(From Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)


Journalism, the collection and periodical dissemination of current news and events, or, more strictly, the business of managing, editing, or writing for journals or newspapers. The usage of the term has broadened to include news reporting and commentaries on radio and television, and, to a lesser extent, motion pictures. Despite the increasing importance of these new fields, the daily newspaper, which uniquely combines the virtues of up-to-dateness with the relative permanency of the printed page, is still the basic news medium. Most journalists in radio and television have received their training in newspaper work, and they have adapted the methods and principles of traditional journalism to the requirements of the newer media.

There are no hard and fast rules separating journalism from other communications activities. In general, newspapers emphasize current news while magazines deal more with background materials. However, in addition to editorials, newspapers offer columnists, whose essays range far and wide in subject matter and approach. Newspapers, too, usually have special features intended to entertain more than to inform. Similarly, magazines may be partially, or even entirely, devoted to news. In radio and television it is frequently impossible to draw the line between news and entertainment programs. Motion pictures overlap with the field of journalism through documentary films.

Newspapers traditionally have not only reported the news but have carried on their own investigations. Thus, in a sense, they have made their own news, whether done in a responsible fashion or otherwise. This is also a significant factor in radio and television broadcasting. Moreover, newspapers have often been campaigners for a cause that they have considered just. It is frequently difficult to determine at what point objective reporting leaves off and crusading begins. Nevertheless, one point to note is the effort to achieve reliable reporting without abandonment of the right to conduct campaigns in what is regarded as the public interest.

Early History. Journalism in the modern sense is one of the younger professions. The first prototype of the modern newspaper was the series of public announcements, known during the Roman Empire as Acta Diurna and later in Venice as the Gazzetta. Similar official reports were made in China, where the earliest newspaper, the Tching-pao, or News of the Palace, began its daily appearance in Peking in the middle of the 8th century A.D. Until the invention of printing, however, the dissemination of news was largely dependent upon private correspondence or word of mouth. The invention of printing from movable type by Johann Gutenberg in Mainz about 1450 revolutionized the spreading of news. According to one tradition, the first printed newssheet appeared at Nuremberg in 1457. The letter of Christopher Columbus announcing in 1493 the results of his first expedition to the New World was distributed as a news broadside, as was the announcement of the British triumph over the Spanish Armada in July 1588. Some 800 of these occasional news sheets, all printed before 1610, are extant in libraries. This kind of publishing became a profitable business, and as a result the reporting of news spread rapidly throughout Europe.

In England, for some generations during the reign (1558–1603) of Queen Elizabeth I, the newswriter was generally a kind of retainer in the service of the great nobles, who were supplied with the special type of intelligence they required. But with the spread of learning came a heavy demand for a regular and accurate supply of news. Organizations arose for the interchange of letters between London and the provinces, and news stories were disseminated in a manner similar to modern syndication. At the time of the Restoration of the Stuarts (1660) there were more than 20 English newspapers in the form of gazettes, courants, and newsbooks. In the meantime the periodical publication of the news of the day began on the Continent.

Mercurius gallobelgicus (1594) was perhaps the earliest magazine, and the first issue was published in Cologne. Booksellers' lists with comments were frequently circulated, and they led to the development of literary journals. There were many other, more or less experimental periodicals during the 17th century in Europe, where, in general, French influence was strong.

In the early 18th century, journalism was more a business or an adjunct of politics than a recognized profession. Comment as an accompaniment of the news, especially the political news, began at this time, but some writers had much in common with modern muckrakers or gossip columnists. Along with these gifted literary wits were many printers and hacks who also used newspapers and periodicals as mouthpieces for their personal views.

Freedom of the Press. Closely associated with the rise of early journalism was a long and eventually successful battle for freedom of the press. In June 1643 the English Parliament reestablished censorship of the press, and English journalists found their profession a rough one. Some editors spent almost as much time in jail as in the printing office. In 1655, Oliver Cromwell announced that "no persons whatever do presume to print any matter of public news or intelligence without leave of the Secretary of State." For three decades after the Restoration a stringent licensing act handicapped journalists in England. In 1712, probably as a countermeasure to the venomous tone of the press, a stamp duty was imposed on newspapers. Parliament rigidly opposed any reporting of its proceedings or reference to any of its members and promptly jailed any journalists who stepped out of line.

