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The function of journalism is to collect, communicate, and comment on the news—the day-to-day events of public interest that take place in our lives. The news can be communicated in many ways. It may be printed in newspapers, newsletters, and magazines, for use at a time and place of the reader's choice. It may be read or told by reporters over radio and television broadcasts. It may be transmitted over news wires and computer networks. Sometimes the news is conveyed by means of images such as photographs and cartoons.

The professionals who take part in collecting, writing, editing, and reporting news in the media are known as journalists. They include reporters, writers, photographers and camera operators, editors, commentators, analysts, graphic artists, and designers.

The word "journal" comes from the Latin word diurnus, meaning "belonging to a day," and refers to a written daily record of noteworthy events, transactions, or experiences. Throughout history, people have kept written accounts of important daily events, as well as information of ongoing interest, such as birth and death notices, reports of crimes, records of battles and wars, and descriptions of laws passed and repealed. A journalist, then, is a person who keeps the journal, or record, of public transactions and events.

Journalism in action is actually the process of telling as many people as possible, "Guess what happened today!" Many journalists are in a constant race to keep track of what is going on in their towns, their states, their countries, and the world. "Breaking news" is the term used for stories about things that are happening fast—things that people look to journalists to tell them about.

Kinds of Journalism

Modern news stories usually break, or appear first, on the broadcast media, that is, radio and television. These media present the news with maximum speed. Most radio stations broadcast the news every hour or half hour and can interrupt a program with a news bulletin if an important story occurs. However, a newscast usually contains only a few important details about each story.

The combination of sound and pictures on a television newscast can have a great impact on the viewer. Most television networks and stations have regularly scheduled news programs several times a day and, like radio stations, can interrupt other programs at any time. Important events can be covered in depth through special reports, documentaries, and panel discussions.

News stories can be analyzed in greater depth in the print media, that is, newspapers and magazines. The main emphasis of a daily newspaper is on day-to-day events of general interest. Most papers offer a combination of international, national, and local news. They also provide background information, in-depth analyses, and editorials.

Most magazines are published weekly or monthly. Because they have more time to gather information, they often provide more explanatory information than newspapers do. Some magazines cover current general issues; others specialize in a particular field.

Both the print and broadcast media use a process called networking to transmit news quickly and efficiently. For the print media, this is done by distribution through news groups, which are corporations that own several publications, or through wire services, such as the Associated Press (AP), United Press International (UPI), and Reuter's. Wire services are organizations that collect and write news stories and sell them to subscribing newspapers and magazines. In the broadcast media, networking takes place through broadcast networks, such as the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and National Public Radio (NPR). The networks distribute programming to local affiliated stations via microwave relay or communications satellites.

The Role of Journalism

In a democracy, journalism performs a very important role: to inform the public of events that affect their lives. Journalists are often referred to as the eyes and ears of citizens who cannot attend every meeting of a legislative body or corporate board. To vote responsibly, people must rely on credible journalists to provide accurate and timely information regarding public issues.

Besides informing the public by reporting the news, journalists also interpret the news, usually through background articles and editorials. At times journalists suggest what actions the public should take; they may also give their opinions of the likely results of a particular policy or event.

Journalism plays a key role in social reform. Journalists called investigative reporters probe into the activities of government and business and expose wrongdoing. This "watchdog" role is very important in protecting the interests of the public.

A fourth function of journalism is to entertain. In addition to serious news topics, journalists also present human-interest stories, humorous commentaries, and information on popular culture. They bring us lively and interesting information about the world around us.

Issues in Journalism

Most democratic governments recognize the right of journalists to express themselves freely. They believe that a free press is necessary in maintaining a free society. In the United States, freedom of speech and of the press is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

With freedom comes responsibility. If journalists have the right to speak freely, they also have a duty to present information as accurately and objectively as possible. They try to keep free from pressures and restrictions that might affect their coverage of the news.

Journalism's interest in the pressing issues of the day means that there will often be controversy about what journalists write. Controversy can be beneficial, sparking interest in an important issue. But journalists have sometimes been accused of overemphasizing scandalous or sensational stories simply to increase profits, in the process invading the privacy of their subjects and even distorting the truth. These concerns have prompted some supporters of truthful news coverage to propose that journalism be regulated. Other people, however, believe that the control of news has more harmful effects than does the need to use judgment in assessing news reports.

Another important journalistic issue is protecting the identity of news sources. If the person who is the source of a controversial story is unwilling to speak for publication, the journalist may offer him or her anonymity, which is a promise that that person's name will not be used in the story. (A good journalist will make certain that several other people are willing to say the story is true.) Protecting the anonymity of sources is regarded by journalists as a right and a duty. In certain court cases, reporters have been called as witnesses and ordered to identify the source of their information. Some reporters have gone to jail rather than reveal their sources.

There have been many court decisions upholding the right of the press to be present at trials and to cover court cases. But judges will sometimes limit news coverage if they believe that reporting on the case will affect the ability of the defendant to get a fair trial. Reporters and photographers have also been barred from some courtrooms. Whether photographers and television cameras can be present in U.S. courtrooms is still an open question. In some states and at some court levels, cameras are allowed and entire trials are televised. In other courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, cameras are never allowed.

