The Evolution & Impact of Journalistic Ideals in the United States

Artwork by Luke DiMaggio ’24

Anthony Scarmozzino ’24

Over the past few years the press has grown in importance, and the general population has taken notice. The press plays a vital role in nearly all aspects of modern society.

From election coverage to morning talk shows, the question of how the press should function, and what the press should accomplish, is being raised.

Throughout American history, the press has functioned in a variety of ways. In the early years of the American press, the primary focus was on spreading information in regards to the Revolution and disseminating new political thought spurred by the Enlightenment.

It is no mistake that Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s most influential Founding Fathers, was a printer. Later on, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison’s The Federalist Papers dispersed information that was influential in establishing a new country.

During this time period, the press acted primarily as a source of change and enlightenment. It would inform the reader while also encouraging them to take action. In the context of the American Revolution, this action was to break free from Britain.

This philosophy continued later into the 19th century. As the issue of slavery lay heavily on the minds of many Americans, the press encouraged

Northerners to take action against its horrors. Most notably, the printing of The Liberator advocated for the end of slavery. In the early 20th century, meanwhile, the muckrakers continued this tradition as they fought for better working conditions in America.

These examples show that, as a general trend, the American press was primarily advocacy-based. There are innumerable reasons for why this trend developed, but lack of education and widespread, impactful social issues can explain why the press was focused on inspiring change.

It was not until the 1920s that objectivity became a common journalistic ideal. After a wave of monopolization, many newspapers closed down—which meant that each city had fewer papers circulating. Those that remained quickly realized that they had to appeal to a larger audience. If they continued on their track of advocative partisanship, the newspapers risked alienating large segments of their audiences. As a result, the idea of objectivity and neutrality started to take a foothold in American society.

In the mid-20th century, journalists started to become stenographers who regurgitated information without any context or analysis. This lack of context was absolutely disastrous for the American public. When information was disseminated from those in power without question, harmful ideologies were able to make their way into the public sphere.

In response to the rise of communism, for example, Senator Joseph McCarthy used sensationalism and unsubstantiated attacks to discredit political rivals,  putting the question of validity in the hands of the reader. Many journalists decided that the only way to combat this sensationalism was to include analysis in the reports, instead of solely relying on “the facts.”

This shift formed the basis of our present definition of objectivity. This idea of journalism, however, has started to be challenged in recent years. In opposition to objectivity, advocacy has begun to rise again as the leading form of journalism. In the modern world, the advocative press has begun to function as a response to injustices that exist within society. The combination of facts, personal stories, and other perspectives has served as an effective method to encourage change.

This shift is seen throughout contemporary media. The rise of the Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate movements have focused primarily on highlighting the struggles of specific communities in the greater context of society. Tucker Carlson Tonight, an evening commentary show on Fox News, also shows the prevalence of opinion pieces in media; in fact, Carlson is the most-watched evening show on television. While in the mid-twentieth century Americans yearned for impartiality, there has been a recent revival in commentary on partisanship within the media.

As the political landscape of America keeps changing, the role of the press will constantly change as well. In periods of social turmoil, advocacy media usually takes on a prominent role. However, the need for impartiality also exists in order for the public to formulate their own opinions. As the press continues even deeper into the digital age, we must also recognize its influence on society and the impact that the press has on all aspects of life.