Academic journal article Journalism History

The Professionalization of Journalism: A Nineteenth-Century Beginning

Academic journal article Journalism History

The Professionalization of Journalism: A Nineteenth-Century Beginning

Article excerpt

Journalists in the mid-nineteenth century faced unique challenges. The war that pitted brother against brother raised partisan journalism to a fine art.1 Advertisements for snake oil almost singularly supported some newspapers while merchants' secret payments bribed publishers for complimentary editorials.2 The large numbers of untrained war correspondents showed the world just how badly journalists can behave, and journalism's credibility appeared to be at an all-time low.3

A similar crisis in credibility in the early twentieth century prompted a visible drive that has been seen by some researchers as the first interest in journalistic professionalization. Thus, traditional historical accounts place the start of professionalization efforts at the beginning of the twentieth century.

This article proposes that the interest in journalistic professionalization started well before the twentieth century. It shows journalistic professionalization as part of a gradual process, rather than a phenomenon that appeared suddenly after 1900 with the proliferation of professional associations, schools, and codes of ethics. This article does not argue that journalism is, or ever has been, a profession. It looks at the attitudes of a group of mid-nineteenth century journalists toward their work in a professional context.

The principal basis for this article is the minutes of the Missouri Press Association (hereafter MPA), beginning at the group's inception in 1867.4 These minutes indicate that in the mid-nineteenth century the MPA members not only saw themselves as professionals in the classical sense of doctors, lawyers, and the clergy but, after forming a professional association, also sought to further professionalize by pressing for university journalism education and ethical standards.

The general concept of a gradual development of all professions is supported by sociologists such as A.M. Carr-Saunders, P.A. Wilson, Wilbert Moore, and Everett Cherrington Hughes, who viewed professionalization as a process.5 For instance, in The Professions, originally published in 1933, Carr-Saunders and Wilson said that professions normally progress gradually before attaining the highest levels of professional status. They wrote:

Looking back on the story of the development of professional techniques and on the rise of professional associations, we have seen that evolution does not always proceed smoothly . . . .The evolution of the legal and medical professions was anything but smooth.6

In 1958 Hughes emphasized the process as well, in posing the question:

Let me only indicate that in my own studies I passed from the false question "Is this occupation a profession?" to the more fundamental one, "What are the circumstances in which the people in sn occupation attempt to turn it into a profession, and themselves into professional people?" and "What are the steps by which they attempt to bring about identification with their valued model?"7

Sociologist Wilbert Moore further defined the concept of professionalization as a process by using a scale to describe different levels of professional attainment. Moore wrote:

In short, we suggest that professionalism should be properly be regarded as a scale rather than a cluster of attributes....We shall nevertheless, put forward this set of suggestions, being convinced that only in this way can the wondrous array of technical occupations be put in some kind of order, and, importantly, can the process of status enhancement be understood.8

If one looks at professionalization as a gradual scale of attainment as suggested by Moore, one would not expect journalistic professionalization to emerge suddenly. Moore's idea of steps in the professionalization process suggest that if journalism in the twentieth century exhibited some of the hallmarks of professionalization (professional associations, codes of ethics, and schools), then benchmarks in the professionalization process might be evident in the nineteenth century. …

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