A Gang of Pecksniffs Grows Up:
The Evolution of Journalism Ethics Discourse in The Journalist
and Editor and Publisher
Patrick Lee Plaisance
Colorado State University
Department of Journalism and Technical Communication
C 236A Clark Building
Fort Collins, Colorado 80523
Phone: (970) 491 6484
FAX: (970) 491 2908
E-mail: [log in to unmask]
A Gang of Pecksniffs Grows Up:
The Evolution of Journalism Ethics Discourse in The Journalist
and Editor and Publisher
This content analysis explores how journalism's first trade publications
reflected discussion of ethical issues before and during the Progressive
Era. While issues of normative behavior for reporters and editors were
thought to have developed from earlier efforts to professionalize the
field, this study suggests that the two areas, while intertwined, developed
along different trajectories. The analysis, based on content from a random
weekly sample of the earliest trade journals from 1884 to 1912, also found
support for the claim that historical events that are significant in the
field of journalism influence the amount of ethics-related discussion found
in the early trade journals.
A Gang of Pecksniffs Grows Up:
The Evolution of Journalism Ethics Discourse in The Journalist
and Editor and Publisher
The moment when William Randolph Hearst, revolver in hand, splashed through
the Cuban surf to capture a group of nonresistant Spanish sailors provides
the perfect image for the work known as journalism at the end of the 19th
century. Having volunteered his yacht Buccaneer to the U.S. Navy for a war
he helped bring about (Mott, 1941, p. 531), the yellow-journalist Hearst of
1898 would have scoffed at modern notions of objectivity and ethical
guidelines. Serious consideration of those and other concepts was still
more than two decades in the future (Schudson, 1978, p. 120). And 33 years
after Hearst's infamous escapade, the state of journalism remained such
that Walter Lippmann concluded, "For it is a first fact in the whole
situation of modern newspapers that there does not exist any generally
accepted public philosophy about them" (Lippmann, 1931, p. 434).
And yet a distinct connective tissue of history links the
yellow-journalism years with the more impartial and independent American
journalism that began emerging after World War I. Our contemporary notions
of American journalism are rooted firmly in the recklessness and riotous
excesses of Hearst's New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer's New York World.
Some even argue that 21st-century journalism is showing signs of coming
full circle with the profit-driven merging of news and entertainment values
(Christians & Traber, 1997). The Progressive Era in the first decade of the
20th century was a critical period in the development of American
journalism. With the rise of the independent papers after the Civil War and
the ensuing yellow-journalism wars, reporters and editors began
contemplating the professionalism of the field. No longer were writers
content with their public perception as hacks; journalists began evaluating
themselves in comparison to other professions. The emerging emphasis on
normative behavior became the foundation of journalism ethics still debated
Descriptive journalism history is a rich and heavily mined field of
research. However, the documentation of how the philosophy of ethics
evolved within American journalism remains sketchy. In her landmark study
of journalism in the 19th century, Hazel Dicken-Garcia noted the dearth of
media ethics research that took a historical perspective: "No literature
deals to a significant degree with the history of journalism ethics"
(Dicken-Garcia, 1989, p. 4). And yet the first trade journals for reporters
and editors provide a glimpse of just such a history. In 1884, The
Journalist established itself as the national forum for issues faced by
journalists (Mott, p. 490; Cronin, p. 228). Editor & Publisher was
established in 1901 and quickly became the more progressive voice of
professionalization in the field. Six years later, The Journalist was
folded into Editor & Publisher.
These two publications were the predominant forums of the journalism trade
during the field's critical formative years before World War I and, as
such, provide an important gauge of the development of ethical thought
among reporters and editors. What were the changes in the amount and nature
of ethics-related discussion before, during and after the Progressive Era
in the industry's earliest trade journals? This study explores that
research question and attempts to develop the historical perspective on
media ethics that Dicken-Garcia suggests is needed. It offers an analysis
of the amount of ethics-related discussion found in the two journals in
relation to key historical moments that are judged to have had significant
impact on the field of journalism:
• The honeymoon of newlyweds Grover Cleveland and Frances Folsom in Deer
Park in 1886, where relentless press coverage prompted protests of
indecency from within the ranks of journalists as well as outside the field.
• The publication of "The Right to Privacy" in 1890 by lawyers Samuel D.
Warren and Louis D. Brandeis, which set the course for a legally recognized
right to individual privacy.
• The six-month-long Spanish-American War of 1898, which triggered serious
and widespread debate among journalists over the excesses of the yellow
journalism prevalent at the time.
• The denunciation of magazine "muckrakers" in 1906 by President Theodore
Roosevelt, who coined the term. The journalistic crusading of Ida Tarbell,
Lincoln Steffens and others quickly fell off thereafter.
• 1911 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court ordering the breakup of the
Standard Oil and American Tobacco trusts, which were first exposed by
muckraking journalists several years earlier.
