Competing Information in a Free Press

Standard 7.2: Competing Information in a Free Press

Give examples of how a free press can provide competing information and views about government and politics. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T7.2]

A girl holds The Washington Post
A girl holds The Washington Post of Monday, July 21st 1969 stating
'The Eagle Has Landed Two Men Walk on the Moon'
, by Jack Weir, Public Domain

FOCUS QUESTION: How Does a Free Press Provide Competing Information about Government and Politics?

Standard 2 looks at how a free press provides information about government and politics to people, both historically and in today's digital age. In many countries around the world, the press is not free and people receive one side only of a story about a topic or issue—the side the government wants published. A free press, by contrast, presents topics so people get wide-ranging and informed perspectives from which they can make up their own minds about what candidates and policies to support (explore the site AllSides to see how news is presented differently depending on the platform). 

Central to free press is the role of investigative journalism that involves the “systematic, in-depth, and original research and reporting,” often including the “unearthing of secrets” (Investigative Journalism: Defining the Craft, Global Investigative Journalism Network).

    1. INVESTIGATE: History of Newspapers, Then and Now

    More than a century ago, the newspaper was how people in the United States learned about what was happening in the world. It was the social media of the time. In 1900, more than 20,000 different newspapers were published in this country; 40 papers had over 100,000 readers. The viewpoints of these papers reflected different political parties and political philosophies, were published in many different languages besides English, and were written for both general and specialized audiences (Breaking the News in 1900, TeachingHistory.org). As historian Jill Lepore (2019, p. 19) noted, “The press was partisan, readers were voters and the news was meant to persuade.”

    Detail of a New York Times
    Detail of a New York Times Advertisement - 1895, by “EP” (19th centruy),
    Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, {{PD-US-expired}}

    Today, print newspapers are being replaced by many different kinds of digital news publications: YouTube, Apple News, Twitter, podcasts, digital magazines, blogs, and more. At the same time, a Brookings Institution researcher concluded that more than 65 million Americans live in what can be called “news deserts”—counties with only one or no local newspapers (visit Local Journalism in Crisis for a map of local newspapers in the United States).

    Between 1970 and 2016, more than 500 daily newspapers went out of business, and the downsizing has continued—one third of the nation’s remaining newspapers reported layoffing of employees (Lepore, 2019).  That same year, 2016, Google made four times the advertising revenue of the entire American newspaper industry combined (Lemann, 2020, p. 39).  A 2018 study found that just 2% of American teenagers read a print newspaper regularly—the report was subtitled “the rise of digital media, the decline of TV, and the (near) demise of print” (Trends in U.S. Adolescents’ Media Use, 1976-2016). These developments raise a fundamental question: How is the decline of print newspapers and the rise of digital media changing the roles of the press in our society?

    Suggested Learning Activities

    Construct a Timeline

    Write a People's History: The Newsboys Strike of 1899

    Design an Infographic on the History of the Black Press

      • John B. Russworm, founder of Freedom's Journal (1827-1829), the first newspaper owned and operated by African Americans.
      • Frederick Douglass founded The North Star abolitionist newspaper in 1847. Frederick Douglass Newspapers, 1847 to 1874 from the Library of Congress.
      • The Chicago Defender, founded in 1905 by Robert S. Abbott became one of the nation's most influential black newspapers before World War I.
      • The Philadelphia Tribune, founded in 1884 by Christopher James Perry, Sr., is America’s oldest and largest daily (published 5 days a week) newspaper serving the African-American community.
      • In 1892, Ida B. Wells began a newspaper, The Memphis Free Speech, that exposed and denounced the lynching of African Americans in America, the beginning of her career as an activist and journalist.  Learn more at this Ida. B. Wells historical biography wiki page
          Girl and Boy Selling Newspapers
          Girl and Boy Selling Newspapers, Newark, New Jersey (1909), by Lewis Hine, Library of Congress, Public Domain


          116th Anniversary of the Negro Press
          116th Anniversary of the Negro Press - with caption and reference
          to the founder of the first Negro Newspaper, John B. Russworm
          by Charles Henry Alston, U.S. National Archives, Public Domain

          Online Resources about Newspapers

            2. UNCOVER: Investigative Journalists: Nellie Bly, Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair & Rachel Carson 

            Investigative journalism is one of the ways that a free press provides truthful information to people. Investigative journalism “involves exposing to the public matters that are concealed–either deliberately by someone in a position of power, or accidentally, behind a chaotic mass of facts and circumstances that obscure understanding. It requires using both secret and open sources and documents” (Mark Lee Hunter as cited in UNESCO, 2015, para. 1). 

            Nellie Bly
            Nellie Bly (Pseudonym of Elizabeth Jane Cochrane) (1867 - 1922), by H. J. Myers, Library of Congress {{PD-US}}

            The United States has a history of courageous investigative journalists willing to “speak truth to power” by informing the public of intolerable conditions and corrupt practices by citizens and companies. David Halberstam earned a Pulitzer Prize for revealing the lack of truth in U.S. claims of military success during the Vietnam War; Seymour Hersh uncovered the 1968 My Lai Massacre of Vietnamese civilians by American troops; in 1971, Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, top-secret documents about the American War in Vietnam. In recent years, the #MeToo Movement has exposed widespread sexual misconduct toward women by prominent men in business, the media, and government (visit How investigative journalism sparked off the #MeToo movement).  In early 2020, a group of digital whistleblowers made the world aware of the coronavirus outbreak in China (The Digital Radicals of Wuhan).

