A Brief History of Truth in Journalism — Beginning Exactly 100 Years Ago

Truth and how it might best be achieved is very much at issue in American journalism today.

This is a debate with an important history. Our journalists first had to learn that it was important to stick to the facts. A story that appeared in the Chicago Daily Journal exactly one hundred years ago today played a role in spreading that understanding. Then American journalists had to figure out that everything officials say does not qualify as a fact. The New York Times ran a story fifty years ago today that was among those that made that clear. Now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, more and more journalists and journalism critics are starting to realize that just sticking to the facts is not always sufficient for getting at the truth.

Being truthful might not seem a particularly controversial goal for a journalist, but there were other goals that sometimes outweighed it a hundred years ago – making fun of the gullibility of others, for example.

It is hard to think of anyone who unleashed as many journalistic hoaxes as a young reporter for the Chicago Daily Journal named Ben Hecht. Hecht would go on to a distinguished career as a playwright, screenwriter and novelist, as well as a journalist, but one of the stories he duped the Journal into printing certainly qualifies as among his more creative efforts: it announced that there had been an earthquake in Chicago – photographic evidence for which consisted of a trench Hecht and his photographer had dug in Lincoln Park, along with a shot of Hecht’s landlady surrounded by some broken dishes.

A fellow at a desk next to Hecht’s wrote one of the stories that may have done the most to convince American journalism that truthfulness counts. It is an interview – published in the Chicago Daily Journal on July 7, 1914 – with Helen Morton, heiress to the Morton Salt fortune. She had been hidden-away by her family after eloping. In order the get the interview the reporter was said to have floated down a river and snuck into the estate where she was being held.

This story is not well known. But, while journalistic fame is fleeting, there was a time when the young reporter who wrote it, Lowell Thomas, would be as well known as any American journalist ever has been. And his Helen Morton story – derring-do and all – was untrue. The interview never took place.

It is not clear that young Lowell’s goal was to have some fun, to pull off a hoax. His motivation may simply have been career advancement. Certainly, the story was not treated as having been in good fun. When the Journal’s managing editor finally found out what Thomas had done, he was furious. He did not call it a “hoax”; he called it “a fake from start to finish.” Whatever fun there had been in journalistic fabrications, to use our modern term for them, was disappearing.

It is no coincidence that at about this time universities were gaining their first journalism programs. They taught journalism as a profession, which, like law or medicine, had its own ethical standards – truth telling first among them. And in 1922, when the American Society of Newspaper Editors was formed, its “Code of Ethics” proclaimed the importance for newspapers of “SINCERITY, TRUTHFULNESS, ACCURACY.”

Thomas made clear, in a letter to Walter Cronkite 66 years later, that he had learned an important “lesson” from his Helen Morton fabrication. In the 1930s Thomas became the host of the first and most listened to network radio newscast, as well as the voice and face of the newsreels seen in more American movie theaters than all the others combined. And the journalism Thomas introduced to these new national audiences was not the droll, anything-goes, sensational, cynical journalism he had seen and practiced in Chicago. It was instead earnest, fair-minded and wide ranging – a journalism devoted to keeping Americans informed, particularly about the increasingly dangerous world in which they found themselves.

There would be no room for hoaxes let alone fabrications in what was then in the process of becoming “traditional” American journalism. Of course, a few – out of laziness, insecurity or impishness – would still cheat, but when caught they would be, unlike Lowell Thomas a hundred years ago, severely punished.

Yet this journalism was not without weaknesses of its own. It was vulnerable, in particular, to manipulation by officials. Senator Joseph McCarthy certainly demonstrated that in the late 1940s and early 1950s with his wild charges about Communists in various branches of government – charges that were simply passed on by many American news organizations. It was true that a senator had said that, but it wasn’t true.

During the Vietnam War journalists were offered further lessons in the danger of confusing what officials say with truth. This front-page headline, which appeared over an Associated Press story in the New York Times on July 7, 1964, was not atypical: “VIETNAMESE HALT SHARP RED ATTACK.” Forgetting for a moment the jingoism inherent in the wording of the headline, the story itself turned out to be attributed only to “United States officers” who were allowed to praise their allies – “Government defenders” – for having made “a magnificent show of courage.” Of course, such military successes and shows of “courage” – as proclaimed by Johnson Administration officials and the American military, as dutifully transcribed, at least in the early years of the war, by the press – somehow never managed to eliminate the need for more and more American troops or stave off eventual defeat.

But journalism was slowly changing in this regard, too. The rise of journalism criticism helped: A. J. Liebling began exposing such foolishness in the New Yorker in 1945; the Columbia Journalism Review debuted in 1961. The obvious lies of the Nixon Administration on Watergate and the success of the Washington Post in particular in gathering the necessary facts to expose them also helped accelerate such changes. Official statements were still reported but were more often being investigated.

And today we are making our way further still along the road toward truer truths. We are learning that facts may not be the only language through which journalists might speak. Perhaps they might more often interpret and explain, as Ezra Klein and his cohorts at the new vox.com are doing. Perhaps they might use statistical or other sophisticated means of analysis as Nate Silver and friends at fivethirtyeight.com or David Leonhardt and the crew at the New York Times’ Upshot.com do. Perhaps some expertise on economics or science – more and more on display outside and inside “legacy” news organizations – will prove enlightening. Increasingly this is the argument in journalism: between a traditional reliance upon fact and a more interpretative “wisdom journalism.”

Had some of the above – rejecting fabrication, questioning sources, adding wisdom – occasionally been done earlier? It had been. Do we risk losing what was learned about the importance of truthfulness from Lowell Thomas’ fake story if we switch to an often-opinionated interpretation? There is a danger of that. But it is possible to discern a progression in notions of truth in American journalism over the past hundred years – a progression that has the potential to help us better understand the world.

About Mitchell Stephens

Mitchell Stephens, a professor of Journalism in the Carter Institute at New York University, is the author most recently of "Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World" (Palgrave Macmillan), "Beyond News: The Future of Journalism" (Columbia University Press) and "Journalism Unbound: New Approaches to Writing and Reporting" (Oxford University Press). He also wrote "A History of News" (Viking, Penguin, Oxford) and "the rise of the image the fall of the word" (Oxford), along with two widely used journalism textbooks.
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