Adversarial Journalism: Definition & History

Instructor: Matthew Helmer

Matt is an upcoming Ph.D. graduate and archaeologist. He has taught Anthropology, Geography, and Art History at the university level.

Adversarial journalism is one of the most popular journalism forms we see in media today. In this lesson, learn about what adversarial journalism is, how and why it is used, and critiques of the practice.

Introduction to Adversarial Journalism

Screaming, finger pointing, and accusations… In today's media, we have come to expect a level of bravado in our journalism. But when did all this start? Adversarial journalism is the official term for investigative reporting done in an antagonistic way. Although some forms of adversarial journalism can be overly biased and even abusive, adversarial journalism has also helped to expose a number of important scandals and issues we will review in this lesson.

Theodore Roosevelt

History of Adversarial Journalism

Adversarial journalism has been around since before the birth of the United States. During the Revolutionary War, proponents for American independence published articles that exposed embarrassing or damaging details about British colonial leaders. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the term yellow journalism was used to describe sensational headlines that lacked journalistic integrity. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt famously used the disgusting-sounding term muckraking, to describe reporters' efforts to find ''dirt'' on politicians, policies, and political machines. Roosevelt saw muckrakers as unpleasant but necessary journalists in a democratic society. Early work by muckrakers included breaking up oil monopolies, passing food and drug regulations, and child labor laws based on their ability to investigate controversial issues.

Bob Woodward
investigative journalismBob Woodward

Adversarial Journalism and Today's News Reporting

Adversarial journalism today is ruled by cable news. To fill the need for 24 hours of constant content, news channels have turned to adversarial journalism in order to boost ratings. Top rated shows, such as the O'Reilly Factor, feature confrontational hosts with strong opinions on political issues, who go to battle with their adversaries. These types of journalists are known as pundits, and they have blended fact, opinion, and especially entertainment in news reporting.

Interview techniques by adversarial journalists include searching for controversial sound bites, manipulation of quotes and statistics, adopting an argumentative and combative dialogue, and attempting to catch your opponent in a misstep. Adversarial journalism is perfect for television because it is able to present itself as news while at the same time providing entertainment. Critics of adversarial journalism have stated it has resulted in increased partisanship, a lack of objectivity, and that it has killed investigative journalism.

Glenn Greenwald
Arab Spring

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