Dynamic of history.
It is easy, and generally accurate, to conclude that American newspaper
journalists in the last years of the 19th century and the first of the 20th
– often paid by the inch and locked in merciless circulation wars – gave
little thought to the philosophy of ethics as it might apply to their work.
Still, historians have documented a clear evolution in journalistic
standards and have sought to assess the relative strength of the many
forces that shaped them. Public opinion, shifting social values, newspaper
economics, technological advances and the emergence of journalism from its
trade status after the Progressive Era all helped determine the nature of
American journalism today. These were not random or accidental forces;
beliefs and value systems play major roles in the development of any social
system, whether they ultimately are identified or not. As Brock notes,
"Human personality lies at the heart of every historical enquiry and the
characteristics of the human mind must be a basic 'source' of history
(1975, p. 78). The responses of America's Progressive Era journalists also
were guided by definite, if embryonic, beliefs about the conduct of a free
press. Even if Lippmann (1931, p. 434) was largely correct in his
assessment that journalism lacked any guiding principles, an examination of
the dynamic between the external forces of history and the responses of
human belief systems should illuminate underlying philosophical currents
that contribute to the formation of social systems.
The evolution of the philosophy of ethics must be considered central to
any history of American journalism because the "standards" that were
derived from normative views of press behavior played a prominent role in
the growth of journalism as a social institution. We must better grasp
those philosophical foundations to fully understand that evolution, which
includes views of concepts such as truth, impartiality, social good,
equality and press autonomy – and all of which changed over time. Basic
definitions evolve over time, and each step must be accounted for: "One
approach is to consider truth in the larger sense of knowledge and in the
narrower definition of accuracy" (Dicken-Garcia, p. 232).
All these events and identifiable shifts in cultural trends, changing
economic and political structures and new values represent a theory of
press development in which an evolution of the philosophy of ethics is a
critical part. Dicken-Garcia writes, "As such changes occurred, notions of
the press's function and role themselves evolved, in turn shaping concepts
of journalistic standards. Thus, notions of right and wrong journalistic
conduct at any given time are products of dominant cultural strains" (p. 7).
Much of the journalism history that discusses ethics focuses on efforts to
lend legitimacy to the field and raise journalism's status to that of a
profession. Implicit in these efforts is the evolution of codes of conduct
and standards of personal behavior. Clearly, the two notions of journalism
ethics – professionalization and normative behavior – are intertwined, but
history suggests that there were distinct developments for each. More
specifically, the second grew from the first. As the status of journalism
grew increasingly firmer due to technological, economic and cultural
forces, more attention was paid to defining standards for everyone who
called themselves a journalist. This distinction mirrored the evolution of
newspapers from political organs to independent voices; as the latter
developed, normative values such as objectivity were pushed to the fore:
"Newspaper reporters thought that their job required an attitude of
aloofness….The theory of objective reporting became a matter of
professional pride among American journalists, who held that reporting the
'facts of the day' was their only duty" (Siebert et al, p. 60, 61).
Christians, Ferré and Fackler distinguish between "the concern for
journalism's status" and an ethics of the press concerned with "sovereign
individualism" (1993, p. 32).
Cronin appears to label all ethics-related discussion found in the two
early trade journals as professionalism (1993, p. 227). However, even some
of the earliest issues of The Journalist contain examples of ethics-related
content in which normative behavior, and not professionalism, appears to be
the primary concern. For example, a column in the Sept. 13, 1884, issue
discusses the value of the quid pro quo practice of some stage managers
offering "donations" to the local press club or a particular newspaper
after one of his actresses received favorable reviews. "There are people
who sneer at this and say it is a bid for press support," the columnist
writes. "Supposing it is, what then? Do they not all need it? But how many
repay it?" (1884, p. 3). Lending legitimacy to the craft does not appear to
be the point, yet content of this type foreshadowed discourse on
journalistic standards and normative behavior that emerged over the
following two decades.
Issues of right and wrong clearly transcend social and professional status;
as Dicken-Garcia says, personal standards spring from internalized values
of honor and respect as much as they do from occupational concerns. While
Cronin rightly identifies the predominant movement toward professionalism
of the 1880s as a reaction to the personalized journalism of the yellow
era, a different conception of ethics eventually culminated in the books of
educators in the 1920s:
These writers understood the subject matter of ethics to be
moral responsibility as exercised within one's professional
community….They emphasized standards of right and wrong
relationships – surely duties among colleagues, but also
advertisers and publishers, and to the public. A nonfunctional
approach dominated, in which passion for righteousness,
duty, communal welfare, trust, decency and honesty of
purpose was a common exhortation signaling a deep
connection with others….Professional behavior was
considered morally appropriate to the degree that it
enhanced mutually appreciative understanding and
promoted joint control and influence (Christians et al, p. 33).
