in the drama of the newspaper world. Editors hired reporters to tell the facts. Theodore Dreiser recalled from his editor at the Chicago Globe, the first “paragraph of the news story must inform the reader of who, what, how, when and where” (78). Young reporters, however, wanted to state the facts and “add color and enterprise” to their stories (81). Progressive era reporters, as McClure stated, “concentrated on telling an absorbing story” and presenting a moral element, but they began to “question the facts they uncovered” (87).

The way that journalists presented the news became a focal point of discussion as news reporting continued to grow at the end of the 19th century. According to George Mead, “the newspaper served as a guide to living not so much by providing facts as by selecting them and framing them” (89). Thus, two styles of journalism emerged. Joseph Pulitzer used sensationalism and illustrative advertisements in the New York World newspaper. While Pulitzer believed in the concept to inform, to interpret and to entertain people, Adolph Ochs bought the New York Times with the idea of “printing all of the news without context” and catering to the elite in society (120).  “With the economy becoming more social with consumer goods, the rise in population, the expansion of manufacturing and the rise of transportation” separating the rich from the poor, this led journalists to “no longer believe in facts or information” in the 20th century (120).

After World War I, “leaders in journalism and other social sciences questioned the democratic market society” (122). The rise of public relations affected the way reporters presented the facts in the news. Public relations “helped shape the public” and as Ivy Lee stated, the effort to “propagate ideas was acceptable as long as the public knew who was responsible for it” (135). This threatened the idea of reporting because “news appeared to become a reprinting of the facts” from press releases and public bureaus (138). The government began to rely on public relations to serve as the voice in controlling public opinion. As reporters became victims to wartime propaganda, the “Newspaper Editors forced reporters to emphasize the meaning of the news and the context of events, such as the war, the Great Depression, and the New Deal “(148).

The Paris Peace Conference in 1919 “symbolized the modern relationship between the government and the press” in the 1960s (164). The government began to control the press. Schudson stated, “for the government to keep information from the press and for the government to lie outright placed the government beyond embarrassment” (173). The distrust of the press and the government during the Vietnam War led to the rise of citizens and journalists being more critical and interpretative of the news.

To define objectivity, Schudson stated, “political assumptions determine the content of a news story, the form of news stories incorporate bias and the process of newsgathering constructs an image of reality which reinforces official viewpoints” (185). In this view, objectivity is a set of “concrete conventions” which persist because they reduce the extent of what reporters can write (186). Thus, reporters must trust themselves, take risks and pledge their commitment for seeking the truth of society.