Introduction to Journalism: History & Society

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  • 0:00 What Is Journalism?
  • 0:49 The Beginning of Journalism
  • 2:14 19th Century Journalism
  • 3:38 20th Century Journalism
  • 5:14 Journalism Today
  • 6:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katie Surber

Katie has a Master's degree in English and has taught college level classes for ten years.

Journalism has been a part of America from the beginning. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, there were many changes in newspapers and reporting. We will explore some of those changes in this lesson.

What is Journalism?

Every morning, people across our country begin with the same ritual. They make their breakfast, brew their coffee, and sit down to read a newspaper. Beginning with the first page, they read the top stories of the day. From there, they read through the local stories and even visit some of the more light-hearted sections. Today, we have more than 1,400 newspapers in this country. Some of the more popular ones, like 'USA Today' and 'The Wall Street Journal', have millions of readers. We are a country that depends on journalism on a daily basis.

How did the newspaper become a part of our breakfast routine? How did journalism begin? In this lesson, we will discuss the history of journalism in America.

The Beginning of Journalism

Although newspapers did exist in the 18th century before the United States Constitution promised freedom of speech, or of the press, they were not like the newspapers we have today. Journalism in America really began with the Revolutionary War. During the War, the newspapers were not just for information, but a place for politics. The reporters wanted to be a part of the action and often shaped the stories with their own political opinions and parties.

Today we expect our newspapers to retell the facts of an event, but this was not true in early America. Even after the Revolutionary War, the journalists continued to retell stories and events through their own political opinions. As the United States debated the role of government in the new country, journalism became a part of the political divide by creating newspapers in favor of a large government or a small government.

By the late 18th century, the relationship between newspapers and politicians was complicated. The newspapers were very aggressive and often attacked political figures and government. At the same time, politicians really depended on newspapers for their elections. Because of this, it was fairly common for newspapers to receive financial backing from the very politicians they were writing about. While the politicians still believed in freedom of the press, it was becoming harder to deny that the press itself did not have an agenda when writing their stories.

19th Century Journalism

What changed this in the 19th century? Well, really growth. As America continued to grow and new technology was developed, it became less expensive to create a newspaper. New publishers wanted to try new things, and since they no longer depended on financial donations, they were able to be much more independent.

This transition in journalism began in 1835 with James Gordon Bennett's 'The Herald'. This newspaper, which sold for only a penny, liked stories that made big headlines. If there was a violent crime or murder, the story was normally found in 'The Herald'. The more horrific the crime, the more 'The Herald' would report it. 'The Herald' helped pave the way for many parts of journalism that we see today. Bennett assigned reporters to certain parts of town, had them tell the stories while on the scene, and began to interview witnesses.

Throughout the 19th century, more newspapers were launched and new journalism explored. Many of these newspapers began to combine the characteristics of those before them. Newspapers, like 'New York Tribune' and 'San Francisco Examiner' used Bennett's method of reporting headline stories, but also encouraged social and political reform. As the 19th century came to a close, the newspapers, now less controlled by politicians, still focused more on the editor's political and social beliefs. The newspapers really mirrored the personality of the owners.

20th Century Journalism

Forward to the 20th century, the movement to the newspapers we have today really began because of advertisement. In the 19th century, production was less expensive. Because of this, the owners did not rely on revenue other than sales. As a result, the owners were able to shape the papers around their beliefs. They could sensationalize certain stories, draw an audience with similar interests, and even make themselves a part of the story.

However, as the cost of production increased, owners could no longer fund the newspapers alone. They began to look for advertisers to invest in their papers. And, as we all know, the advertisers were able to have control over the stories being reported. Sometimes this was small control, like making sure an article did not contradict a product being sold. Other times, it was larger control. The advertisers would have the newspaper follow a certain political opinion or report a particular study because it benefited their product.

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