This moral component of journalism, consequently, can be distinguished
from the earlier emphasis on legitimacy. The evolution of both, subjected
to the various historical forces outlined here, subsequently reshaped
future objectives of journalists into what we conceive of as journalism
ethics today. By examining the relationship between several historical
moments of the era and the amount of both types of ethics-related content
in the prominent trade journals, this study seeks to examine how those
events helped shape that evolution of ethics within American journalism.
1886: The presidential newlyweds. After two years in the White House,
Grover Cleveland married 21-year-old Frances Folsom, the daughter of a law
partner. He remains the only president who married while in office. But
coverage of the newlyweds raised serious questions about the practice of
journalists. The incident that heightened concerns for privacy more than
most was the couple's honeymoon trip to Deer Park, Md., in 1886. Reporters
stalked the newlyweds and loitered overnight in the shrubbery outside their
cottage. The Journalist later called it "an impertinent intrusion into
private life without parallel in the history of journalism" (Mott, 1941, p.
511). Indeed, in its June 1886 issue, the trade journal castigated its
Editors who are personally gentlemen, and who would
resent the imputation of meddling in other people's
business, have plunged into this matter pellmell, and have
been eminently successful in divesting themselves
and their papers of every semblance of dignity; and in the
process must have given their self-respect some pretty
hard rubs. They have certainly succeeded in gaining the
hearty contempt of all thinking readers (p. 8).
1890: Warren and Brandeis on Privacy. The Warren-Brandeis article setting
out the argument for a right to privacy "did nothing less than add a
chapter to the law" (Ernst & Schwartz, 1962, p. 46). "Of the desirability –
indeed of the necessity – of some such protection, there can, it is
believed, be no doubt," Warren and Brandeis wrote. "The press is
overstepping in every direction the obvious bounds of propriety and of
decency" (p. 196). A year after its publication, the new privacy principle
was tested in a New York court and affirmed. In 1893, a judge ruled against
a newspaper's use of a photograph based on the Warren-Brandeis article
(Ernst & Schwartz, 1962, p. 71-74).
The landmark paper on privacy represented a culmination of several events
and developments involving journalists. The practice among reporters of
"interviewing" subjects, both willing and unwilling, had become widespread
and controversial. Also, the rapid technological advances in photography
lent a new sense of urgency to the issue of maintaining one's privacy. No
longer did a photograph require a planned, extended "sitting" by the
subjects. "Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded
the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical
devices threaten to make good the prediction that 'what is whispered in the
closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops,' " Warren and Brandeis
wrote (1890, p. 195).
1898: The Spanish-American War. Historians have debated the measure of
influence that the prominent yellow journalists of the 1880s exerted on
events that led to the six-month-long war with Spain. But many echo Mott in
his belief that New York publishers Hearst and Pulitzer played a crucial
role in bringing it about:
"…There seems to be great probability in the frequently
reiterated statement that if Hearst had not challenged
Pulitzer to a circulation contest at the time of the Cuban
insurrection, there would have been no Spanish-American
War. Certainly the most powerful and persistent jingo
propaganda ever carried on by newspapers was led by the
New York Journal and World in 1896-98, and the result was
an irresistible popular fervor for war which at length overcame
the long unwillingness of President McKinley and even swept
blindly over the last-minute capitulation by Spain on all points
at issue" (Mott, 1941, p. 527).
While Hearst and Pulitzer profited substantially from the fervor they
whipped up over the mysterious explosion of the USS Maine, a chorus of
journalists voiced despair over the tactics. Indeed, the war can be
considered a turning point in the nature of the discussion of journalistic
practices in the field. Beforehand, most debate was focused on issues of
professionalization and legitimacy. The war, however, moved the debate
further into the arena of normative behavior for reporters. The concern
already had surfaced years before in the Deer Park incident and others, but
the war brought it to the fore. In May 1989, The Journalist observed, "We
gave the Spaniards no use for spies, for our yellow journalists became
themselves the spies of Spain" (Mott, 1941, p. 536). Many agreed: "Nothing
so disgraceful as the behaviors of two of these newspapers the last week
has been known in the history of American journalism," wrote E.L. Godkin,
one of New York City's most respected editors. "It is a crying shame that
men should work such mischief in order to sell more newspapers" (Mott,
1941, p. 352).
1906: Roosevelt denounces the muckrakers. Soon after the new century
began, McClure's, Collier's and other magazines featured hard-hitting and
often bombastic investigative pieces written by journalists who had no use
for the concept of impartiality. Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and others
like them took up their own form of the newspaper "crusades" against urban
greed and corruption of the 1880s and 1890s. They saw themselves as
crusaders for the common American worker, whom they felt was being
ruthlessly exploited by unrestrained capitalism. Tarbell's landmark
"History of the Standard Oil Company" shed light on the workings of the
Rockefeller empire, which later fell victim to Theodore Roosevelt's
After a few years, however, the magazine crusades began to decline when
the public appeared to grow weary of their lack of restraint (Mott, 1941,
p. 575). By 1911, Collier's even published an essay by the New York Times
business manager deriding them as "a commercial trade" (Mott, p. 575).
