As a form of communication that can inspire solidarity through appeals to democratic ideals, literary journalism can play a constitutive role in social and political struggles for justice and freedom in democratic societies. In 1963, at a pivotal moment in the US Civil Rights Movement, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time helped many Americans, including those in the highest offices of the federal government, understand the moral good of the goals of the African American freedom struggle and the democratic imperative to enact and protect the civil rights of all Americans. In this way, Baldwin’s work, along with other key historical forces, helped to expand the civil sphere and build a more just and democratic society in the United States. Civil sphere theory helps explain the role of such communication in social struggles for democracy.
Winner of the 2012 Covert Award (sponsored by the History Division of AEJMC), given tothe article or chapter in an edited collection that represents the year’s best essay in mass communication history.
This article documents the production, publication, and circulation of what is widely considered to be the most important journalistic report published in America in the twentieth century: John Hersey’s “Hiroshima.” In 1946, this landmark work of journalism–published first in the New Yorker magazine and then republished in newspapers, on broadcast radio, and in book form– traveled the breadth of the American media system. In an era largely defined by media consolidation and commercial imperatives, individuals and institutions across the American media system worked cooperatively, in a spirit of community building and citizenship, to provide as many Americans as possible with vital information and a forum for debate about unsettling moral, political, and social realities of atomic warfare and the new atomic age.
This article has received the 2012 James Carey Media Research Award (sponsored by the Carl Couch Center), given to a book or journal article published the previous year that is ”of highest quality and employs Carey’s theories to focus on communication and public life, journalism, or popular culture.”
In 1974, James Carey published “The Problem of Journalism History,” and the article quickly became famous in the field. The ideas and arguments Carey presented are still the subject of inquiry and debate. “The central and as yet unwritten history of journalism,” he wrote, “is the history of the idea of a report: its emergence among a certain group of people as a desirable form of rendering reality, its changing fortunes, definitions and redefinitions over time.” This article attempts a history of the idea of a report in America from 1885-1910. It explores what producers and observers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century American print marketplace understood an appropriate report of the world to be and how social forces and cultural values shaped this understanding. From 1885 to 1910, a particular discourse about literary work and facticity came into and passed out of being, reflecting differing ideas and intense cultural negotiation about appropriate representational strategies, prose style, voice, and genre in print culture, including imaginative and journalistic expression. The formerly distinct but fluid genres of literature and journalism separated into rigid categories of public expression.
This essay explores the truth-telling issues and problems in the 1961 Freedom Rides news coverage–and highlights just how complicated journalistic truth-telling can be. Even something as seemingly simple as verifying facts can occasionally trip up the most careful among us. The best journalists acknowledge that truth-telling is fraught with pitfalls and bewildering choices, yet they continue to aspire to tell the truth. They do so knowing that knowledge is contingent, that facts are not always durable, that truth is often perspectival. What we need in our public life—both journalists and citizens—is a more sophisticated understanding of and vocabulary for what truth-telling means in journalism and a more humble attitude toward the truth-claims we must inevitably make and assess. I have said elsewhere that “the ultimate arbiter of truth is not the press but rather the public in its vital work in America’s democratic experiment.” I still believe that. It seems important occasionally to remind ourselves, as Kovach and Rosenstiel suggest, that journalistic truth is “a process over time . . . [in which] the search for truth becomes a conversation.”Journalists and citizens must engage in this search and conversation together.
On August 6, 1945, many Americans first learned of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima from their radios. That radio was a ubiquitous mass medium during the 1940s, both in and out of wartime, is beyond dispute. But what is little known is that radio introduced many Americans to the graphic human details of the atomic destruction a little more than a year later when John Hersey’s iconic “Hiroshima” was published in the New Yorker the final week of August in 1946. Radio news announcers and commentators widely discussed Hersey’s story on the air as soon as it appeared on newsstands, and within weeks the American Broadcasting Company aired a reading of the story across four successive evenings. Radio thus played a critical role in amplifying the messages of Hersey’s article and expanding its audience and readership by millions. The New Yorker and the broadcast media demonstrated considerable civic courage in publicizing a work that put a human face on the terrible destruction at Hiroshima.
This study of the explanatory report attempts to make a meaningful contribution to the history of the American newspaper by synthesizing existing historical knowledge of the form, documenting the history of the Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Journalism, and analyzing the explanatory reports that have won the Pulitzer Prize in this category. This study also offers insights from that history to suggest how newspapers in America might improve their products in the service of democracy. A fundamental strategy, as demonstrated in the exemplary reports identified by the Pulitzer juries, is the greater use of storytelling in explanatory journalism. Such a change might help increase readership and better serve the mandate of the American press to strengthen democracy through fostering discourse in the public sphere.