Review: Discovering the News, by Michael Schudson

Journalism — what constitutes a story, the guiding principals and mores of editors and reporters — hasn’t changed much in my lifetime. It’s easy to think that the attitudes, aptitudes and priorities of journalists have been much the same all the way back to Gutenberg.

Of course, people who have studied journalism history know that’s not true.

We don’t spend a lot of time talking about our profession’s history, even though history might teach us a good deal about today.

A great place to start the discussion is a book I just read called Discovering the News by Michael Schudson.

Schudson’s book is thirty years old, but it covers the major changes in journalism through the Watergate era.

The primary theme of the book is that journalism has evolved in response to changes in society.

Schudson’s story begins in the 1820s, when the dominate newspapers where either organs of political partisans or served the interests of the business class. They sold for six cents per edition, but required annual subscriptions. This meant only the wealthiest Americans could afford a newspaper. Few papers sold more than 2,000 copies per day.

In the 1830s, the penny press arrived. Some might think it was technology (steam-driven cylinder presses) that drove the advent of the penny press, but it was really the rising tide of a middle class in America, and a greater sense of democratic rule over gentry rule (voting was now open to more than just land owners). The penny press met the demand for news (something the six-penny papers didn’t have) by reporting actual events, such as murder trials, rather than just political editorials.

The publishers, such as James Gorden Bennett and Horace Greeley, cranked out a lot of news, and a lot of advertising, to a middle class, trained by the six-penny papers, to see newspaper subscriptions as a status symbol. They sold a lot more newspapers.

The papers were not necessarily non-partisan, and while the reporting was informational, it wasn’t necessarily without an agenda, and they were certainly sensational.

By the 1880s, the New York papers of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst took sensationalism to new levels. While the journalist of the day would believe their reporting was truthful, they were not beyond withholding information to shape a story. Consider the career of Richard Harding Davis and his role in reporting the Spanish boarding the Olivette. Davis didn’t quit Hearst not because Davis didn’t support the publisher’s position, but because the particular fictionalization wasn’t his fictionalization. Davis merely withheld facts. Hearst invented new ones.

It would be a mistake, however, to attribute the success of Pulitzer and Hearst to Yellow Journalism. At a time when New York first became a commuter city, and a city of immigrants in need of illustrated papers and simple language, Pulitzer and Hearst met the need.

It wasn’t until Adolph Ochs purchased the New York Times in 1896 that a more non-partisan, less sensational style of journalism began to take hold. Ochs’ style of journalism came along at a time when observational science was beginning to shape cultural attitudes and realism was the leading trend in art and literature. Again, Ochs was meeting the needs of a changing society, not driving innovation in news coverage.

Prior to World War I, the word “objectivity” was not part of a journalist’s lexicon. Reporting was expected to be factual, but objective was not a common news value.

With the unraveling of the world after the Great War, up through the Great Depression, people began to question democratic institution and market forces, and the very idea that facts could be considered neutral came into question. Objectivity became a counter weight to the questionable judgment of individuals, not just in journalism, but in law, social sciences and art, as well.

Walter Lippman and others began to call for and define a greater professionalism in journalism. Schools were founded and awards created. It was in this environment that interpretive reporting — putting the news in context — first gained currency.

During World War II, the U.S. government entered, for the first time, into organized attempts to control the news flow. Press agents were hired and press conferences became widespread. Reporters lost access to government officials. The relationship between press and White House changed radically in the post War years.

The rise of McCarthysm, the Bay of Pigs and the start of the war in Vietnam were all events that helped create within society a greater sense that the U.S. government, now no longer easily accessible, was not always worthy of trust. For the first time, the press began to take on a watch dog role and investigative reporting was born.

This trend reached its apex with Watergate.

The way I read the book, prior to the 20th Century, publishers (not reporters and editors) reacted to changes in society where they saw business opportunities. As the 20th Century has progressed, and journalism has become more of a profession rather than a trade, journalists have had a great say in what constitutes professionalism, but there is still a good deal of reaction to society, rather than journalists simply changing the terms of their jobs.

And now, society is apparently going through its largest upheaval, especially in terms of how it interacts with media, since at least the 1960s, if not the earliest parts of the 2oth Century.

If that’s the case, should today’s journalist react with “we should keep doing what we’ve always been doing” attitude, or figure out how journalism needs to change to meet new demands and new needs?

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  • http://thoughtsofnigel.blogspot.com/ Nigel Barlow

    With all the changes that are currently taking place in the media world,sometimes the past can teach us lessons.

    Journalism history on both sides of the Atlantic has emerged as a response and an atempt to exploit social change.

    What is happening now is no different and journalists must take advantage of the opportunities that the new media offers