American colonial journalists fared no better. The first American newspaper, Publick Occurrences, Both Forreign and Domestick, published by Benjamin Harris on Sept. 25, 1690, was suppressed four days later because it reported that English armed forces had allied themselves with "miserable savages." In 1721, James Franklin founded the New England Courant in Boston but was quickly jailed for attacking the colonial government. James Franklin delegated his half-brother Benjamin, then 16 years old, to carry on the enterprise in his name.

The cause of journalistic freedom in colonial America was best served by a German immigrant, John Peter Zenger, whose The New-York Weekly Journal, from its first issue in 1733, revealed an independent and truculent spirit. In April 1735, Zenger was brought to trial for criminal libel for criticizing the colonial governor. His counsel was successful in his demand for a jury trial, which took the issue from hostile court to friendly jury. Zenger's acquittal was the first great victory for freedom of the American press, and it led the way to many later jury verdicts.

After the organization of the federal government, during the administration of John Adams the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed in 1798, placing restrictions on the public press. Ten persons were tried and convicted under the acts, but fierce opposition to these prosecutions did much to overthrow Adams' Federalist Party. The American tradition was, and remained, opposed to any such muzzling of a free press.

Similar liberating influences may be noted in England and on the Continent. The right to report Parliamentary proceedings was established in England in 1771. The stamp tax of 1712 was gradually abolished, since the authorities found themselves unable to cope with the enormous multiplication of prosecutions or the appearance of hundreds of unstamped newspapers with their fiercely revolutionary tone. On the Continent the liberating effects of the French Revolution extended also to the field of journalism.

Modern Journalism. By 1776 there were more than 50 newspapers published in London, nearly 40 in the United States, and a growing number in Continental countries. The rise of the penny press in London, New York, and elsewhere was a response to a continuing demand by the public. Among other factors leading to mass circulation were the enormous reduction in the cost of wood pulp, introduction of machinery for typesetting, improvements in printing, and great reductions in the cost of obtaining news.

The widening process was in part a reaction to a profound change that took place in the nature of journalism itself—the divorce of the press from political party opinion around the first quarter of the 19th century. Until this time the press was generally regarded as an extension of politics, and journalists were regarded as supporters of governmental opinion. The union of politics and journalism broke down when it became obvious that great rewards awaited those entrepreneurs who could sell fresh and comprehensive intelligence without slavish regard for political platforms.

A distinguishing feature of 19th century journalism was the emergence of a series of great editorial molders of public opinion, men whose influence often matched or surpassed that of leading political figures. In England there were John Thaddeus Delane, Edward Levy Lawson (Baron Burnham), Peter Borthwick, and Edward Sterling; in the United States, James Gordon Bennett and his son James Gordon Bennett, Jr., Horace Greeley, William Cullen Bryant, Charles A. Dana, and Henry J. Raymond; and in France, Lucien Anatole Prevost-Paradol. These great editors succeeded in lifting a profession once held in ill repute to a new level of dignity and independence.

The constantly growing demand for news rather than opinion led eventually to the disappearance of individualistic leadership in journalism. The profession now became also a branch of finance. Journalism took on all the characteristics of big business—impersonality, departmentalization, standardization. Companies took over ownership and control of groups of newspapers in giant amalgamations. In the process luxury and fringe publications fell by the wayside, but the total circulation of newspapers, though fewer in number, became greater and greater.

The progress of production techniques was facilitated by the formation of worldwide news agencies founded to serve the increased reading public. In 1849, Paul Julius Reuter started the foreign news agency that still bears his name. The Associated Press was established in 1848, the United Press in 1907, and the International News Service in 1909.

In the 1980s there were some 1,800 daily newspapers in the United States, with a total circulation of approximately 65 million. There were also about 7,500 nondailies. In addition, thousands of periodicals were published annually. The largest news magazine was Time, with a single-issue circulation of about 4.5 million.

