Journalism: Function and Future
In the modern world, the media holds a very influential position over our
lives. To some extent it defines
who we are as individuals by presenting opinion on everything from what to buy
for lunch to who to vote for in the next presidential election.
The media collects, organizes ,and disseminates information about us as a
society, allowing we as a people to choose our values, our identity from what we
see on the television, here over the radio or read in the press. The media has such a pervasive and unmistakable influence to
the point of intrusiveness by the definitions of some. Whatever it is, though,
we could not survive without it. It
has rooted itself in our culture and grown with it so that the two are now
inseparable. This should not
necessarily be viewed as negative, however, for the media does much for us that
we ourselves could not accomplish.
The media today can be seen as having four major responsibilities or
functions. These are to persuade or present opinion, to inform, to
entertain, and to regulate. Not
least among these is the regulatory function of the media.
The practice of this function, called watchdog journalism, is a style of
writing or broadcast aimed at identifying a current societal problem, either
hidden or overt, and offering opinion on necessary action.
This style is intended to incite the readers into taking direct steps to
change the agents or factors controlling the situation or issue.
Yet, sometimes overlooked in application of watchdog journalism is the
“institution” of the media itself. Explicitly
stated, watchdog journalism has had in the past, and continues in modern times
to have a positive influence on the lives of civilians throughout the world.
Inevitably, however, the regulator needs to be regulated.
The regulatory function of the media, or watchdog journalism, as defined
previously, came about in an effort to improve the lives of individuals living
under what the author considers at the time oppressive or inadequate conditions.
When the press was started in the Colonies, papers were tied financially
to the government because they relied on it for subsidies and printing jobs.
For this reason, political commentary voicing discontent with the
government’s, at this time England, actions was virtually absent from the
press. Even as dependence on the
government moderated, editors were reluctant to take a stance opposite the
government ,or antiestablishment in any way, for fear that their businesses
would be terminated by force. Still
some editors risked their businesses in order that their opinion might be freely
expressed. However, the earliest
piece of watchdog press concerned health rather than politics.
Writing in the public interest started as early as 1721 with the New
England Courant, a newspaper written by the older brother of Benjamin
Franklin, James Franklin. It was
different from other newspapers of the period because it was not published “by
authority of the government” and therefore was not tied down as to what facts
and opinions, political or otherwise, it could present.
The Courant was the first
newspaper in the colonies to crusade on a public issue.
During an outbreak of smallpox in Boston, it argued strongly against the
newly invented medical procedure of inoculation.
Although its position turned out to be incorrect from a medical
standpoint, using the newspaper to speak out against a situation seen as harmful
to the public began an important tradition that would come to characterize
American newspapers. Increasingly, newspapers would become “watchdogs of the
public interest”, a role they continue to play vigorously. (DeFleur, 78)
This is merely one example among the thousands of articles written on
behalf of the public throughout the years.
The authors of these works believed that there was something they could
do about what they saw as a flaw in the society in which they lived.
Though many, like James Franklin’s, turned out in the long run to have
little or no effect, this did not deter them from voicing their opinions.
Just where would we be without the efforts of watchdog journalists?
Let us take a look at the muckrakers of the American past and see what
impact their contributions have on our lives today.
The muckrakers were a group of early 20th century American journalists
who wrote detailed, factual accounts of the political, moral and economic
corruption caused by the power of big business in the United States.
“This journalism was hard-hitting in tone, often well-rooted in fact,
and at times brutal in its exposure of venality and corruption.”
(Fitzpatrick, 1) It dealt
with critical social, economic and political situations in Progressive-Era
America, the “tumultuous age of industrial expansion” that spanned the years
from roughly 1880 to 1920. Given
their lofty title by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, most muckrakers
sought to increase the power of individuals and to make business and government
more responsive. Muckrakers
revealed that beneath the processes of the seemingly positive new technology
were hidden horrors almost beyond description.
“There were un-sensed chemicals victimizing living things; machines all
but crucifying their operators; trains mangling humans or dispatching them to
oblivion; and industrial and chemical pollutants choking communities.”
Historically, American muckrakers exposed what they considered
to be the hidden actualities of a problematic situation or set of circumstances.
Second, they identified the agent or agents in control or capable of
significantly affecting the situation or circumstances.
Third, they depicted in a prescriptive manner.
Fourth, they pressed for obligatory or preferred actions towards and/or
ways of thinking about the exposed results of the situation.
Fifth, they avoided dedicating their accounts exclusively to any single
social or political cause, institution or remedy.