Roosevelt signaled the turning tide of public sentiment in 1906 when he
coined the unflattering term "muckraker" to describe the pen-wielding
crusaders. Roosevelt took his image from the Man with the Muck-rake in
Pilgrim's Progress: the hard-headed peasant who disregarded the heavenly
crown offered to him because he was too engrossed by the filth on the floor.
1911: The breakup of Standard Oil and American Tobacco. The evolution of
the suits against Standard Oil between 1890 and 1911 was primarily
dependent on "legal technicality, political maneuver, and press
manipulation" (Bringhurst, 1979, p. 8). The enormous success of the
Standard Oil Trust, in which John D. Rockefeller kept his 1882
consolidation agreements secret for six years, was unprecedented in
American history and was unaffected by the Sherman Antitrust Law when
alarmed politicians passed it in 1890 (Boorstin, 1973, p. 419). Antipathy
toward aggressive monopolistic practices ran deep; reformers pushed
antitrust bills in every state legislature in the 1880s, and 13 states
passed their own antitrust measures between March 1889 and July 1890
(Bringhurst, 1979, p. 3). But policy was to be determined on the federal
level, and trustbusting prosecutors under President William Howard Taft
pressed their case in the St. Louis circuit court in April 1909. Judges
there unanimously ruled that the Standard Oil combination had violated two
key provisions of the Sherman Act, and the case was appealed to the Supreme
Court, which heard arguments in January 1911. The justices' decision was
handed down in May.
While the weak court remedies allowed the Standard companies to operate as
a closely coordinated unit for 15 years after the decree, the Supreme Court
ruling stood as a culmination of the national debate begun by Henry D.
Lloyd and Ida Tarbell with their portrayal Standard Oil as "the embodiment
of malevolent monopoly" (Bringhurst, 1979, pp. 205, 206). Prominent writers
and journalists began fanning public hostility toward monopolistic
practices in 1890s, when Lloyd depicted Standard Oil as a serious threat to
American society in his Wealth Against Commonwealth. But it was Tarbell who
led the public crusade. Her series in McClure's magazine, "The history of
the Standard Oil Company," ran from 1902 to 1904 and "enflamed the public's
longstanding hostility toward the combination as nothing before had"
(Bringhurst, 1979, p. 69).
Shaping journalism ethics.
Much of contemporary media ethics debate remains contingent upon, and thus
limited to, explicitly 20th-century definitions of conduct and values
(Merrill, 1990; Christians, Ferré & Fackler, 1991). Indeed, few researchers
have sought to trace the roots of ethics-related theories back beyond the
sober modernism ushered by World War I. "…Perhaps no topic has ever been so
prevalent in journalism as has ethics during the past decade,"
Dicken-Garcia writes. "But the absence from the debate about media ethics
of a historical perspective – that is, reference to the past to inform,
direct, and give continuity to the discussions and the purposes they serve
– is conspicuous and limiting" (Dicken-Garcia, p. 4).
Dicken-Garcia makes the important distinction between ethical values and
professional standards. The latter are the time-specific ideas and concepts
that, on a practical basis, are used to guide daily conduct. And yet, she
concludes that "historical analysis of journalistic standards also point up
the degree to which discussion of journalistic ethics proceeds from
theories" (Dicken-Garcia, p. 234). In fact, while she states that "press
critics throughout the nineteenth century did not apply the philosophical
concepts of ethics to journalism" (p. 10), some prominent voices have
claimed that the philosophy of ethics was at work in the field of
turn-of-the-century journalism nonetheless. Fred Siebert argued that the
predominant market-oriented journalism of the period was guided by a
"libertarian" philosophy of the press, the excesses of which triggered
widespread calls for moves toward professionalization during the first half
of the twentieth century. Those calls resulted in the proliferation of
journalism schools and rudimentary codes of conduct for newspapers
(Siebert, 1956). A quarter-century earlier, Walter Lippmann argued that
philosophy played no part in the functioning of the press, yet he also
strongly suggested the press, even in its slavish pursuit of gossip and
scandal, was following a Millian utilitarianism: "…The popular commercial
press of the second half of the nineteenth century down to our own times
has had as its central motive the immediate satisfaction of the largest
number of people" (Lippmann, 1931, p. 436). Clearly, theoretical
underpinnings existed even during journalism's most ignoble era. Journalism
ethics, while severely obscured by the sensationalist clutter of the times,
certainly had a pulse, and perhaps the strongest indication of this lies in
the wry humor of H.L. Mencken. In 1914, Mencken likened the morality of
journalism to the trial lawyer who must adjust his manner to the level of
the jury: "Neither may like the job, but both must face it to gain a larger
end….The art of leading the vulgar, in itself, does no discredit to its
practitioner" (Mencken, 1914, p. 296). The Baltimore icon concluded that
journalism clearly had witnessed the evolution of an ethics, however erratic:
The way of ethical progress is not straight. It describes,
to risk a mathematical pun, a sort of drunken hyperbola.
