Evaluating print and broadcast news in the San Francisco Bay Area from A to F.

 Posted June 25, 2003

What Changed in Journalism During the 20th Century?

Ethical practices of journalism have vastly improved

Let’s talk about changes in the ethics of journalism. The century began with the Yellow Press, which is portrayed in most history books as being ethically challenged. In the ’20s you have the development of the first canons of ethics, such as that of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Because we’ve come through a period of great exposure of shortcomings in financial journalism — and we can think of a number of stories where journalists seemed to be asleep at the switch, the Enron case and so forth — we might conclude that things are worse today than when 20th century journalism got its start.

But I think almost any historian would tell you that what we normally think of as corrupt or compromised situations for journalists were common early in the 20th century. Partly because the notion of professional ethics, indeed the notion of the profession, was much less well worked out then than it is today.

If you take sections of a newspaper, sections of coverage which are susceptible to marketplace influence, corruption, bribes or influence--the business page, the sports page, the coverage of celebrities--most newspapers in early 20th century America were compromised in ways that they are not today.

Any number of sports reporters as late as the ’20s, bet on games, took tips, received subsidies. Essentially their judgments were for sale. I don’t think that’s true anymore in sports reporting.

Similarly in business reporting. People touted stocks and promoted their own businesses, even promoted the publisher’s outside businesses, to an extent that would be unacceptable today.

The bad old days of bashing immigrants and minorities

Then there are other aspects of coverage, which we might not think of as ethical, which were not hard to find in publications of the early 20th century. A kind of systematic bias against African Americans. Anti-Semitism. A sort of loose slur of habits of Catholics and other religious groups.

Now I can’t tell you that journalists today are less prejudiced than they once were, but I can say what they say in print and the way they handle stories betrays a much more evenhandedness about, for example, racial and religious categories.

We are again a nation of immigrants

A comparison that’s really interesting to make here, ethically, is the fact that America is beginning to look a lot like the society of, say, 1910, in the sense that we are again a nation of immigrants. The number of people in major East Coast or West Coast cities who were born abroad is now about the same as it was in 1910. We’re getting percentages of 30% or 40% — again, not in whole metropolitan areas, but certainly in core cities.

It’s very interesting to see newspapers try to handle newcomers. The press today is more tolerant, more open to cultural differences, than at least some of the press was in the early 20th century.

Though, again, in a way there are kind of hidden virtues of the publishers of that time. [William Randolph] Hearst, because he wanted to attract these immigrant readers, sort of bent over backwards to portray their national cultures — at least some of their national cultures — in a positive light.

You mean The San Francisco Examiner in particular?

Right. You play up to the Irish, or you play up to the Jews, because they’re very important in your demographics. They’re the kinds of people you want to reach. Most of us would say that kind of market pressure is all to the good, because it tends to reinforce the instincts for tolerance, a culture that can absorb and accept people of different backgrounds.

Rise of the journalism as a profession

Any other broad changes that you think are important?

One thing that’s interesting, if you look at journalists as a social group is their aspiration to have the status and the standards of professions, even though they lack some of the important features of a profession — educational requirements, state licensing (and I would say the vast majority of journalist wouldn’t dream of having that as a bar to becoming a journalist. It’s open that way).

So there’s this effort to make yourself better and receive the respect that other professions get. That takes the form often of trying to enforce standards informally, to call on people to do their best. I daresay Grade the News is an example of that.

Cynicism: an occupational hazard

Then there’s another habit of mind journalists fall into, and that is of despair and cynicism, the feeling that it’s not worth it to try to be truth-tellers or fair information-gatherers in this society. This is expressed early in the 20th century in the behavior of a lot of journalists.

The great play of the 1920s, “The Front Page,” where journalists tear up everything including journalism, and show the politicians and the moralists just how it’s all anarchy — we find that mood today in journalists who have been close to government, close to business and are now willing to say it’s absurd, and so forth. It’s a habit of mind that’s sort of an occupational hazard for journalists.


John McManus interviewed journalism historian Thomas C. Leonard, librarian of the University of California and professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. This is part 2 of a 4-part series.

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