Finally, they attempted to create or maintain audience outrage ,agreement
or fear about whether and how the actual and/or wanted circumstances conformed
to their own implied or stated norms and beliefs.
Although isolated articles in a few magazines were published in the late
1800s, muckraking did not emerge as a movement until the 1900s, when a
revolution in printing technology made it possible to produce inexpensive and
extensively illustrated popular magazines.
Several of these magazines, such as McClure’s
and Cosmopolitan published many
articles in the form of exposes concerning societal ills.
Early muckrakers detailed how state, local, and federal governments were
ineffective in overseeing and regulating product quality and new technology that
provided unsafe conditions for the workers. Progressive Era muckrakers looked to local legislatures and
Congress to correct these wrongs by passing new legal doctrines and new and
better-enforced health and safety laws.
The muckrakers treated a wide spectrum of abuses.
Well known muckrakers include Ida M. Tarbell, who wrote about the
Standard Oil Company, Lincoln Steffens, who wrote on city and state politics,
Ray Stannard Baker, who dealt with racial discrimination, and the novelist Upton
Sinclair, whose book condemned the meat-packing industry.
Others included Thomas W. Lawson (insurance and stock manipulation),
David Graham Phillips (senatorial corruption), and Samuel Hopkins (patent
medicines). The muckrakers believed
that they were doing something important for American society, and they were.
They exerted their influence in election campaigns and played a major
role in raising public support for the passage of the federal Pure Food and Drug
Act, Meat Inspection Act, and Hepburn (railroad regulation) Act (all 1906).
Most importantly, by combining moral indignation and fact, they helped to
prepare the American public for further social reform by making them aware and
calling them to action to improve on their present state of affairs.
The year 1912 is generally regarded as the end of the muckrake era.
Muckraking, however, continued on in some form since that time and, in
fact, exists in today’s media forum. Modern
muckraking, or “new muckraking” as it is sometimes called, started in
earnest after World War II. At this
time, mass media in the form of radio and television in addition to the
established venue of print media brought back investigative reporting into the
main stream. These commentaries
focused on issues such as the plight of migratory workers, the abuse of
publicity by the Pentagon to influence public opinion, The Richard Nixon
“Whitewater” affair, consumer problems, and environmental issues.
Muckrakers in the 1960s and 1970s stressed business responsibility for
emerging health and environmental hazards from industrial and commercial
biological and chemical products.
One of the products formed in this era of new muckraking was a
public interest group called Nader’s Raiders, established by Ralph Nader.
This group initiated several reforms including safety standards in the
automobile industry and the technologies involved in intrastate meat processing.
On the latter, Nader wrote an article titles “We’re Still in the
Jungle” referring to Upton Sinclair’s novel on the meat packing industry
earlier in the century, and emphasizing the industry’s overly profit-hungry
nature and willingness to sacrifice quality for this cause.
Other new muckrakers included Morton Mintz, who detailed how profit
hungry pharmaceutical companies put out their new products on the market before
completing extensive research to make sure the products were safe, and Rachel
Scott, who deeply rooted her Muscle and
Blood in the muckraking tradition. She
began with a quote about working conditions from Upton Sinclair’s The
Jungle. Her depictions of
modern workplace diseases and injuries went along with the same themes and
arguments presented in the Progressive Era muckraking of William Hard in
“Making Steel and Killing Men” and of Edwin Markham in Children
in Bondage. Scott ended her
article with a quote from Markham’s book:
“To what purpose, then is our ‘age of invention’?
Why these machines at all. if they do not help to lift care form the soul
and burden from the back?” Thus,
not only the physical peril and hardship that workers experience is addressed,
but also the wear and tear such working conditions can have on the psyche of an
individual. This hardship wore not
only on the individual. Because the
individual is a member of society in the broad sense and more specifically
identified with cultural subgroups, the entire community, to some extent feels
the effects of injustices afflicting the individual. Muckrakers attempted to point out who was truly responsible
for these injustices and who had the power to remedy the situation by whatever
means the particular injustice required.
Today television documentaries carry on the majority of the mass media
muckraking load from the broadcast angle. Since
the 1960s there have been several attention-grabbing documentaries presented
including “The Selling of the Pentagon”, a controversial examination done by
CBS of Defense Department public relations efforts.
“What Price Health” was a special on NBC investigating the costs and
shortcomings of the American medical system. To
name another, “Hunger in America” was a CBS inquiry into poverty and
malnutrition in the United States. Magazines
and newspapers also continue to publish exposes on matters of public interest.