Standards. There were two distinct trends in the new journalism. On the one hand there were the elevated standards of such organs as The Times of London, The New York Times, and the Frankfurter Zeitung. On the other hand, the possible great rewards and the consequent competition for circulation led to the sensationalism of the so-called "yellow press" and tabloid newspapers. This feverish form of journalism was conducted with little sense of responsibility or verification. It used lavish "scareheads," dramatic photographs, and questionable methods and pandered to the lowest tastes by emphasizing scandals and murder. To some extent this type of journalism was a vestigial remainder from the early days, when journalism accented brutality and vulgarity and maintained a disgraceful relationship with bribery and blackmail. The struggle to maintain dignity and independence in journalism has continued despite the low standards of much of the world's journalism.

Radio and Television. Radio station KDKA of Pittsburgh inaugurated the broadcasting of news programs in 1920 by transmitting the election returns that carried Warren G. Harding to the presidency of the United States. Radio could provide direct reporting while an event was in progress. This gave the listener a sense of being present at the making of history. In World War II the radio coverage of the landing on the coast of Normandy on June 6, 1944, is a spectacular and significant example of this type of broadcasting. The direct appeal of Gen. Charles de Gaulle, broadcast from England on June 18, 1940, calling upon the people of France to resist the Nazis is an example of the power of this medium to overcome national frontiers and military barriers. The broadcast itself was just as much a part of the event as the content of the message.

Television also has its "live" broadcasts, and they sometimes have the same dual effect of both reporting the news and shaping the course of events. The television coverage of the Republican National Convention of 1952 is frequently credited as playing an important role in the selection of Dwight D. Eisenhower as the presidential nominee over Robert A. Taft. Other notable broadcasts that have shaped events include the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, the Nixon-Khrushchev Moscow "kitchen debate" of 1959, the four Nixon-Kennedy debates of the 1960 presidential campaign, the intimate battlefield coverage of the Vietnam War, and the Senate Watergate hearings beginning in May 1973. Programs using interview, panel, or magazine format have often deliberately attempted to elicit newsworthy responses from interviewees, many of whom have themselves demonstrated skill in taking advantage of such air time.

News is also conveyed by broadcasts in which an announcer reads bulletins with little or no comment. There are also radio and television commentators who correspond to columnists on a newspaper—which they sometimes are—and offer their own interpretation of the news. With the success of certain television news shows, network news coverage was expanded. In the mid-1960s, when evening news programs grew to 30 minutes, it was estimated that the content of a typical broadcast would not fill one newspaper page. But by the early 1980s the encroachment of headline-news services and 24-hour news and weather programming on cable television encouraged considerable expansion of network television news.

There has been considerable discussion as to the proper limits of television reporting. The problem is much greater than with radio, probably because television, being more dramatic, can attract significantly larger audiences, making new types of programs practicable. Some people believe that television ought to be brought right into the halls of Congress itself, or into the courtroom when there is considerable public interest in a case. This is justified as an extension of the principle of freedom of the press, and it is claimed that any denial of this right to report all news (except in obvious cases of military security) is a denial of the right of the people to be informed. Others, however, disagree. They believe that legislative and judicial processes are necessarily complex, and that a public insufficiently aware of these complexities will be more confused than informed. It is also believed that individuals would be exposed to unfair publicity. Perhaps most significantly, many people are convinced that the public, accustomed to turning to television for entertainment, might thus reward the sensational rather than the effective and useful public figure.

Broadcasting, both radio and television, has also been very much concerned with avoiding partisanship. The practice of affording "equal time" to various sides of controversial questions has arisen in the United States. However, there is frequently disagreement as to whether a presentation is partisan, and there are sometimes so many different sides to a question that it seems quite impracticable to give them all free time. Certain stations have attempted to meet this problem by not giving any free time, but selling time to any purchaser. Critics have replied that this system discriminates against the less affluent. It seems clear that further experience and much thought are necessary before these problems are finally solved.

Stations are under pressure to avoid controversial programs. Commercial sponsors who are seeking the widest possible public acceptance are not always willing to risk alienating a sector of that public. Despite many setbacks it must be noted, however, that discussion of controversial topics continues, and considerable programming is devoted especially to controversy.

