News standards connote normative qualities, such as accuracy and decency, but the term specifically means the way information is gathered, made into news reports, and presented (Dicken-Garcia 1989). For example, objectivity encompasses six standards: verified facts, fairness, non-bias, independence, non-interpretation, and neutrality (Ward 2004). Journalists develop standards to gain credibility in society, and standards change across space and time. For example, US news standards changed as the press shifted from partisan to event-centered to commercial during nineteenth-century industrialization. Accuracy and balance, of little concern to partisan journalists, became more important with the shift from producer to consumer society.
Western hegemony spread news standards, which developed with the rise of capitalism and the middle class (Smith 1978, 1979). The need to sell news profitably required qualities the public would buy, and investments shaped standards as ties to political parties weakened. Around 1900, western journalism also became more about structuring than recording reality, resulting in image politics and an emphasis on objectivity.
Whether the press serves primarily the government or the public affects standards. History shows more concern with printing itself than with news standards, especially in authoritarian societies (Siebert 1965; Martin 1969), because rulers feared its permanence and reach. France executed printers for criticizing religion or government as late as 1760. England shaped colonial news standards through libel laws and press licensing (Levy 1963), controlled reporting on Parliament until at least 1845, and monitored journalism thereafter. In open societies, norms and the market shape standards, although laws prohibit libel, obscenity, and breach of security.
Little is known about journalism in transnational changes like industrialization, the development of capitalism, the growth of imperialism, and globalization (Chapman 2005), and even less is known about news standards across nations and time. Low literacy and resistance delayed printing in some non-western nations (Briggs & Burke 2005). Two examples are Russia, where mobs destroyed its first press, and Turkey, which treated printed religious material as sinful. In the east, readers developed conceptions of themselves as news audiences around 1900, and journalism growth thereafter followed western patterns.
News standards probably always existed. Before printing began in Europe, travelers and hired messengers carried news along trade and post routes. A concern for accuracy likely arose because information changes when relayed orally. Another standard, verified facts, appeared in 1 bce when a messenger included gossip in summarizing Roman senate decrees.
Conditions essential for newspapers coalesced around 1600, and news writing became a full-time paid job soon after. But journalists could not assure accuracy when no factchecking means existed. As late as the 1700s, journalists generally did not go to witness news except in Parliament, where shorthand made reports seem accurate and neutral while giving reporters a sense of serving readers. Some 1750s English critics raised at least five news standards in appeals for truth and decency without scurrility or defamation or selling skills to political parties.
Polemics shaped standards in partisan times, which occurred in much of the world. Impartiality before England’s Civil War, for example, meant that journalists digested various political stances and received no payment for publicizing them. People read newspapers for opinions until the “doctrine of hard facts” developed (Smith 1978, 148). The end of the newspaper tax in 1861 freed English journalists from political obligations just when accelerating production costs were exposing the futility of targeting narrow audiences of political elites.
News standards flow transnationally. After an English businessman imported a press from Europe in 1476, the influence of British journalism dominated well into the nineteenth century. American colonists took London newspapers as a model and imitated Bow Street court reporting (Mott 1950). English penny magazines provided a model for 1830s America, where newspapers adopted the English division-of-labor system (Hudson 1968). Englishmen established a Turkish newspaper in 1840, Japan’s first newspaper in 1861, and periodicals in nineteenth-century China, which had been the first country to develop printing and long-distance news collection. By the 1860s, Japan incorporated the western model, which Chinese people – sent to Japan for a western education in increasing numbers from the 1890s – applied in China (Zhang 2006).
Consumer-driven US news standards expanded to England and Europe after post-Civil War industrialization. Matthew Arnold coined the term new journalism in 1887 to imply standards that competitive markets shaped: being lively, sensational, and reporter-driven (Marzolf 1980). The London Pall Mall Gazette editor from 1881 and the American founder of Le Matin in Paris in 1883 used the American model. US standards influenced Chinese journalism in the decades after 1900, as Chinese students returned from study in America and US journalists and educators worked in China. News standards crossing national boundaries likely meld with domestic cultural norms.
News standards under conditions of convergence remain underdeveloped. Old issues re-emerge with new urgency when fact-checking is non-existent and news-gatherers unknown. If Daniel Defoe was not a journalist because he wrote about events he never saw, then determining who is a journalist on the Internet has even greater implications for news standards.
- Briggs, A., & Burke, P. (2005). A social history of the media, 2nd edn. Cambridge: Polity.
- Chapman, J. (2005). Comparative media history. Cambridge: Polity.
- Dicken-Garcia, H. (1989). Journalistic standards in nineteenth-century America. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
- Hudson, F. (1968). Journalism in the United States from 1690 to 1872. New York: Haskell House. (Original work published 1873).
- Levy, L. (1963). Freedom of speech and press in early American history. New York: Harper.
- Martin, H. (1969). Livre, pouvoirs et societé a Paris au 17e siècle (1598–1701). Geneva: Droz.
- Marzolf, M. (1980). The “new journalism”: A press revolution. Annales du Centre de Recherches sur L’Amerique Anglophone, n.s. 6, 103–117.
- Mott, F. (1950). American journalism. New York: Macmillan.
- Siebert, F. (1965). Freedom of the press in England, 1476–1776. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
- Smith, A. (1978). The politics of information. London: Macmillan.
- Smith, A. (1979). The newspaper. London: Thames and Hudson.
- Ward, S. J. A. (2004). The invention of journalism ethics. Montreal and Kingston: McGill Queen’s University Press.
- Zhang, Y. (2006). Transplanting modernity. PhD thesis. University of Minnesota.