What Is Muckraking Journalism?

Muckraking journalism is investigative reporting that exposes corruption within government, society, and business. Learn more in this article.

Muckraking journalism is a term used for investigative reporting that exposes corruption and keeps those within positions of power accountable.

The origin of ‘muckraking journalism‘ dates back to the 19th century when ‘muckrakers’ were reporters who exposed the wrongdoing of government and businesses through fact-based reporting.

The muckrakers also used their journalistic skills to keep the powerful accountable and accelerated progressivism within various sectors of society.

Examples of Early Muckraking

Muckraking journalism offered a way for writers to keep people in a position of power in check while highlighting the plight of those suffering.

An early example of this during the Progressive Era was Ida B. Wells, who highlighted the horrors of lynching. She wrote two pamphlets; A Red Record: Lynchings in the United States and Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.

In those works, she cataloged 241 lynchings.

Wells‘ writing was a form of activism seeking reforms against the barbaric practice. Although they were not introduced, she highlighted the unjust practice and helped educate the public on the racist practices that were commonplace.

Ida Tarbell was another prominent writer who took on the powerful.

She took on John D.Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company and revealed that it was destroying small businesses throughout America. Among the small businesses that were eaten up was her father’s company.

She highlighted these injustices in a series of articles in McClure’s Magazine.

According to The Smithsonian, Tarbell was one ”of the most influential muckrakers of the Gilded Age, helping to usher in that age of political, economic, and industrial reform known as the Progressive Era.”

There was more to the distribution of information than traditional journalistic writing for the first muckrakers.

For instance, Jacob Riis published a photo essay which revealed some of the worst cases of poverty within New York City. This work is called “How the Other Half Lives” and was one of the most influential works.

Meanwhile, Upton Sinclair opened the eyes of the public to the unsanitary conditions within the meatpacking industry in his novel, The Jungle.

Here Sinclair took on the assets of literary and narrative journalists to create a piece of work that entertained, informed, and enacted future change.

President Theodore Roosevelt and Muckraking Journalism

President Theodore Roosevelt and Muckraking Journalism
Philip de László, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The first muckraking journalists found a way to take on those in power and reveal corruption. As you can imagine, this was not always considered positive.

President Roosevelt, who was in office then, and he was one of the first to take issue with the practice.

His use of muckraking to critique reporters being overly pessimistic popularized the term.

In a speech, he borrowed the term “muck rake” from the novel Pilgrim’s Progress, a popular piece of writing by John Bunyan.

In her memoir, Ida Tarbell discussed Roosevelt’s view. She wrote that he had “misread his Bunyan” and “had become uneasy at the effect on the public of the periodical press’s increasing criticisms and investigations of business and political abuses.”

However, according to experts, this speech was “a call for journalists to be even-handed and objective in their reporting.”

The Influence of Muckrakers

If you chose to be an activist in The Progressive Era, muckraking journalism was an excellent option.

It proved to be incredibly impactful on the society of the time. Reporting on shoddy business practices, child labor, political corruption, and poverty within tenements pushed for progressive reforms.

Examples include Lincoln Steffens articles in McClure‘s Magazine which demonstrated the allegiance built between big business and city officials. They, in turn, led to a more progressive city manager system.

Upton Sinclair’s work on working conditions within meat factories also directly led to policies, such as the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. Countless other muckraking journalists have directly impacted government policy and public opinion.

Difference Between Yellow Journalism and Muckraking Journalism

Because the practices became prominent at a similar time, many confuse muckraking journalism with yellow journalism.

However, the yellow journalism associated with William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer was sensationalist, exaggerated, and often presented as part of a plan.

Whereas the muckrakers got their information from detailed investigations.

Muckraking journalists were also more focussed on exposing corruption and enacting social change.

Thus, the difference between these two narrative journalism techniques is how the facts are gathered and distributed.

PBS’ education website distills these differences in a helpful statement.

It reads: “The investigative techniques of the muckrakers included poring over documents, conducting countless interviews, and going undercover. This differs from yellow journalism, where some leading newspapers sensationalized stories using imagination rather than facts.”

Essentially yellow journalism sought change through sensationalism, whereas muckrakers worked to change society through fact-based reporting.

Examples of Modern Muckraking Journalism

Of course, today’s journalists also work on exposing corruption in business, government, and society.

Because of these issues, muckraking is a form of activism that hasn’t been confined to books detailing American history.