These problems are found in a more advanced form in the United States, which has far more radio and television sets than any other country. By the 1980s nearly all the households had both television receivers and radios. There were about 4,500 AM and AM/FM radio stations, 3,000 FM stations, 730 commercial television stations, and 275 public television stations. In the United States informational evening network news programs were viewed by 2.5 million households. Morning network news-interview-magazine shows were seen by 8.2 million households.

In many countries television sets are located in public places where many people might have the use of one set. Radio, of course, is far more widespread throughout the world than television.

Regulation. There is some variation in different countries on the legal relations of the press to the public. In England the editor is solely responsible for everything that goes into his newspaper, even including advertisements. Libel laws are strict in England, and there have been many instances of editors going to jail. In the United States there is a more liberal character in libel legislation as it affects the press. Efforts to force reporters to reveal the source of their information have generally failed. The trend for newspapers in the United States has been toward reasonable liberality with fair accountability in reporting the news. The theory is to avoid permitting punitive damages to hamper the free expression of opinion.

In broadcasting, where there is less precedent, the picture is more confused. Most countries recognize that the public has a stake in the airways. Consequently whether stations are private and commercial, state controlled, or a combination of the two, they are always subject to regulation in the public interest. The particular type of regulation reflects the general nature of the political system. In totalitarian countries all legal forms of journalism are essentially instruments of the state.

The Profession of Journalism. News editors and reporters are the most familiar kinds of journalists. Editors may direct editorial operations or they may be responsible for specific news departments. They may be responsible for reporters' assignments, or they may work on the copy produced by them. There is much specialization among reporters, who may be expert in politics, science, economics and business, foreign affairs, literature, theater, motion pictures, sports, fashion, or other fields. Newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters also employ writers, commentators, and photographers, as well as layout, design, and graphic artists. They also need people trained in advertising, promotion, and business management.

Since the turn of the century there has been a debate on the method of training professional journalists. One view holds that the most satisfactory school of journalism is the newspaper office, since the techniques can be acquired best through actual experience. Another view believes that the journalist is prepared best for his profession by a special course of study at a school of journalism. Academic training for journalism has been most highly developed in the United States. The first school of journalism equal in rank with other schools of the university was founded at the University of Missouri in 1908 by Walter Williams. In 1903, Joseph Pulitzer agreed to give $2 million to Columbia University for the foundation, in 1912, of a school of journalism. A similar trend of professional education in journalism appeared in Germany, England, Italy, Australia, and many other countries. Many schools of journalism today offer training in the special techniques of radio and television.

In addition to a foundation in the liberal arts and perhaps a specialty, such as a science, a student interested in a career in journalism should select courses in techniques and practices. Some of the courses offered on U.S. campuses include: news writing, reporting, television and radio news, photojournalism, news editing, reporting public affairs, editorial writing, newspaper editorial management, history of journalism, press rights and responsibilities, magazine editing and publishing, structure of the mass media, government and mass communication, and international press practices and concepts.

Contemporary journalism is recognized as an ethical and dignified profession still plagued by faults. With highly developed agencies of instant communication, it has had a powerful influence on public opinion.

Louis L. Snyder
City College, New York


Baldasty, Gerald, The Nineteenth-Century Origins of Modern American Journalism (Am. Antiquarian Soc. 1991).

Emery, Edwin, and Michael Emery, The Press and America: An Interpretive History of the Mass Media, 5th ed. (Prentice-Hall 1984).

Hynds, Ernest C., American Newspapers in the 1980s (Hastings House 1980).

Pickett, Calder M., Voices of the Past: Key Documents in the History of American Journalism (Wiley 1986).

Protess, David, The Journalism of Outrage: Investigative Reporting and Agenda Building in American Society (Guilford Press 1991).

Rubin, Bernard, When Information Counts: Grading the Media (Free Press 1985).

Smith, Anthony, Goodbye Gutenberg: The Newspaper Revolution of the 1980s (Oxford 1980).

Taft, William H., The Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century Journalists (Garland 1986).

Weaver, David H., and G. Cleveland Wilhoit, The American Journalist: A Portrait of U.S. News People and Their Work (Ind. Univ. Press 1986).