            Four historically significant investigative reporters and writers demonstrate the powerful impact investigative reporters can have in society: Ida Tarbell, journalist and muckraker who wrote in 1904 about the monopolistic practices of John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Company; Nellie Bly, a journalist who in the late 1880s and 1890s documented the plight of working girls in factories, the everyday lives of Mexican people, and life within New York's mental institutions where she went undercover to expose the corruption and mistreatment of the inmates; Upton Sinclair who documented horrible sanitary health practices in Chicago’s meatpacking facilities at the turn of the 19th century - his book The Jungle was published in 1906; and Rachel Carson who revealed the widespread unsafe use of pesticides in her book Silent Spring (1962), helping to launch the modern environmental movement. 

            Plaque at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge
            Plaque at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells, Maine, by Captain Tucker, licenced under CC0 1.0

            Suggested Learning Activities

            1. Create a Graphic, Comic, or Poster on the Life of an Investigative Journalist
            2. Design a Statue for an Investigative Journalist
              • A statute for Nellie Bly is planned to be added to Roosevelt Island in New York City. In 2017, the city had 150 statutes of men and only 5 of women.
              • Design a statute for Nellie Bly, or another investigate journalist, using physical materials (e.g., tape, cardboard, paper, PlayDoh), then recreate that design in a 3D modeling program, such as Tinkercad, so it can be 3D printed.

            3. Create a Sketchnote on the History of Whistleblowing  
              Symbol of the Office of the Whistleblower, Public Domain

                  Online Resources for Investigative Journalism

                  3. ENGAGE: Does Every Citizen Need to be Her or His Own Investigative Journalist?

                  On June 17, 1972 a night-time break-in and burglary occurred at the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. - an event which ended up having immense national and historical significance. The break-in was done by a group of former FBI and CIA agents called the “Plumbers,” all with strong ties to the Republican Party and committed to the re-election of President Richard M. Nixon. The “Plumbers” sought to bug telephones and find political dirt on the Democratic Party.

                  Labelled the Watergate Break-In, the event was revealed through years of investigative journalism by the press, notably reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post, and uncovered abuses of power and illegal deeds that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation as President. Nixon is the only man ever to resign the Presidency.

                  Richard Nixon Farewell Speech
                  Richard Nixon Farewell Speech to the White House Staff, August 8, 1974
                  with daughter Julie and son-in-law David Eisenhower looking on.
                  White House Photo Office Collection, Gerald Ford Library, Public Domain

                  Investigative journalism plays an essential role in a democracy, but the work of investigation is long and difficult. It takes time and money to track down sources, verify facts, and locate the truth. Unlike Watergate, not every case of wrongdoing and corruption is exposed; many times the guilty are never held accountable for their actions. The decline of newspapers, locally and nationally, means there are fewer investigative journalists on the job.

                  In today's media-driven society, gossip and celebrity journalism often get more attention than investigative journalism. There are numerous television shows, websites, and print magazines devoted to reporting on celebrities and their lifestyles. While the lives of the rich and famous may be interesting, reporting on those individuals generally does not give "people the information they need to make better decisions about their lives and society" (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2014). 

                  In their book The Elements of Journalism, journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel declared that every citizen must become their own investigative journalist - constantly evaluating all the news and information they receive from multiple sources for reliability and truth. Certainly everyday people cannot function like newspaper reporters whose full-time job is finding and reporting the news. But everyday people, including students in schools, can be what Kovach and Rosenstiel call "journalist/sense makers" who use the information they get from professional media and print journalists to make their own decisions by separating facts from fictions, knowledge from rumor and truth from propanganda and lies.

                  Suggested Learning Activities

                  1. Engage in Civic Action
                    • Investigate a local community issue - collecting data from multiple sources - and present the findings as an investigative journalist. 

                  2. Set a Plan to Achieve a Personal Goal
                    • What steps are you going to take to be your own investigative journalist? 

                  3. Record a Video or Podcast
                    • Provide ideas and information to inspire other students to become informed and critical readers of the news. 

                    Online Resources about Investigative Journalism and Watergate

                    Standard 7.2 Conclusion

                    In this standard, INVESTIGATE summarized the history of newspapers, the current decline of print journalism, and the rise of digital news. UNCOVER presented the histories of prominient late 19th century and mid-20th century investigative journalists - Nellie Bly, Ida Tarbel, Upton Sinclair, and Rachel Carson - each of whom used newspapers to expose corruption in government and improve society. ENGAGE explored the question, Does Every Citizen Need to be Her or His Own Investigative Journalist? starting with the role of the Washington Post newspaper in the Watergate Scandal that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974—events that have taken on added relevance against the backdrop of Donald Trump's actions related to Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election and the 2019-2020 impeachment inquiry over the withholding of military aid to the nation of Ukraine.

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