As an award-winning investigative reporter Mark Feldstein put it: ”Every generation of journalists faces its unique challenges, of course, but the cycles of investigative reporting are eternal: corruption, then exposure, then reform—followed by more corruption, more exposure, and more reform—in an endless loop of societal self-cleansing.”

In other words, the powerful will also need to be kept accountable, so there will always be work for muckraking journalists.

The following are just a few examples of modern-day muckraking. Nevertheless, these reporters helped enact change by exposing the wrongdoing of those in powerful positions.

Nigel Jaquiss reporting on Neil Goldschmidt

Jaquiss‘ reporting helped uncover a horrible secret in the life of politician Neil Goldschidt. Goldshidt resigned due to his sexual misconduct, which Jaquiss helped uncover.

Jaquiss also highlighted the abuse of power by several other high-profile people who helped keep Goldschidt from facing accountability.

Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit

Desmond‘s book followed eight families attempting to navigate the complex and dubious housing policy of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Acclaimed journalist Owen Jones described it as ”essential” and ”a compelling and damning exploration of the abuse of one of our fundamental human rights: shelter.”

David Barstow on retired generals co-opted by Pentagon

In his reporting in The New York Times, Barstow uncovered “how some retired generals, working as radio and television analysts, had been co-opted by the Pentagon to make its case for the war in Iraq, and how many of them also had undisclosed ties to companies that benefited from policies they defended.”

This is a perfect example of muckraking, as it uncovers governmental and business problems at the top level.

Michael J. Berens and Ken Armstrong revealed government’s use of cheaper but more dangerous drug

The pair won the Pulitzer Prize for their reporting within The Seattle Times. They reported how a governmental body moved vulnerable patients from safer pain-control medication to methadone, a cheaper but more dangerous drug.

This coverage prompted statewide health warnings and helped bring a dangerous practice into the public eye.

Paige St. John helped change insurance regulation

While reporting for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, St. John helped stir change in insurance regulation.

She did this by reporting on the shady business practices and injustices associated with insurance agents in Florida.

Susan Schmidt, James V. Grimaldi, and R. Jeffrey Smith probe Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff

Working for The Washington Post, these three helped expose congressional corruption, which produced reform efforts. Their reporting, in this instance, was described as an “indefatigable probe” by The Pulitzer Prize website.

The Future of Muckraking

Some would argue that muckraking journalism isn’t as impactful as it once was.

For instance, The Nieman Foundation at Harvard argued that the muckraking of the past was so powerful because of the power of media at the time.

It wrote: “The magic of Progressive-era muckraking was its centrality. Muckrakers… wrote for mass-market magazines. They turned local issues into national issues, local protests into national crusades. They didn’t preach to the converted; they did the converting, helping transform America from a laissez-faire to a welfare state mentality.”

Another against the future of muckraking is the challenges it faces. Deutsche Welle (DW) makes this point, stating that “investigative journalism, primarily when conducted by professional journalists versus a team of volunteers and amateur reporters, often resources intensive, requiring a significant investment in computing, on-the-ground reporting, and tech expertise. In addition, it often only reaches an audience with… a high level of media and information literacy.“

Muckraking journalism is also not without danger. When the powerful are exposed, there is a natural danger that they will lash out.

Deutsche Welle (DW) also discussed this issue, stating that a ” significant challenge for the investigative approach is the physical dangers it can present… For example, since 1992, 20 percent of journalists killed were working on stories about corruption – one of the classic issues uncovered by investigative journalists.”

However, as the list of modern examples above demonstrates, modern muckraking journalism is impactful and can actively bring change to society. Thus, it is likely that there will always be journalists who want to bring this change and work on these types of stories.

Jim Heaney, who established the Investigative Post, an organization attempting to put muckraking at the centre of their ethos, discussed the importance and attraction of this type of journalism.

He wrote: “There’s an acute need for our independent, fact-based accountability journalism style.”

The aforementioned Mark Feldstein also wrote on this subject, stating that “if history is any guide, no matter what form it takes, muckraking has a bright future. Just like the venality it exposes, it will outlast us all.”

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FAQs About Muckraking Journalism

Why is muckraking important?

Muckraking is vital because it exposes corruption and keeps the powerful accountable.

What is an example of muckraking journalism?

An example of the practice’s origin is Ray Stannard Baker exposing the plight of the poor in the Chicago Record. A more modern example would be Lorraine Adams and Dan Malone reporting on the Texas police’s misconduct.

What does muckraking mean?

Muckraking is investigative journalism that focuses on keeping those in positions of power accountable by presenting stories based on facts that expose corruption.

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