Cartoons as a Teaching Tool in Journalism History: Linking Print Heritage with Modern Technology

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Linking print heritage with modern technology

Teaching journalism history is a joy for the faculty. As many instructors are aware, however, this classroom experience can be a dry disappointment for students -- every one eager to become a famed investigative reporter with a national-breaking story or a high-paid television anchor - for whom history is a bore.

Journalism history shares the burden that most history bears - dull and distant, replete with confusing dates and arcane names. Not to mention trying to learn all that technical stuff that people used before electronics -- television, computers, the Internet and Web sites emerged with push-button efficiency to make everything easier.

Journalism history is a demanding discipline given the immense scope of ideas, events and technological developments to be covered in a semester. Consequently, history presents formidable obstacles to arouse and maintain class interest. The size and scope of the textbooks alone are daunting. Frankly, many students dislike history - Vietnam, a passionate issue to most instructors today, is as remote to most students as the Barbary Wars. The past is boring to the average undergraduate. Faculty often confront a lethargic, blase crowd with high self-esteem and low attention span. History is a challenge to teach.

Students may enter classrooms convinced that Gutenberg invented the printing press and totally unacquainted with Edward R. Murrow. Similarly, the scathing commentary of H. L. Mencken is as remote and removed as the political passion and influence of Horace Greeley. That is to be expected. But if the students who complete college journalism studies are similarly ignorant, then the fault lies with the faculty.

Substantive elements exist, with a capacity to bring a stimulating atmosphere of visual images to illuminate journalism history: newspaper editorial cartoons. American journalism is ubiquitous and encompasses a wide range of subjects that can help create a lively semester. A great deal of needed material can be covered employing visual assistance that adds to the presentation with graphics and complements concepts and issues discussed.

Editorial cartoons, and the role of cartoons in journalism, can serve as a useful beginning point for lively discussion. Editorial cartoons provide a long and interesting illustrative history in American journalism, reflecting the politics, issues and people of every era. Moreover, cartoons can inject a variety of contrasting points of view. The policy issues of the United States appear one way in the pages, say, of the Chicago Tribune, as compared to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Journalism history reflects the nation's history.

With cartoons to assist, instructors can incorporate the newspaper history into foreign policy, technology and people. From the beginnings of the country, cartoons played a role. Benjamin Franklin's "Join, or Die" cartoon was published in the Pennsylvania Gazette, and widely reprinted, showing a divided serpent depicting the original British colonies, urging them to unite against the British in the Revolutionary War. Most people are unaware that Franklin, like many cartoonists (yes, Franklin was among America's early cartoonists as well as publisher of one of its early newspapers), recycled his original effort of 1754, as a propaganda device to muster support to mobilize frontiersmen during the French and Indian Var. Its first venture was proBritish; recycled, however, Franklin's popular cartoon assumed an anti-British stance.

Technology played a role. The reproduction was impressed from an early wood cut, not a pen and ink drawing. Paul Revere was responsible for early American cartoons, as well, during the Revolutionary period. His medium was copper plate engravings. Until lithography emerged in 1822, artists had to cut, etch or engrave their drawings on wood, steel or copper. Mass lithography (oil-based ink on stone) began in 1828; newspaper cartoons were relatively rare. …