Although articles in the printed media may not attract as much attention
as television specials such as 60 Minutes or 20/20 because of the limit inherent
in the medium itself, muckraking articles can be found in almost every
publication of national magazines and newspapers in some form and continue to
provide the largest volume of investigative reporting of any source.
Investigative journalism, however, is not isolated only to the United
States. During the Industrial
revolution in Europe, many of the same atrocities occurred which plagued
domestic society. Irresponsible
action on the part of industry likewise provoked public outcry in nations such
as England in the late 1800s. This negative attention causing public unrest eventually lead
to the reform and regulation of European industry. In South Korea, journalists all but brought as end to that
country’s previously authoritarian form of government.
In Tanzania, a press exists today which resembles the beginning stages of
the American press. Although legally no longer under the control of the
government, the content of printed material is still greatly influenced by the
political figures in control of the country.
Even so, the press has made some attempt to publish information
concerning the state of the country, its problems (many political in nature) ,
and to offer solutions to its readers. Unfortunately,
both at the collection and at the dissemination ends of the journalistic
process, completeness is hindered by the great difference in status between the
different “castes” of citizens, both readers and reporters.
The concerns of the poor ,rural citizens covered by the less educated
journalists, therefore, often go unpublished, while the elite urbanites, covered
by the reporters with more journalistic schooling, receive the vast majority of
media attention. This, of course,
is decidedly unsatisfactory to the over 80% of the population who live in
poverty in the country, but at the same time who can do very little to improve
their condition. Thus, the press in
Tanzania has far to go before it can be said to be representative of the public
This is but one among the many criticisms that individuals in our society
have of the American media. The
American public believes that the press often acts irresponsibly.
Many have become very much disenchanted with a press they perceive to be
“arrogant, biased, dishonest, unfair, inaccurate, shallow, sensational, and
abusive of people’s right to privacy or fair trial.”
(Kaggwa, 19) More
specifically, the press has been accused of political prejudice, letting the
political views of the management and reporters influence what is reported and
in which light it is portrayed. Also,
the press has been criticized for the way it responds to acts of terrorism by
giving the miscreants the media attention that they want, thus proving that
terrorist violence is a productive means of achieving goals.
Some say that media control is becoming to centralized to allow for the
dissemination of a broad enough spectrum of messages to ensure freedom of
speech. Media has been accused of
gross insensitivity in times of personal trauma.
Many are upset that they must pay more and more for programming that was
once either free or much more affordable. Critics,
ironically, also accuse and disapprove of the press being a negative vibe
merchant, focusing only on what is wrong with everything.
Thus, the dual nature of the media, its responsibility to inform and its
existence as a business in a free enterprise system, is brought into question
The current public is concerned not so much with the freedom of the
freedom of the press but with accuracy, honesty and fairness in reporting and
broadcast. These criteria are not
being met in the opinions of most Americans.
However, journalists are often unwilling to live up to the moral
expectations of the public. Therefore, the need is evident, some say, for some sort of
regulation of the media. One area
in the media that has been concentrated on, as far as legal action is concerned,
is the requirement that journalists reveal their sources upon demand in a court
case. Prior to 1972, reporters had
been protected by shield laws that allowed them to keep their sources
confidential. Shield laws have been
defended vigorously by the media, comparing the reporter- source relationship to
that between a doctor and his patient. They
make the point that if individuals who supplied information to the media, often
at considerable risk to themselves, were subjected to public identification, the
“wellsprings of critical journalism would quickly run dry.”
In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Branzburg v. Hayes, held that a
criminal defendants right to a fair trial required a reporter to disclose his
sources “when subpoenaed by a grand jury acting in good faith, at least when
the information was relevant and unavailable in another way.”
At first this decision resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of
defamation suits brought against members of the media, with some success.
However, the “professional solidarity” of modern journalists has made
it easier for them to act jointly in defending their freedom from attempted
government interference through legislation and enforcement regulation.
In fact, “Such professional solidarity among reporters, whether in
formal associations or informal networks, has been an important weapon in
resisting state interference in places as different as West Germany.”
(Osiel, 175) To further
offset this Court decision as a precedent setter, twenty six states have since
passed modified versions of previously existing shield laws in the interest of
greater press protection.
Regulation of the broadcast media has existed almost from its inception .
