Raking muck. Ethics and the Muckrakers

The period of muckraking journalism during the late 19th century is considered the golden age of reform journalism. It is during this period of unprecedented economic and population growth that the United States was also plagued by many ills, mainly political corruption and unethical business practices. The only way these ills of society stood to be cured were if the common man knew about and rallied against them and the only way that would happen was if they were brought to light. It was a time when the common journalist had an opportunity to change America.

In my opinion, the journalists of this period exemplify the ideals set forth by the code of ethics for journalists. These were journalist who in a time of rampant corruption, corporate monopolization and little or no regulations in the food and drug industries sought the truth and reported it. They were criticized at the time for only reporting on the negatives of society, hence how they became to be branded as muckrakers, but it is undeniable that in doing so they were doing a great public service.

The first ideal of the Journalist’s code of ethics is to seek truth and report it. The Muckrakers did so. Reporters such as Ida Minerva were instrumental in breaking the back of large monopolies such as Standard Oil, who with their dominance of the oil market operated with no regard for ethical business practices, by exposing their history of strong arm tactics and grafts.

The second ideal was to minimize harm. Upton Sinclair’s articles about the poor conditions that workers had to face were effective in humanizing and putting a face to the many workers who toiled in unsafe conditions at the time. Ultimately his articles made the American government reevaluate the rights of the lower class workers for safe work conditions.

Journalists must act independently; they must avoid conflicts of interests and maintain their integrity at all costs. When magazines began speaking out against the many unsafe patent medicines, they made the decision to stop carrying advertising for these very same medicines even though it would lose them significant amounts of advertising revenue. They chose integrity and the rights of the public over their own bottom line.


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