News in Print: 1500-1850


As we have already learned from Anderson (1991 [1983]) and Habermas (1989 [1962]), the invention of the printing press was not merely a technological advance; it also fundamentally changed the ways in which contemporaries perceived themselves within their societies. Our readings this week further extend this argument by examining how the practice of journalism actually shaped social consciousness and influenced public opinion.

By emphasizing that modern journalism did not appear until post 1850, Chalaby (1998) paints a revealing portrait of early publicists and their role in the dissemination of news. Unlike the modern emphasis on objectivity in reporting the news, pre-1850 publicists were overtly political and openly aligned with guilds and associations.  They wrote passionately and struggled to unite their readers as one voice to speak out against opposing forces.  This created a sense of class consciousness (or, as Anderson would say, ‘nationalism’) amongst readers and created a more actively political public that held government accountable to public opinion.

Similarly, McNairn (1998) demonstrates how journalism practices in early Canada actually changed the very nature of readers.  By regularly publishing the parliamentary debates, journalists allowed readers to judge for themselves and become active participants in the legislative process.  In the same way as Chalaby’s publicists, these journalism practices helped to form a national identity, unifying readers of varying ranks and social stations into ‘the people.’

A key difference between McNairn and Chalaby is their treatment of the affects of objectivity in journalism.  McNairn asserts that the very fact that political reports were objective forced readers to actively decide for themselves and thereby become active political participants.  On the other hand, Chalaby emphasizes that, with the introduction of objectivity in journalism, readers were longer moved by what they were reading, so they became less involved in political matters.  He portrays the news practices of pre-1850 as more ideal and stresses how the post-1850 change in news reporting style led to political and social apathy.

Not only did journalism impact political processes, but it also influenced religious thought and economic practices.  Wiltenburg (2004) demonstrates how early crime reports shaped public opinion about crime and justice and served to advance religious agendas.  These reports replayed every gruesome detail of crimes, often exaggerating and improvising facts so as to appeal to the emotional and moral sensibilities of their readers.  They urged readers to ‘unite for the cause’ and stand up against sin and depravity by embracing religious and governmental authority as the most effective deterrent against future crime and injustice.

McCusker (2005) explores the economic impacts of journalism and details how business publications legitimized city markets such as Amsterdam and London, transforming them into the major business centres of the western world.   He describes a two step process.  First, similar to Eisenstein (2002), he describes how the invention of the printing press paved the way for a subsequent ‘information revolution.’  Second, this unprecedented access to standardized market information allowed businesses to operate more efficiently and brought about a ‘commercial revolution,’ first in North Atlantic Europe and then North America.  McCusker’s argument would be strengthened by relying more heavily on the approach of Carey (1992) and Nord (2003), who suggest a more cultural approach to media history that shifts the historical focus away from the producers of media and instead focuses on audiences.  A suggested area of further study would be to build upon McCusker’s groundwork by examining more primary sources from the actual readers of business news currents.

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