This was necessitated, however, in order to keep the industry afloat and
functioning properly and was not meant to restrict or inhibit its development.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), until recently, dealt
primarily with allocating broadcast frequencies rather than with regulating
program content. Even now
regulations are vague as definitions of what is proper vary immensely depending
on the audience and other factors. “The
renewal of federal licenses [through the FCC] has required conformity to such
regulations as the ‘fairness doctrine’ and the right of offended parties to
reply.” (Osiel, 166) Thus, in the end, it is the standards, morals, and values of
the community that define what is acceptable and what is a matter of concern
that calls for regulatory action.
As an example of the problems with the press and what is currently being
done, actively or passively, to remedy them, we look to the newly liberated
South Korean press. Since the fall
of the authoritarian rule in that country in mid-1987, the news industry has
flourished, commercially. The
number of new publications and broadcast media has dramatically increased.
Competition for talent and enhanced worker’s rights have given
journalists better pay and more say in management. All is not as it seems on the surface, though.
“After decades of anti-authoritarian struggle, newsmen suddenly find
themselves recognized as members of the establishment.”
(Hoon, 24) These journalists
have acted the part, involved in corruption and scandal sometimes reported on
internationally. As in the early
stages of the American press, journalist often shuttle between their media
employment and political careers with “unseemly ease” and journalists often
accept cash bribes from government officials in exchange for a favorable
write-up. This practice is
reportedly commonplace among political parties and governmental posts which
“have yet to disband their notoriously cozy ‘press clubs’” (Hoon, 25)
despite critical pressures applied from within the press itself and from the
public. A journalism professor at Sogang University, Yu Jae Chon, describes the
problem, “Now freed from direct, heavy-handed government intervention,
journalists have yet to work out how to use their new-found freedoms for
constructive social goals.” Thus,
the question arises: while the
press regulates the government, who regulates the press?
Since the government no longer has the power to license or do anything
that could be perceived as an attempt at regulation, internal regulation in the
form of self-censorship, both in action and in print, must replace the official
censorship that the journalists fought to lift. Attempts have been made by news organizations following
international exposure of press corruption to curb the bribery and unethical
press-political interaction, but success has been limited.
Newspapers published by church affiliates provide a stabilizing influence
in the media by spreading their right-wing ideology.
Their anti-Communist and pro- free market economics messages regulate
radicalism in the press. Economics
also lends a hand in regulation. Following
the end of authoritarian rule in South Korea the page limit was abolished, so
there was room to publish information on a much wider range of topics.
This is a good thing. However,
supporting a newspaper requires an immense amount of money.
Those which do not satisfy the public’s moral, political, and economic
needs will be forced out of the market. The
need for more concrete regulation in South Korea certainly exists. However, the means of regulation are not presently available.
Thus, the South Korean press will have to undergo much the same maturing
process that the American press went through in its colonial past and continues
to go through today.
So what are the solutions to the problems of the American press today?
Obviously, a resolution to every gripe, every accusation that has been
leveled against the media as an institution is not possible since it is not
possible to please everyone at once. At
the same time, it is clear that something must be done.
Otherwise, the public may take matters in to it’s own hands and assert
its right to redress by petitioning the government to intercede in the press,
possibly by returning to a strict interpretation and enforcement of antitrust
laws and breaking up the increasingly concentrated media ownership.
This is but one possible application, however, and it would take months
to come up with a suggestion for every grievance listed.
Therefore, an adherence by the members of the press to a situational code
of ethics, such as the one laid out by the society of professional journalists,
is a good start. To make sure that
journalists followed this code, an intra-media organization is needed, such as
the now defunct National News Council. This
body would also serve a public relations function, settling conflicts that arose
between a member of the press and the public.
This scenario would, hopefully, start a trend toward a media that, even
if not perfect, would fulfill its function adequately while conducting itself in
an ethical manner.
In conclusion, the media is an institution quite necessary to the
continued success of the democratic process and our nation as a whole.
Realizing its great responsibility, it continually strives to adequately
exercise its expected function to the best of its ability.
Its role in the regulation of government and industry, and of society in
general, is one without which this country would surely fall into ruin.
Thomas Jefferson once said that he would rather have newspapers without
government than government without newspapers, underscoring the importance of
the media in our society. Theodore
Roosevelt said, “Men with muck rakes are often indispensable to the well-being
of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck.”
This is where the media has faltered.
By acting in an unethical manner, the media has lost the faith of much of
the public. If the public is to
restore its trust in the media, journalists must be willing to submit themselves
to an impartial review, just as the public would expect of professionals in
other fields. Clearly defined rules
and procedures to be enforced by the watchdog’s watchdog are essential if the
public is to revive its perception of the press as an institution typifying
impartiality and fairness.