A Short History of News


This article originally appeared in Issue# 50

Some surprising facts about the history of journalism

Rather than some relatively recent craze, stimulated by the arrival of satellites, television or even the newspaper, the good news is that the frenzied, obsessive exchange of news is one of the oldest human activities.

Messengers were appointed to bring word, criers to proclaim it and busybodies to spread the word. The need to know helped attract people to crossroads, campfires and market places; it helped motivate journeyers; it helps explain the reception accorded travelers. In most parts of the pre-literate world the first question asked of a traveler was, as it was in Outer Mongolia in 1921, "What's new?" These preliterate peoples were probably better informed about events in their immediate neighborhood than are most modem, urban or suburban Americans.

A similar fascination with news was evident in the Greek agora and later in the Roman Forum, where to the hubbub of spoken news was added information from daily handwritten news sheets, first posted by Julius Caesar.

The bad news is that two of the subjects humans have most wanted to keep up with throughout the ages are – you guessed it – sex and violence.

The Nootka of Vancouver Island, for example, would exchange plenty of important news on fishing, on the chief's activities, on plans for war. But they also pricked up their ears at word that someone was having an affair. And the tale of a suitor who tumbled into a barrel of rainwater while sneaking out the window of his lover's house "spread," according to an anthropologist, "like wildfire up and down the coast."

There is more bad news. The golden age of political coverage that journalism critics pine over – the era when reporters concentrated on the "real" issues-turns out to have been as mythical as the golden age of politics. In those rare historical moments when politicians deigned to face major problems and condescended to allow journalists to comment on them, those comments tended to be wildly subjective, as when the founders of our free press called their pro-British compatriots "diabolical Tools of Tyrants" and "men totally abandoned to wickedness." Samuel Johnson, writing in a era when thinkers like Joseph Addison, Daniel Defoe and Jonathon Swift dominated British periodicals, concluded that the press "affords sufficient information to elate vanity, and stiffen obstinacy, but too little to enlarge the mind."

So much for that golden age. Yes, journalism has changed.

For the better – our ancestors complained that they had "no data by which (to) correctly reason" about events overseas; we often seem to have, if anything, too much data.

And for the worse – it is difficult to imagine brilliant, progressive eccentrics like Horace Greeley or Joseph Pulitzer working their way to the top of the huge corporations that have taken over almost all U.S. news organizations in the 20th Century.

And much doesn't change. It is foolish to pretend that sensationalism and superficiality could simply be expunged from the news if only Geraldo Rivera or Rupert Murdoch disappeared. Nevertheless, we can still protest when the news gets too irrelevant, too shallow. We can better educate audiences about its limitations and encourage viewers to change the channel. The desire to keep up with the news seems basic to our species, but that does not mean that in learning about the world we have to limit ourselves to just satisfying that desire.

Author Bio: 

Mitchell Stephens is an associate professor of journalism at New York University. He is the author of A History of News.