Even a brief look at the front page of a newspaper reveals many differences between the newspapers of today and those times of yore. While some of these differences indicate issues that demonstrate many of the problems that exist with today’s media, they also reveal how the journalism of that very time was under close examination. The 1920s were a period in which many journalists attempted to create a more objective journalism, and make a clear break away from the “yellow journalism” or more fictitious writing of the past. For the first time, critics tried to legitimize journalism by creating a clear set of guidelines that would lead to more fair and balanced writing. Looking at the articles that are on this website, one sees how this is evident. There are news stories that read simply as stories, and articles that could be found in a paper such as the New York Times today. After the period of sensationalist writing that exemplified the newspapers of the 1920s, critics created almost scientific guidelines for journalists to try to move all news coverage to objective journalism.

In a media so obsessed with the names and identities of their journalists, the newspapers of the 1920s reveal something that our generation takes for granted: the byline. Journalists were not given credit for the articles they written; it was a paper’s articles, and the paper as a whole was responsible for it. Furthermore, the aesthetics of the paper also are a bit unsettling to today’s reader. Not only is the front page jammed full of stories, but the vast, vast majority of these stories are on the same page. There is no turning to inside pages in order to continue reading an article—a trick which forces readers to peruse the entirety of the paper.

However, problems with the journalism of the 1920s are much deeper than simple visual differences. The early twentieth century, specifically pre-World War I times, showed the advent of the publicity man or the press agent. Walter Lippmann warns in his 1922 article, “The Nature of the News,” about how if “reporting the simple recovery of obvious facts, the press agent would be little more than a clerk. But since, in respect to most of the big topics of news, the facts are not simple, and not at all obvious, but subject to choice and opinion, it is natural that everyone should wish to make his own choice of facts for the newspapers to print. The publicity man does that…he is censor and propagandist” (Lippmann 51). The lack of direct channels to the news means that information is first filtered through publicity agents, who can spin the news for their own agenda. It is due to this that “the issues are rarely in the headlines, barely in the leading paragraphs, and sometimes not even mentioned anywhere.” (Lippmann 53)

Part of this problem came from the growing economic pressure being put on newspapers to increase profits. The economic necessity to interest readers quickly, and the dangers of not interesting him at all, forced editors to try to find a universal way of inducing readers into feelings of personal identification with the different stories they read. (Lippmann 53-5) The most effective way most dealt with this was by lulling the readers into finding “a familiar foothold in the story, and this is supplied to him by the use of stereotypes. They tell him that if an association of plumbers is called a “combine” it is appropriate to develop his hostility; if it is called a “group of leading business men” the cue is for a favorable reaction” (Lippmann 55). In Lippmann’s classic work 1922 work, Public Opinion, he identifies this trend and defines these stereotypes as oversimplified patters that help us find meaning in the world. (Boorstin 94) He gives examples of these “crude ‘stereotypes we carry about in our heads,’ of large and varied classes of people like ‘Germans,’ ‘South Europeans,’ ‘Negroes,’ ‘Harvard men,’ ‘agitators,’ etc. The stereotype, Lippmann explained, satisfies our needs and helps us defend our prejudices by seeming to give definiteness and consistency to our turbulent and disorderly daily experience” (Boorstin 94). Such use of stereotypes is closer to propaganda than news; and, by simplifying life, narrow and limit experiences.

The search for increasing profits and garnering a greater reader base also led to an increased amount of space given over to human-interest stories. As Helen MacGill Hughes explains in her 1940 essay “From Politics to Human Interest,” newspapers came into the twentieth-century and emerged as a new form. While the story of the formatting of newspapers was “originally the publishing of practical, important news,” (Hughes 57) it later evolved into the inclusion of “the sale of interesting gossip” (Hughes 57). It was in this, “the long process of discovering and exploiting human interest” (Hughes 57) that the press first became rich and powerful.

