Observing the Everyday: Journalistic Practices and Knowledge Production in the Modern Era

Mar 03, 2017 - Mar 04, 2017

Workshop at the GHI | Conveners: Kerstin von der Krone (GHI Washington) and Hansjakob Ziemer (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin)

In 1903, the Austrian journalist Emil Löbl observed that “many of today’s readers” see their newspaper as a “universal encyclopedia,” the study of which, they believed, satisfied their duty as “cultivated people” (Kulturmenschen) to stay informed. Whether or not this was a positive development, journalists needed to recognize that “modern readers expected of newspapers the greatest degree of universality, the widest variety, the most complete abundance of content.”1

Löbl’s account reflected the growing self-awareness of journalists regarding their profession and the societal impact of their work. His book was part of a professionalization process that saw the founding of professional associations and training and research institutions in Europe and North America in the early twentieth century.2 This process entailed claims to a kind of epistemological authority that derived from the work of journalists, as they produced new knowledge for their readers instead of merely conveying undigested facts.

Hansjakob Ziemer took Löbl’s reflections as his starting point at a two-day workshop in early March entitled Observing the Everyday: Journalistic Practices and Knowledge Formation in the Modern Era. The brainchild of Ziemer, the workshop at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC, in cooperation with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (Berlin), brought together German and North American–based scholars from disciplines such as history, media studies, cultural and literature studies, intellectual history, and the history of medicine.

The workshop explored many facets of the history of journalism and mass media in Europe and North America, scrutinizing how journalism and journalistic practices not only disseminated information but also shaped our knowledge about the world. Presentations shed light on the role of journalism in knowledge transfers, the impact of technology on journalistic practices and writing techniques, and the self-understandings of journalists and journalistic communities in different historical contexts. Thus we visited Imperial Germany, late nineteenth-century America, revolutionary Russia and the Soviet Union of the 1920s and 1930s, Weimar Germany, National Socialist Germany, and the Second World War, not to mention postwar European and American intellectuals and other writers.

Newspapers were the first mass medium, promoted in part by technological developments. As Lisa Bolz discussed, there was the telegram, which not only conveyed the latest news but inspired new journalistic techniques and practices. Later there was photojournalism, itself receiving a new impulse in the interwar period from Erich Salomon’s “candid camera,” the subject of Annie Rudd’s paper. Journalists had to work out a set of shared standards and ethics in these decades, their idea of journalism as a profession or vocation, as Hansjakob Ziemer highlighted in his paper about a German journalist’s survey of his peers in 1929. They contended with the standards of journalistic training, the level and kind of knowledge a journalist required, and how it could be acquired. Or was one simply born to become a journalist, as some those surveyed maintained?3 Ziemer’s paper as well as those by Alexander Korb, Norman Domeier, and Elena Matveeva addressed such questions in one way or another. They also explored the formation of journalistic identities. They considered individuals and journalistic communities, taking into account biographical and generational characteristics and commonalities. Along the way, we saw journalists’ self-fashioning strategies, whether employed for career purposes or because of shifting political circumstances. Korb and Domeier showed how these strategies enabled some journalists not only to establish themselves successfully but to continue their work under different German regimes.

A number of papers highlighted the interaction of journalism with expertise and expert knowledge in other fields—including medicine (Tom Ewing), psychiatry (Eric Engstrom), the law (Daniel Siemens), the social sciences (Susanne Schmidt), and the interplay of critical theory and cultural journalism (Moritz Neuffer). Collaborations and alliances characterized these relationships, as did competition and conflict. Questions of authority, credibility, and respectability lay at the heart of such tensions. Similarly complex was the relationship of journalists to the state and its officials. Journalists needed access to the state’s representatives in order to acquire information and knowledge, whereas the state became engaged in its own news gathering operations characterized by espionage and public relations efforts aimed at controlling what was known and what remained hidden. At the same time, Heidi Tworek emphasized the blurred lines and potential misconceptions of news gathering by spies and intelligence agencies, on the one hand, and journalists and news agencies, on the other, with journalists sometimes working both sides or being accused of such actions.

These historical themes resonate all the more because of their clear affinity with debates in our own time about journalism and its broader social and cultural relevance. If the papers explored journalistic practices and their relationship to truth and authenticity, secrecy and transparency, scrutiny and credibility, it is perhaps unsurprising that “fake news” and “faking” came up too. The nineteenth-century “faking” discussed by Andie Tucher and Petra McGillen did not necessarily entail the complete fabrication of news, although it did garner attention in the professional debates of writers and journalists.

In Andie Tucher’s presentation we encountered some “Advise to Newspaper Correspondents” from 1887, including the notion that “‘faking’…is not exactly lying.” The author of this advice, William H. Hills, maintained that every journalist and editor should be capable of distinguishing between the two. Faking meant “embellishing” with “unimportant details” in order to flesh out the account and make it more accessible and appealing to the reader.4 Petra McGillen provided another example for such grey areas between truth, authenticity, and falsehood by drawing on Theodor Fontane’s correspondence reports for the Neue Preußische Kreuzzeitung. These reports were “false” because the paper claimed that they were written by a correspondent on the scene, whereas the reports were really products of “armchair reporting” based on compilations of foreign newspaper reports.5

Not claiming to be comprehensive or representative, this explorative workshop was intended to start a conversation on the interplay of journalistic practices and knowledge production. We hope to continue the conversation in some form in the not-too-distant future. On that note, some in the concluding discussion highlighted the need to go beyond the geographical, political, and cultural confines of this workshop, although there was also a forceful argument for the local. In any case, the transatlantic scope of this workshop provided a fruitful foundation for one of the most inspiring and intellectually challenging academic events I have had the pleasure of participating in.

