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13. On What A Newspaper Should Be (1868)

13. On What A Newspaper Should Be (1868)

We’re going to take another trip into the way back machine, this time to 1868 before the rise of the major newspaper syndicates. In this Putnam Monthly article, they are looking at where newspapers should fit into public discourse. What’s especially telling about this article is that it comes before that rise of standardized journalism, and the industry was still trying to discover where it sat.

“It is a strange fact, notwithstanding the general circulation, the acknowledged power for good or for evil, and the importance as an organ of public opinion, of the newspaper press, that no work has been written aiming to state the theory of conducting a public journal and as yet there is no philosophy of journalism . . .”

A public journal has a two-fold aspect. It is at once a record of news and an organ of public opinion. In the minds of most persons it is, besides, an educator or creator of public opinion, which to the writer seems entirely foreign to the correct conception of a newspaper . . . the true function of a journal is to represent rather than to create public opinion; indeed, it is doubtful whether the latter can be accomplished save under peculiarly favorable conditions . . .

The true function of a newspaper is to represent rather than create public opinion. If this was 40 years later you could almost imagine this article being directed towards Hearst and Pulitzer during the opening bells of the battle that would later become known as Yellow Journalism, add another 80 years and he could have been talking about some of the major criticisms of the 24 hour news cycle.

Even within the context of its time it still serves as an interesting historical bookmark. Most people would argue that journalism should be impartial, representing the news as it is, but if you look at any of the major news stations, what you will see is that the news we actually watch is always slanted in one direction or another, it’s personality driven to the point where the greater the bias, the more popular it will become.

Since we are, at the core, talking about ethics here, watch the clip above and the clip below to see what a similar conversation looks like now.

So what do you think, what is the role of journalism?

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