However, one of the major dangers that comes with this sort of journalism is the increased likelihood of slipping into a fictitious type of writing. By reporting the news that was told to them by a press agent, or by using stereotypes, or by exaggerating stories or relaying gossip, journalists moved newspapers into “entertainment, propaganda, fiction, or art. Entertainment—and its cousin “infortainment”—focuses on what is most diverting. Propaganda will select facts or invent them to serve the real purpose—persuasion and manipulation. Fiction invents scenarios to get at a more personal impression of what it calls truth” (Kovach 171). This changes the very heart of journalism, however. By blurring the edge of reality, the images that are presented to us are “more vivid, more attractive, more impressive, and more persuasive than reality itself” (Boorstin 93-4), despite how planned or distorted they are. As Roy Peter Clark wrote, “When we add a scene that did not occur or quote that was never uttered, we cross the line into fiction. And we deceive the writer” (Clark 219). As Lippmann so famously pointed out, there is no excuse for a newspaper to state six times that Lenin is dead, when the newspaper does not know from consistently reliable sources that Lenin actually is dead. The news, in this example, would be “Helsingfors Says Lenin is Dead,” and not “Lenin is Dead.” (Lippmann 116)

The inability of journalists to separate subjective conclusions from actual facts led to a massive campaign to cleanse journalism post-1920. Reporters and editors were becoming more conscious of the rise of propaganda and the role of press agents in this time, and more aware of the effect of human subjectivity in the realm of media in general. (Kovach 172) This journalistic revolution, ironically enough, began due to the media’s coverage of the Russian Revolution. In 1919, Walter Lippmann and an associate editor for the New York World wrote an extremely scathing investigative account of how “cultural blinders” (Kovach 173) had influenced the New York Times coverage of the Revolution, making it extremely unbiased. As they wrote, “the news about the Russian is a case of seeing now what was, but what men wished to see” (Kovach 173). They sought for the individual journalist to “remain clear and free of his irrational, his unexamined, his unacknowledged prejudgments in observing, understanding and presenting the news” (Kovach 172). The way to do this, Lippmann pressed, was by the aquirement of a more scientific spirit that would lead to a unity of method. By doing this, journalists would reach “a common intellectual method and a common area of valid fact” (Kovach 172).

This call for a change by Lippmann led to the searching for objectivity and verification in journalism. The term “objectivity” in relation to journalism first appeared in the 1920s “out of a growing recognition that journalists were full of bias, often unconsciously. Objectivity called for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information—a transparent approach to evidence—precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work” (Kovach 172). Therefore, the defenders of objective journalism were able to lead the press out of “a sorry period of partisan sensationalism in the 1920s” (Dennis 140) by creating a sort of scientific method of journalism, which they said consisted of three principal characteristics: separating fact from fiction, presenting an emotionally detached view of the news, and striving for fairness and balance, giving both sides an opportunity to reply in a way that provides full information to the audience. (Dennis 140) Later on, this was expanded to include such things as being transparent about one’s methods and motives (for example, revealing as much as possible about certain sources—and telling of particular biases or conflicting accounts), relying on original reporting, and exercising humility. (Kovach 175) In this way, journalists should present information to the audience in such a way that they can interpret the evidence for themselves, instead of being shoved into thinking a certain way.

Perusing the following articles, one cannot help but notice the truth in Lippmann’s statements. From word choice to actual descriptions, the articles are far from objective journalism. While reading the articles, keep in mind that much of this journalism is sensationalism. Articles that describe, for example, what Dr. Leslie S. Fields was doing in his cell without citing how they know this dip into the realm of fiction. Also, different adjective use shine light on different biases in the papers—for example, describing Dr. Leslie S. Fields’ suit as “dapper,” or referring to Ruth Ayer as a “young, innocent girl.” Overall, a modern reader must be wary of reading the journalism of the 1920s with the same amount of trust as the papers of today. Unlike today, one does not read this paper and know it is more conservative, or more sensational, or so on. Without the established rules that a reporter should go by, a news story could contain very little news—and much more story.


Back to Media Page