But if we thus move onward and upward by leaps and
bounces, it is certainly better than not moving at all.
Each time, perhaps, we slip back, but each time we
stop at a higher level (p. 297).
The libertarianism that Siebert and others refer to emerged from the
decline of the "party press" system. But the increasing financial power of
the growing metro papers – subsidized by the widely condemned
yellow-journalism practices of the time – also affected their behavior. The
Progressive Era also ushered the end of "personal journalism" – papers
dominated by a single powerful editor who managed every aspect. Mott cites
one prominent New York writer who commented, "Large capital in newspapers
and their heightened earning power tended to steady them." Mott continued:
"…the soundly financed and well-established journal was in a far better
position to resent undue interference with proper journalistic functions
than the insecure sheet of an earlier day" (Mott, 1941, p. 548). Thus,
financial security resulted in heightened awareness of the need for
journalistic autonomy. The Progressive Era reforms in the realm of politics
and labor relations also helped reshape reporters' conceptions of
themselves: They saw themselves as "scientists uncovering the economic and
political facts of industrial life more boldly, more clearly, and more
'realistically' than anyone had done before" (Schudson, 1978, p. 71).
Schudson notes that the priority placed on simply telling a good story was
slow to evolve into a belief in the primacy of facts; "…into the first
decade of the twentieth century, even at The New York Times, it was
uncommon for journalists to see a sharp divide between facts and values"
(Schudson, 1978, p. 5). But from the 1920s on, with the disintegration of
Victorian Europe and the horrors of World War I, a new skepticism and
disillusionment guided social thought. The emergence of the notion of
objectivity as a guiding journalistic principle corresponds with this
modernist disillusionment: facts cannot be trusted because they can always
be used for propaganda and individual agendas. Objectivity became part of a
moral philosophy, "a declaration of what kind of thinking one should engage
in, in making moral decisions" (Schudson, 1978, p. 8). Objectivity, then,
was taken up as a bulwark against manipulation and partisanship that
characterized much of the previous journalism.
As a community of laborers, the field of journalism developed first from a
trade to an occupation that sought the status of a profession. Journalists
emerging from the yellow-journalism era were preoccupied with the
acquisition of legitimacy and respectability, which was reflected in the
"bolting" of newspapers from political parties. It was only toward the end
of the era that most journalists began to contemplate the effects of their
behavior and of newspaper content. The progression from this pursuit of
legitimacy to a broader concern for normative values provides a foundation
for the theories of journalism ethics that are debated today. Conversely,
the shift of focus from legitimacy to normative behavior during the
Progressive Era also was largely determined by the social and cultural
issues raised by historical events.
A content analysis of the ethics-related discussion in trade journals of
the era should reveal that progression from concern for legitimacy to
concern for behavioral effects because that same shift also is reflected in
some of the major historical, journalism-related events of the time. With
the proliferation of cheap newspapers before World War I, the concern over
normative journalistic values not only was likely to dominate the
discussion, but the volume of the content undoubtedly increased as the
field's published forum gained a broader and more galvanized audience.
The link between those external historical forces and the development of
the two threads of journalism ethics forms the basis of this study's
• H1: The more content that focuses on concerns of professional legitimacy
in the trade journals, the less content there will be that focuses on
issues of normative behavior and values.
• H2: The amount of ethics-related content will increase shortly after each
of the historical events identified as significant in the history of
A content analysis of a random stratified sampling of 320 weekly issues of
The Journalist and Editor & Publisher was conducted to quantify the
ethics-related debate in the field during the reign of yellow journalism
and through the Progressive Era. Both weekly journals were used because The
Journalist, which began publication in March 1884, reverted to a monthly
publication cycle after August 1906 and was folded into Editor & Publisher
the following year. Therefore, to take advantage of the continuity that
publication of both offers and to ensure uniformity, the study is based on
stratified samplings of The Journalist from March 1884 to 1901, and of
Editor and Publisher, when it began publishing that year, to December 1912.
Included in this time period, however, is a gap from April 1895 to April
1897, when The Journalist suspended publication.
Since the intent of this study is to analyze changes in the amount and
nature of ethics-related content over a specified period of time, the
weekly issues of both publications that were randomly selected for each
month between April 1884 and December 1912 inclusive represent the units of
analysis. Following research that has suggested the efficiency of sampling
weekly publications on a monthly stratification (Lacy, Robinson & Riffe,
1995), this study randomly selected one publication per month beginning
with issues published in April 1884.
