Student essay: Henry Voorhees

In the fall of 2019, Journalism History conducted an undergraduate student essay contest. Students answered the question that our podcast hosts ask at the end of every episode: Why does journalism history matter?

Henry Voorhees, William Paterson University, submitted this month’s essay. Additional essays will be posted each month throughout 2020.

The history of Journalism is critical in today’s world. Just like how history is important, the history of Journalism affects journalists today because it shows them what they can and can’t do. The history shows the consequences of violating their rights and teaches lessons to them, preventing them from making the same mistakes.

The law has such an impact on what reporters are allowed to do because it sets the boundaries for what they can do to get their information. Crimes involving privacy take a big percentage of illegal activities in the United States. So, for journalists it’s really important for them to know what is invading someone’s privacy and ways they can get information or publish stories without invading one’s privacy. Adding to that, violating ethics and morals is risky for journalists and something they need to be careful with.

The Matthew Lyon case relates to journalism because it is an example of someone publishing work that led to the company facing jail time. It shows newspapers that they can get in legal trouble for publishing a story that is violating the law in present time, even if it was legal when the story was written. The case also shows journalists the importance of not expressing their opinion. Because Matthew Lyon expressed his thoughts on Thomas Jefferson, he almost went to jail for violating the Alien and Sedition Acts and intending to bring down Jefferson’s position as president. Journalists’ job is to report and inform, not tell readers what they think.

There are lots of unknown laws for public figures and the media that journalists need to be aware of. The rules need to be put ahead of saying what is right to the public for reporters, even if they think getting something across is what the country needs to hear.

The Gertz v. Robert Welch case (1974) is relevant to journalists today because it shows them that the information they provide has to be accurate. Robert Welch was facing defamation charges for writing damaging, factual misstatements. Because of this case, journalists are careful with everything they say. This case influenced reporters to not misstate anything, even if their main point is true. They have to be 100% authentic. It shows that people being accused will find a way to get back at the person who wrote the story. It’s psychological; people want revenge when someone sends a shot at them.

Reporters also have to watch out for making accusations with what they write. They can only say what happened, and that information has to be accurate. You don’t want to talk down on someone in the first place, nor be inaccurate about what you say. In the Curtis Publishing v. Butts (1967) case, the Saturday Evening Post accused University of Georgia football coach Wally Butts and University of Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant of conspiring to fix games. This case backs reporters away from defamation. Adding to that, this case shows the unprofessionalism on a newspaper of publishing a story based on accusations made by the reporters themselves.

The Cohen v. Cowles Media Co. (1982) case shows the importance of confidentiality and keeping your promise of not identifying someone who asks not to be identified. This case shows reporters they will get sued if they do, just like the Cowles Media Company did for identifying Wheelock Whitney. It teaches a good lesson about not violating someone’s name.

The Branzburg v. Hayes case (1971) is interesting because it involves a reporter getting called in to testify against two drug users in Kentucky, but he refused. This is a controversial topic among journalists, and it shows one side involving a testifying situation. Some reporters feel like testifying will damage your reputation and that refusing to is the right thing to do. Others don’t want to face jail time and feel like they need to testify. I think it brings a good influence down on journalists that it’s ethical to not reveal confidential sources. Staying true to your word is crucial to your respect and reputation. As a reporter, it’s something you don’t want to give up.

All in all, the history of Journalism has a huge impact on today’s Journalism because history teaches lessons. If it wasn’t for the past, what would reporters base their profession off of? Reporters are knowledgeable on cases because they want to know how they can avoid getting in these predicaments. No reporter wants to face these type of situations.


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