Journalism in the early 20th century was marked by continuities from the 19th century, such as the expansion of corporate power, increasing literacy rates, and the further professionalization of journalism. However, this period also saw the emergence of new forms of journalism, including muckraking, as well as the development of public relations as a distinct industry. It was a busy period for an industry quickly growing in size.
Between 1880 and the start of the 20th century, the number of English-language daily newspapers grew from 850 to 1,970. The number of weekly newspapers also tripled. New magazines were published and thrived, often by developing new niches (i.e., meeting different specialized information needs and audience wants) and especially by providing longer feature stories about daily life. Print journalism was thus a major industry within the broader U.S. economy, and consumers had more (and more niche) options than ever before.
The turn of the century also helped produce a new form of journalism, called muckraker journalism. This form was characterized by the use of journalism to critically interrogate and expose social ills and corruption. Muckraker journalism was therefore often driven by an agenda (e.g., an expressed intent to show the shortcomings of capitalism or even democracy) but this agenda was supplemented with meticulous reporting. At the forefront of muckraker journalism was the magazine McClure’s, which by 1898 already had a circulation of 400,000.
One example of muckraker journalism was a 1903 story by Lincoln Steffens titled, “The Shame of Minneapolis,” which was part of a series of stories examining corruption in major U.S. cities. Steffens, a relentless and tenacious reporter, set out to Minneapolis and discovered that its recently elected mayor was working with a complicit police force to ignore illegal gambling and prostitution in exchange for bribes. His exposé drew great scrutiny to the mayor’s misdeeds, and the mayor fled the state shortly thereafter, throwing the entire city government into disarray. A new mayor was then installed, who replaced many of the officials appointed by the previous mayor and fired many of the officers in the city’s police force.
Another example can be found in the work of Ida Tarbell, and her reporting on Standard Oil in particular. Standard Oil was not only the largest oil refiner in the world at the turn of the century, but also one of its biggest and most ruthless companies. During her investigation, Tarbell acquired and dug through hundreds of thousands of pages of documents that were physically scattered around the country. Tarbell also interviewed oil executives, industry competitors, government regulators, and academic experts. Her work was serialized into 19 articles that appeared in McClure’s and demonstrated Standard Oil’s strong-arm tactics, manipulation of competitors, and abuse of workers in order to advance its corporate goals. The story’s success played a major role in the U.S. government’s decision to break up Standard Oil into 34 different companies under antitrust laws.
The term “muckraker” itself became associated with two distinct meanings. While it has been attached to investigative journalism that “digs deep for the facts,” like that of Tarbell, it is also sometimes used pejoratively to refer to work that sensationalizes an agenda-driven form of journalism. The latter meaning became popularized due to President Theodore Roosevelt’s criticism of the progressive-minded journalism of the time, and in particular when he remarked that, “the men with the muck rakes are often indispensable to the well being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck.”
The early 20th century also saw more directed efforts to professionalize journalism in the United States. The very first journalism schools (housed at the University of Missouri and Columbia University in New York) were only established in 1908. These universities were important because they launched the process of formally training journalists (via a shared education). That, in turn, would go on to promote more widespread adoption of best practices in journalism and eventually the creation of professional codes of ethics within the industry. It is important to note that relatively few journalists were university-educated at that time, though. (That would remain the case until the 1960s.) Moreover, many journalism schools began within English or Literature departments, creating a strong connection between journalism and literary non-fiction.
It was also not until the 1920s that “objectivity” and “neutrality” became norms within U.S. journalism. Much of the journalism before that time was incredibly pointed and took clear positions on issues. This was evidenced clearly by the predominantly progressive ideals of the aforementioned muckraking era, but also by the clear political affiliations of many news organizations in the prior centuries.
Scholars have argued that the shift toward objectivity was not primarily driven by changing journalistic ideals. It was largely a business decision. As the potential audiences for journalism grew and the number of competitors increased, newspaper owners found that they could differentiate themselves from competitors and have broader appeal by simply acting as observers (and thus not offending as many readers). As such, the contemporary cultural emphasis on neutrality and objectivity in U.S. journalism is a historically recent phenomenon.
Journalism was not the only communication discipline to grow and become more professionalized during this period. Public relations also originated as a distinct practice at the turn of the 20th century. This was an outgrowth of advertising, which had long been established by that point. However, in contrast to advertising, which sought to sell products and services directly to people, public relations focused on influencing intermediaries (like journalists) in order to promote more favorable representations of companies and their products or services. This involved a new skill-set, which was sharpened over decades, to make positive coverage of clients (e.g., companies or celebrities) appear natural.
The first news-oriented public relations agency, the Publicity Bureau, was established by George Michaelis in Boston in 1900. Two years later, William Wolf Smith, a former reporter at The New York Sun would establish the first Washington D.C.-based PR agency, cementing the linkages between public relations, journalism, and public affairs. These companies were hired by clients ranging from Harvard University to railroad syndicates to generate support for legislation that was favorable to those organizations, and especially to fight industry reform legislation being pushed by the Roosevelt administration.
The United States government quickly took note of public relations. By 1910, the U.S. government began employing press agents of its own. These agents were tasked with sending handouts to Washington-based newspapers. The first governmental press conferences were also held later that decade, under the Woodrow Wilson administration. Over time, presidential administrations would increasingly try to cultivate favorable perceptions of their work in a highly organized fashion. Although the word “spin” would not be commonly used until the 1980s, the federal government and many large companies had either established press relations offices or hired public relations agencies by the 1930s.
The press agents who worked in public relations departments were tasked with promoting truthful accounts of their organization’s or client’s good deeds. However, they also would — and still do — engage in dishonest behaviors like selectively releasing information, issuing ‘non-denial’ denials, burying toxic information within long press releases filled with less-consequential positive information, and delaying the release of information to minimize its impact. Journalists have thus had to become very attuned to their sources’ motivations and approach information with a critical eye.
Muckraking was an early form of investigative journalism that sought to call attention to social ills and corruption. It is also sometimes used pejoratively to refer to sensationalized, agenda-driven journalism.
The contemporary cultural emphasis on neutrality and objectivity in U.S. journalism is a historically recent phenomenon, as those values only started to become prevalent in the 1920s.
Public relations, in which communicators attempt to persuade intermediaries (e.g., journalists) to report favorably on the communicator’s clients, became a distinct industry at the start of the 20th century. It is commonly used by companies and governments alike today.