American Journalism Textbooks and Social Responsibility

By McConnell, Jane S. | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

American Journalism Textbooks and Social Responsibility


McConnell, Jane S., Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


The document most widely known for dominating discussion of journalism ethics in the last half of the 20th century is, without doubt, the 1947 report of the Commission on Freedom of the Press, A Free and Responsible Press. Countless journalism classes study its injunctions, and it is widely presented to students as the foundation of the social responsibility theory of the press.1 While journalism educators have relied on the report as a convenient landmark, they have generally overlooked their own significant role in the development of the concept of media responsibility.

The first departments and schools of journalism played key roles in shaping the standards, ideals and ethics of twentieth-century journalism.2 Their stress on liberal education, bolstered by specific studies, professional training and adherence to standards of ethics and responsibility, also gave journalism professionals ballast to help counterbalance pressures caused by the culture's growing demand for social accountability of the press.3

When college journalism courses were first taught, virtually no journalism textbooks existed. The changes in early journalism textbooks parallel changes in journalism and society during the first decades of this century. An analysis of these textbooks provides unique insights into the authors' perceptions of the proper role of journalism in society. It also documents changes in the way press responsibility was viewed by journalism educators and professionals.4

Journalism education histories generally do not identify any one textbook as the first to be used.5 Frank Luther Mott suggested that Haney's Guide to Authorship in 1867 and Hints to Young Editors in 1872 were "two of the earliest journalism manuals,"6 but these were clearly not intended as college textbooks.7 Haney's book was published two years before the first college journalism course was offered at Washington and Lee University in 1869.8

The books examined in this study represent journalism textbooks written before the 1942 inception of the Commission on Freedom of the Press, also known as the Hutchins Commission. Nine of the 12 textbooks, all published from 1891 to 1942, dealt with the mechanics of news writing. They either were written by journalism educators or were the result of a collaboration of journalism educators with practitioners. The other three were written by practicing journalists and concentrated on journalism principles.

In the earliest textbooks, the authors' descriptions of press responsibility and the role of journalism in society were often tucked away in chapters with titles such as "The Definition of News" or "The Function of the Newspaper." In many cases, only a few lines, or a paragraph or two, were related to the topics.

Almost uniformly, the textbooks written by journalism educators offered less commentary than the books of professional journalists. Professionals were also more likely to use anecdotes and a casual writing style.

The earliest textbooks were highly technical, probably because many educators believed the role of journalism education was to produce proficient newspaper employees, well versed in the mechanics of news writing and ready for the trials of journalism. Few early textbooks offered anything but the most rudimentary explanations of the role of journalism in society or of press responsibility. Although professional journalists and educators of that time often waxed poetic about libertarian values, their textbooks revealed little more than practical advice for novice journalists.9

Many of the journalism books published at the end of the 19th century were pamphlet-sized (7" x 4.5"). Writing For the Press: A Manual for Editors, Reporters, Correspondents, and Printers, published in 1891, was typical of this group.10 Prefaced with poignant quotations relevant to journalistic writing, the book focused on the mechanics of newspaper writing.11 There were pithy explanations of the personal responsibilities of journalists, although their usefulness was apparently in minimizing legal expenses and preserving their subjects' reputations:

Make every effort to be accurate in every particular. …

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