Editorial content for each of the selected publications was measured in
column inches. Advertising content, illustrations and drawings were
excluded. Examination of each article identified those that addressed
ethics-related issues or topics. For example, much editorial content of the
early issues of The Journalist was devoted to denouncing the practice of
paying reporters according to how much they wrote instead of putting them
on salaries. Occasional articles in The Journalist also urged newspapers to
sever their ties to political parties; these address the issue of
journalistic independence and were coded as ethics-related content.
This coding process enabled the study to quantify the proportion of
editorial content within the issues sampled that addressed ethical
concerns. It also allowed a detailed time-line comparison between the
occurrence and volume of ethics-related content and the five identified
historical, press-related events of the Progressive Era.
The ethics-related material then was further categorized: that which was
concerned with issues of journalism legitimacy and professionalization, and
content that dealt with normative behavioral values. The first category
represents broad, generalized discussions on reporting as an occupation and
on journalism as a field. The latter represents commentary on what values
should guide journalists' behavior as well as attempts to distinguish
"good" and "bad" journalism. For example, articles that advocated political
independence of newspapers fall in the legitimacy category. Conversely, an
occasional column headlined "Hints for Journalists," which sarcastically
suggested that reporters practice such brutish behaviors as tracking mud
into a gentleman's parlor, belongs in the normative behavior category. The
numerous personal, politically-tinged attacks that editors of The
Journalist made on various editors, including Albion Tourgeé and Pulitzer,
were not classified as ethics-related since the majority of them appeared
to be personal in nature rather than professional. For example,
anti-Semitic attacks referring to Joseph Pulitzer as "Jewseph Pulitzer" in
early issues of The Journalist reflect the social motivations of individual
trade journal editors and not issues of journalism.
After quantifying the amount of ethics-related debate in each issue, this
study then analyzed changes in the amount of such debate over time as well
as shifts in the substantive nature of the content. The correlation between
the percentage of "professional legitimacy" content and "normative
behavior" content was examined, as well as the patterns of predominance for
each over time. The selected issues, the study's unit of analysis, were
numbered sequentially from one to 320. The means of the amount of each type
of ethics-related content in each of the months examined provided
categorical levels of measurement. An analysis of variance was conducted to
determine the statistical significance of the differences among the
averages of the two types of ethics-related debate over the time periods
studied. The monthly units were then clustered together (T1, T2, T3, etc.)
and divided into periods of time to examine the relationship of average
amounts of each type of ethics-related content before and after each
Coding of the sample of 1893 issues of The Journalist revealed that less
than 4.5 percent of the editorial content was ethics-related. This was not
unusual for the overall sample. The years with the largest amount of
ethics-related content were 1898 and 1910, with more than 9 percent. A
coder reliability test for assessing what constituted ethical content and
what did not achieved a Scott's pi of .80.
Media ethics literature suggests that the two types of ethical concerns –
professional legitimacy and normative values – evolved in relation to but
independent of each other. Coder reliability for distinguishing the two
types achieved a Scott's pi of .98. Results of the study indicated no
support for the claim that a decline in the former would be mirrored by an
increase in the latter (H1). In fact, while professionalism claimed a
slightly larger percentage of content (Figure 2), results challenge the
perception that professional legitimacy was the overriding concern in the
profession's early years. Content of The Journalist addressed issues of
normative values as much or more than it did professionalism during its
first years (Figs. 1 & 2). As expected, discussion of ethical issues in
journalism constituted a fraction of the content found in both The
Journalist and Editor & Publisher during the first years of the publication
of each (Table 1).
As the first trade journal for the burgeoning field, The Journalist acted
largely as a bulletin board for new appointments and the births and deaths
of papers across the country. Editors also commented extensively on the
merits of the various New York newspapers and on the treatment of reporters
who worked at each. Many of the pages also were filled with press-club
minutes and other minutiae. An occasional column weighed in on the pros and
cons of standards and practices of the day. Editor & Publisher focused
largely on the business side of the industry, regularly devoting large
amounts of space to circulation and advertising strategy in its early
years. Conventions of ad men were covered as eagerly as those of newspaper
publishers. But its business slant did not prevent it from continuing to
serve as the organ of press club news and who's who updates from around the
The years covered by the study were grouped into periods according to
several identified historical events: the 1886 honeymoon of President
Grover Cleveland and Frances Folsom; the 1890 Warren-Brandeis paper on
privacy; the Spanish-American War in 1898; President Theodore Roosevelt's
denunciation of the "muckrakers" in 1906, and the Supreme Court decision
ordering the breakup of the Standard Oil and American Tobacco trusts in
1911. The amount of the different types of ethics-related content was then
examined for each period.
