Media research pops myths and finds blemishes in history

For three days this week, history and journalism experts have been picking apart the bones of the 19th-century news in Civil War days.

How reliable was it? When did it resort to sensationalism? Did partisan news views shape or reflect public opinion?

Some of the conclusions were surprising as experts and graduate students shared current research at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's 19th annual Symposium on the 19th Century Press, the Civil War and Free Expression.

W. Joseph Campbell, professor of communication at American University in Washington, D.C., and Friday's luncheon keynote speaker, focused on media-driven myths -- and then used history as a myth-buster.

Such myths about how news may have been made or gathered "tend to distort our understanding of the history, roles and functions of journalism in American society," Campbell said.

Media myths typically confer on the media far more power and influence than it actually wields, he said.

One myth Campbell punctured was an often-told story about a vow William Randolph Hearst supposedly made in 1897: "You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war," meaning the Spanish-American War of 1898.

The comment supposedly was made in an exchange of telegrams with artist Frederic Remington, sent to Cuba on a monthlong assignment to draw sketches about the rebellion. But the rebellion actually had begun three years before, Campbell said.

"That context is a vital reason for challenging and disputing the anecdote," Campbell said. "It would have made no sense for Hearst to have vowed to 'furnish the war' when war -- the Cuban rebellion -- was the very reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place."

Other symposium research didn't show the 19th century media in a rosy light.

Lee Jolliffe, associate professor at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, researched racism in 19th-century newspapers and news pamphlets -- early, low-end newsletters.

Her research, titled "Deepening Racial Divides," examines how murder stories in early newspapers used sensationalism as a tool to foment racial tensions.

She found a whopping 1,661 stories that blamed race or interracial activities for violence. She said they all followed a similar template, using words and editorial comments that would never be allowed in today's news stories.

Jolliffe concluded the early papers and writers used such stories and racial comment "primarily as a social norming device to keep the races apart."

Donald Shaw, professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that and other research presents an alarming picture showing the media "has not been stellar when it comes to civil liberties."

"It disturbs me that the mainline media has not been a friend of women and African Americans when they needed it -- even the Japanese who were incarcerated in camps in World War II," he said. "It's overwhelming when you put it all together."

The symposium, which ends today, is sponsored by the West Chair of Excellence, held by David Sachsman, and the UTC communication and history departments.