A relatively new issue concerns the effects of modern technology on journalistic practices. Television and high-speed telecommunications enable journalists to reach into almost every home in the United States almost immediately. This immediacy often brings the nation together, but it can also cause problems. For example, television news has been criticized for reporting the first results from elections before the voting booths are closed. Does this influence the people who come to vote during the final hours of an election?

Careers in Journalism

Journalism can be an exciting career. Journalists meet and interview government leaders and other notable people. They may travel around the world in the course of covering a story. They receive public recognition for their work and may even become famous in their own right.

The field of journalism offers a wide range of career opportunities for young people, not only in writing and editing, but in photography, television reporting and producing, cinematography, and graphic arts and design.

Most successful reporters and editors became involved in journalistic writing at an early age. School newspapers provide an opportunity for budding journalists to have their work published and can have a vital impact on school communities.

While on-the-job experience has always been important in journalism, modern newspapers, magazines, and radio and television networks and broadcast stations usually require that their professional personnel be college graduates. Students can work toward college degrees in departments of journalism and mass communication. Modern journalism and communication courses span all media, including printed formats, radio, and television. Internship programs offer students an opportunity to work at a news outlet at least once during their college years.


Until the 1920's, journalists worked exclusively in the print media—newsletters, newspapers, and magazines. Newsletters and newspapers evolved first, many centuries ago, initially as handbills following in the tradition of proclamations by a town crier and posted handwritten public notices. The development of the printing press during the 1400's allowed such notices to be printed in quantity, and the spread of literacy encouraged their use.

The early newsletters contained information mainly about commerce and business. Gradually, the publications also came to include opinions and commentaries on news and issues of broad interest. Newspapers continued to grow in number and coverage, and journalism had begun to emerge as a distinct profession by the mid-1700's.

Development of U.S. Journalism

The first regularly published American newspaper, the Boston News-Letter, appeared in Boston in 1704. It was not long before daily newspapers appeared in major cities across America.

The first true American newspapers were largely political in coverage, supporting or criticizing the views and records of politicians. Their relatively high price of six cents per copy put them out of reach of most people.

About 1830, some papers began to publish the news in smaller sheet sizes that working people could afford. Soon there were many small-sheet newspapers competing for the mass market. Called penny papers because many sold for one cent per copy, they emphasized news over politics and featured human-interest stories as well as editorial commentary.

By the late 1800's, a number of large daily newspapers exerted considerable influence on their readers in the United States. Publishers began to feel their power. Some made a conscious effort to serve the public interest and, sometimes, to sway public opinion. They acquired many newspapers, creating nationwide chains of ownership. Aggressive competition and an interest in controversial news stories set the tone for modern journalism.

At about the same period, national wire services came into being. The first in the United States was the Associated Press, started in 1848. These services provided breaking news to newspapers all over the world, first by telegraph and later by teletype.

Magazines became popular in the mid-1800's but at first focused on fields of special interest rather than on general news. At the turn of the century, some magazine journalists attacked corruption in business and government. These reformers were called muckrakers, because they unearthed information usually hidden from the general public.

Time, the first weekly newsmagazine, was founded in 1923. Other magazines of news and political commentary soon followed, including Newsweek, U.S. News, and the Nation.

The development of radio communication early in the 1900's enabled the use of radio broadcasting for communicating news by about 1920. Network radio began during the 1920's with the founding of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). Many print journalists moved to radio, changing their writing style to briefer reports made up of short sentences intended for the ear rather than the eye. Radio became a very important news medium for reporting the latest news during World War II, but its significance was reduced after the war by the rise of television.

Motion pictures were a popular news medium during the 1930's and throughout World War II, when newsreels of current news, sports, and general-interest events were shown in movie theaters. However, this use of movies was largely replaced by nationwide television broadcasts by the mid-1950's.

Television grew rapidly after World War II, and many radio journalists transferred their skills to the new medium. In the United States, television coverage of such major events as the Army-McCarthy hearings, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the Vietnam War established television's position as an important journalistic medium capable of reaching millions of people at the same moment. News shows were broadcast every evening, and soon a majority of U.S. citizens were getting their news from television.

Beginning in the 1960's, communications satellites allowed worldwide transmission of television broadcasts. In 1980, the Cable News Network (CNN) became the first television station to provide news 24 hours a day. Other cable stations provide news on particular subjects. CNBC focuses on financial news, and C-SPAN covers government and public meetings throughout the United States.

Electronic Journalism

Print media will always retain a key role in journalism, because newspapers, magazines, and newsletters are so portable and inexpensive. Increasingly, however, more and more news is received electronically. Both newspapers and magazines are beginning to experiment with electronic distribution through CD-ROM's (compact discs that can be read by computers) and computerized information networks. These multimedia technologies, combining text, sound, and images, are likely to play a role in the future of journalism.

Today many news agencies and newspapers distribute their information over the Internet. Reuters, Associated Press, the New York Times, and other organizations provide up-to-date coverage of worldwide events on their Web sites. These sites often contain archived news stories as well as photos and sound.

Regardless of changes in technology, the mission of journalism will still be to tell what is happening in the world as quickly, comprehensively, and truthfully as possible.

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