A series of independent samples t-tests on the means of ethics-related
content in between each of the historical events revealed that the
differences in the amounts before and after the President Cleveland's 1886
honeymoon and before and after publication of the Warren-Brandeis privacy
paper are statistically significant (p < .05) (Table 2). This suggests
moderate support for the claim that ethics-related commentary in the trade
journals did respond to historical events (H1), though no statistical
significance was revealed for the same content at the time of the other
An analysis of variance among the content totals between each historical
period using the Bonferroni test revealed a statistically significant
difference (p < .01) in the changes in amounts of legitimacy content after
the Spanish-American War in 1898 and after the 1911 Supreme Court ruling on
the Standard Oil antitrust case. Content that addressed issues of
professional legitimacy hit a low point in the period after the
Spanish-American War and then significantly increased through the aftermath
of Roosevelt's trust-busting efforts (Table 3). The ANOVA also revealed a
statistically significant difference (p < .05) in the changes in the
amounts of normative-behavior content in the period after publication of
the Warren-Brandeis privacy paper and the period after the Spanish-American
War. The amount of normative content was relatively high before the
outbreak of the war before dropping sharply after the sinking of the USS Maine.
Since ethics-related commentary constituted a relatively small percentage
of the journals' content, single columns devoted to the topic could
dramatically affect the proportions. For example, much of the dramatic
increase in professional legitimacy content found in The Journalist after
1887 resulted from a large number of columns pushing newspaper editors to
put reporters on salary instead of paying by the column inch (Figure 1).
Similarly, the spike in both types of ethics-related content that occurred
in 1910 (Figs. 1 & 2) stemmed from several single, seemingly coincidental
columns that ran in Editor and Publisher. The Feb. 12 issue reprinted a
lecture by a Manhattan Presbyterian pastor headlined, "The power of the
press – noted New York divine asks: 'Is it dwindling?'" (p. 4). One month
later, the March 12 issue featured two pieces challenging a magazine
article that accused American metro dailies of suppressing critical
business news to protect profits ("Suppressing the news," p. 6; "Press
muckraked," p. 8).
This study raises questions about the common supposition that concern over
journalism ethics before the turn of the century was principally focused on
issues of professionalism and legitimacy. Ethics-related content in the
early issues of The Journalist and Editor & Publisher reflect both the
raucousness of the era and the slow but steady maturation of the industry.
The same issue of The Journalist that carried vicious, personal attacks on
"Jewseph Pulitzer" also ran lofty columns that extolled the ever-increasing
power of the press to bring about social good and the journalistic
responsibility to tell the truth. Editor & Publisher recounted, without a
hint of disapproval, how one western reporter persuaded a sheriff to move
up an execution to better suit his paper's deadline. In the next issue,
however, it provided thoughtful analysis of the role of press agents and
the importance of keeping the business side of a newspaper "downstairs" and
the editorial operations "upstairs."
Clearly, both journals were designed to foster a sense of brotherhood among
working journalists; in that sense, their very existence embodied the
ethical concern of creating a professional space in society for newspaper
men and women. Yet discussion of normative values, while it may have been a
natural extension of the professionalism movement, seems to have had a life
of its own in the trade press. Even in its infancy, American journalistic
ethics was not a zero-sum game in which professionalism yielded to talk of
guiding principles of behavior.
The Journalist represents the embryonic stages of ethical thought in
American journalism; when it sporadically turned its editorial attention to
issues of journalism conduct, it was as concerned about the behavior of
individual journalists as it was about the behavior of newspapers in
general. The two appeared intricately linked, given journalism's roots in
the "personal journalism" defined by the supervision of Charles Dana, James
Gordon Bennett, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. The
professional was the personal during this time.
The significant fluctuation in the amount of ethics-related content before
and after President Cleveland's honeymoon as well as the publication of the
landmark paper on privacy suggests that trade-journal content could be used
as a barometer of the attention on ethical issues. Since no other pattern
in the content emerged around the other historical events, however, the
effects of events on ethics discussion suggests the need for further
analysis. While the results of the study refute the common perception that
professionalism was the preoccupying concern of journalism ethics in the
early trade journals, they do not clarify the relationship between the
development of the two issues. Outwardly, the particular historical events
referred to in this study did not appear to drive ethical content in the
trade journals. In fact, the content did not appear to be tied to any
particular event, except for isolated discussions of the Cleveland
honeymoon and the antitrust cases, and general references to the issue of
privacy. Further study incorporating more detailed analyses of additional
historical sources is needed to establish what kind of relationship exists
between the amount of ethical content and other historical developments,
such as the increasing reliance upon wire services.