Kerstin von der Krone

[ed. note: This conference report was first published on History of Knowledge Blog, April 26, 2017. An extended version also appeared in the Bulletin of the German Historical Institute 61 (Fall 2017): 155-160]

  1. Emil Löbl, Kultur und Presse (Leipzig, 1903), 108, Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/kulturundpresse01lbgoog.
  2. The Columbia School of Journalism (New York) was founded in 1912. The Institut für Zeitungskunde (Leipzig University) was founded in 1916. Further training and research intuitions followed in the 1920s.
  3. Some two decades earlier in Kultur und Presse, Löbl also discussed journalists who were berufen or nicht berufen (had a vocation or lacked one), die wirklich Berufene (those with a genuine vocation), and Berufenere (those with a greater or higher calling).
  4. “Advice to Newspaper Correspondents,” part IV, “Faking,” The Writer  1 (April–December 1987): 154-156, here 154, at Hathi Trust Digital Library, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/hvd.hn5ybe. See also “Words We’re Watching: The Real Story of Fake News,” Merriam-Webster (undated), https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/the-real-story-of-fake-news.
  5. Most recently, see Petra S. McGillen, “Techniques of 19th-Century Fake News Reporter Teach Us Why We Fall for It Today,” The Conversation April 5, 2017, https://theconversation.com/techniques-of-19th-century-fake-news-reporter-teach-us-why-we-fall-for-it-today-75583; and “Fontane war ein Pionier der Fake News,” interview with Petra McGillen, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, April 20, 2017, http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/buecher/autoren/fontane-war-ein-pionier-der-fake-news-14978456.html

Call for Papers

Fueled by the innovation of the mass press, the decades before and after 1900 witnessed a golden age of journalism both in terms of sheer quantity of press products and the professionalization of the vocation. It was during this period that journalists emerged as professional interpreters of the social world. Recent studies have shown that by the 1920s the periodical press did not simply attempt to reproduce “raw information,” but they also claimed to represent a “knowledge in itself” that was largely independent of other discourses (D. Matheson, 2000). While journalists used observational techniques before and after, they now applied their skills not only to record the phenomena of the world but also to create hierarchies of knowledge and to claim authority on what they wrote. What people knew about the world they often learned through newspapers and magazines. An exceptionally influential space was created by the emergence of the feuilleton in Central Europe and feature stories in the Anglo-American sphere that allowed readers to reflect on social issues and the state of society: it became—in the words of Emil Löbl (1902)—an “encyclopedia of the day.” On a daily (or weekly) basis, the newspapers and the feuilletons in particular fulfilled a substantial need for sustainable analysis which had been traditionally been offered / supplied by the book. Journalists were the chief agents involved in this transformation of the public sphere and created a new set of practices and skills. They observed and captured the often immaterial and invisible phenomena of the everyday world: the culture of the metropolis and its atmosphere, social life, psychology of human being, natural phenomena, developments in the arts; they all became subject of journalistic attention which depended on a professional consensus on values such as scrutiny, objectivity, and novelty. Journalists invested in new techniques such as the interview and the report, and their practices—note-taking, writing, creating types, organizing and classifying observations, and others—helped to establish them as producers, gatherers, and transmitters of the social knowledge of their time. This brought them into an alliance with the emerging social sciences and humanities, in particular with sociology, anthropology or contemporary history. Their work was supported and often shaped by editorial decision-making and the material culture of the newspaper business such as front-page layouts, paper size, and printing techniques.

Even though there has been a considerable amount of studies on the feuilleton as a genre along with some fruitful approaches towards a history of reporting and interviewing, journalistic work as a practice of knowledge has rarely been analyzed. Hence, this workshop will stimulate an interdisciplinary and transnational approach to new kind of sources and ask how and why these knowledge practices emerged. This workshop focuses on the emergence of these new knowledge practices and the formation of a more or less tightly knit epistemic community of journalists on both sides of the Atlantic under their historically specific local and regional conditions. It will be held on March 2-4, 2017 at the German Historical Institute (Washington, D.C.) in cooperation with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. It attempts to bring together work in progress from various disciplines by scholars interested in placing the history of journalistic practices within a history of knowledge. 

We encourage the submission of papers, especially of those sharing work in progress. Guiding questions could be:

  • Why did new journalistic genres evolved in this period? How were they connected to specific types of knowledge? How was journalistic knowledge gathered and shaped? How was it then adapted and transformed into other kinds of knowledge such as sciences, politics, etc.?
  • Who were these journalists? What were their interests? How did they form an epistemic community that began to share similar values, virtues, and practices? In what ways did journalists position themselves among social scientists and novelists? Did they intermingle or did they distance themselves from them?
  • How can we write a history of journalistic practices that includes journalistic note-taking, writing, traveling, and observation techniques?

The workshop will be conducted in English. The organizers will cover travel and accommodation expenses for invited participants. Please send a short abstract of a proposed contribution (no more than 400 words) and a brief academic CV with institutional affiliation as one PDF file to journalism-workshop@mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de. Deadline for proposals is August 31, 2016.

For questions please contact Dr. Hansjakob Ziemer (hjziemer@mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de) and Dr. Kerstin von der Krone (krone@ghi-dc.org).