Module JG250

Muckraking Journalism

Module author

William (Bill) Minutaglio

The University of Texas at Austin

Learning objectives

After studying this module, you will be able to:

  • Define and explain muckraking journalism;
  • Give an overview of the historic development of the genre, including key persons, such as US president Theodore Roosevelt, who established this genre;
  • Reflect this genre critically.
Study point 1
Reading extract Muckraking Journalism


Why Open School of Journalism believes that Muckraking Journalism is important zu know

It was none other than beloved U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt who coined the term "muckraking" in 1906. The phenomenon had been going on for quite some time before he did so, however, and the phrase did little to deter muckrakers. In fact, they adored it and chose to adopt it as their own. In his speech about muckraking, Roosevelt was not dismissive about this form of investigative journalism. He believed that it was necessary for many reasons, but cautioned that there comes a point when journalists must know "when to stop raking the muck."

Muckraking is a type of journalism that puts a spotlight on a variety of social ills that desperately need to be addressed. Among the issues covered by early muckrakers were child labor, unsanitary conditions in cities, and unsafe working conditions in factories. There was also concern about the state of mental institutions, which daring New York Tribune reporter Julian Chambers brought to light in his 1872 investigation of the Bloomingdale Asylum. Readers were shocked by Chambers' account of the conditions there, and after the piece was printed, the entire institution was overhauled. Some of the inmates who were not actually mentally ill were released. Several administrative changes were made at the institution as a direct result of Chambers' investigation. Fifteen years later, reporter Nellie Bly would also expose injustices in a mental health institution.

These were the catalysts that mobilized journalists to spearhead deep investigations. Although murmurings of reform had begun during the mid-nineteenth century, it wasn't until the turn of the twentieth century that muckraking journalism truly hit its stride. McClure's Magazine, Collier's Weekly, and Munsey's Magazine all printed articles that were considered part of the muckraking movement. McClure's in particular was regarded as a trailblazer in this respect, turning out some of the most well-researched and interesting muckraking articles of the day.

Women, who were still not allowed to vote at this time, saw the opportunity to become a part of social change through this groundbreaking new kind of journalism. Ida Tarbell, perhaps the most notable muckraking journalist of all time (although she disliked the term), was a woman on a mission. Once the only woman in her college class, Tarbell had been defying boundaries and social norms since her early years. Her exposé series on Standard Oil, one of the biggest companies of the day, ran in McClure's for nineteen issues. The series was highly praised for its important revelations and insight into an incredibly powerful American organization. Perhaps because she was a woman, Tarbell's presence did not trigger the sorts of alarms it should have when she was doing investigative work. This worked to her advantage and she was able to uncover more secrets about unsavory business practices when company officials had their guards down.

After she finished the series, she wrote a profile about Standard Oil's John D. Rockefeller, which was also a new kind of journalism. Articles about business tycoons were unheard of until Tarbell penned the Rockefeller piece. Although CEOs are now a common subject of news articles, this was a totally new kind of idea at the time. It was not the societal norm to question people in authority or take an in-depth look at business practices. Muckrakers like Ida Tarbell changed this, putting a spotlight on American business and allowing readers to form their own opinions.

It was muckraking that led to one of the most important novels of the day—The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. Sinclair spent several weeks working in a Chicago meatpacking plant, investigating the conditions. Originally published in serial form, The Jungle exposed many of the unsanitary practices that went on in the factory, as well as the harsh nature of the workers' lives and the corruption that spawned all of these circumstances.

Americans were horrified by the desperate situations described in The Jungle. They put pressure upon their public officials to take action. Many notable people of the time made public comments about the book, including Winston Churchill and the writer Jack London. The novel was even adapted into a film. President Theodore Roosevelt, who had previously described Sinclair as a "crackpot" due to his political beliefs, was also moved by the conditions described in the book. 

As a result of the outcry over The Jungle, Roosevelt sent some officials to investigate meatpacking plants in Chicago. Their assessment supported Sinclair's findings. As a result, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and Meat Inspection Act were passed. Upton Sinclair would go on to publish more muckraking journalism and in 1943 he would win the Pulitzer Prize. Unlike his contemporary Ida Tarbell, he happily accepted the label of "muckraker."

The early part of the twentieth century is often referred to as the Progressive Era, due in part to the efforts of the muckrakers. American industry was booming, but there were not many rules or regulations in place to make sure that capitalist greed did not run rampant. When muckraking journalists shed light upon the downside of exponential, unregulated growth, Americans listened and responded. Legislation was created to ensure that the food supply was safe, child labor laws were enacted, and the public became more involved in matters of industrial safety.

When World War I came around, muckraking journalism was sidelined by urgent crises as issues abroad started to take precedence. However, American journalists have carried the muckraking tradition into modern times. Journalists like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who uncovered Nixon's Watergate scandal, were considered contemporary muckrakers. In fact, all modern investigative journalists stand on the shoulders of those early twentieth-century muckrakers, who fearlessly entered mental institutions and meatpacking plants, writing about tycoons in a manner that was not necessarily flattering. As time goes by, it becomes even more apparent how much of a debt our society owes to these brave trailblazers, those who were unafraid to question authority and to demand that the government make changes. In recent years, Ida Tarbell was even honored with a U.S. postage stamp of her image.