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Instructions for coding of content
(1) Read all editorial content and identify the subject of each article or
column. Mark all articles that present questions or pose arguments on
ethical issues relating to journalism. An article or column shall be
identified as containing ethics-related content if it addresses such topics
as how and why should editors or reporters be considered professionals, how
should journalists handle and manage what is deemed news in a way that
ensures their credibility, or how journalists should present themselves or
behave in public. Articles that explore or argue for or against
distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable journalistic behavior are
considered ethics-related, as are pieces that castigate or praise
newspapers or individual reporters or editors for their conduct regarding
certain stories or cases. Articles that present personal or political
arguments or attacks on individuals, and that only peripherally address
journalistic issues, are not to be identified as ethics-related content.
For example, an article in The Journalist that offers personal criticism of
Joseph Pulitzer using anti-semitic language (referring to him as "Jewseph"
Pulitzer), is not to be considered ethics-related, but reflects the
political and social motivations of certain trade-journal editors and not
actual issues of journalism.
(2) Using a ruler, measure the column inches of all editorial material. Do
not measure illustrations or advertisements. Also record how much of the
total has been identified as ethics-related content.
(3) Review all content marked as ethics-related and further categorize
each article or column into one of two types: content that addresses issues
of professionalization and legitimacy, and content that addresses issues of
normative behavioral values. Each shall be color-coded according to
category. Articles that offer broad, generalized discussions on reporting
as an occupation and on journalism as a field shall be labeled as being in
the professional legitimacy category. This would include ethics-related
discussions mentioned above that address the present or future role of
journalism in society or the institutionalization of the field. Content
also shall be labeled as being in this category if it explores the
distinction between the perceptions of journalists as legitimate custodians
of the news and as clerical "hacks." Content shall be labeled as being in
the category of normative behavior if it offers commentary on what values
should guide journalists' behavior as well as attempts to distinguish
"good" and "bad" journalism. Unlike the professional legitimacy category,
this type of content may often focus on individual reporters or editors as
examplars of "professional" journalists or as scoundrels whose behavior
reflects poorly upon the field.
(4) Using a ruler, measure the amount, in column inches, of each type of
(5) Using a coding sheet, record the total inches of content in each
issue and the total inches of each type of ethics-related content for each
issue. Calculate the percentages for each type of ethics-related content
for each issue.
Table 1. Percentages of professional legitimacy and normative behavior
in trade journals.
legitimacy ___1309.5_ Inches
behavior ___900.5__ Inches
Table 2. a) Independent t-tests for ethics-related content before and
after 1886 honeymoon of President Cleveland and
Variables (SD) (SD) t value df significance
Legitimacy 3.5 6.4 -2.23
73 p < .05
content (3.9 ) (5.9)
Normative 3.7 3.6
.07 73 ns
content (3.7) (3.8)
b) Independent t-tests for ethics-related content before and after 1890
Warren-Brandeis paper on the right to privacy.
Variables (SD) (SD) t value df significance
Legitimacy 6.3 5.8 .31
content (5.8) (9.3)
Normative 2.9 4.9 -2.42
74.9 p < .05
content (2.8) (5.2)
c) Independent t-tests for ethics-related content before and after 1898
explosion of USS Maine, which touched off the Spanish-American War.
Variables (SD) (SD) t value df significance
Legitimacy 3.5 5.7 -.98
content (5.4 ) (10.3)
Normative 2.6 4.4
-1.45 34 ns
content (3.7 ) (5.5)
d) Independent t-tests for ethics-related content before and after 1906
denunciation of muckrakers by President Roosevelt.
Variables (SD) (SD) t value df significance
Legitimacy 2.9 4.6 -1.58
content (4.1 ) (5.9)
Normative 2.4 3.8
-1.49 95 ns
content (3.2) (5.5)
N=49 N=48 (cont'd)
Table 2 (cont'd). e) Independent t-tests for ethics-related content before
and after 1911 Supreme Court order that the Standard Oil Trust be broken.
Variables (SD) (SD) t value df significance
Legitimacy 6.0 9.7
-1.71 66 ns
content (7.2 ) (10.2)
Normative 3.9 5.5
-1.12 66 ns
content (5.5 ) (4.0)
Table 3. One-way analysis of variance of ethics-related content (in
Variables June Dec. Mar. Apr. June
1886 1890 1898 1906 1911
to to to to to
Nov. Feb. Mar. May Dec.
1890 1898 1906 1911 1912 F df sig.
Mean Mean Mean Mean Mean (SD) (SD) (SD) (SD) (SD)
legitimacy 6.3 5.5 3.2a 5.7 9.7a .0012 5 p < .01
(5.8) (9.1) (4.8) (7.2) (10.2)
behavior 3.5 4.6b 2.5b 3.8 5.5 .02 5 p < .05
(3.7) (5.3) (3.4) (5.1) (4.0)
a Difference between 1898-1906 period (post Spanish-American War) and
1911-1912 period (post-Standard Oil ruling) is significant.
b Difference between 1890-1898 period (post privacy paper) and 1898-1906
period (post Spanish-American War) is significant.