What is a Muckraker?

Origin of the term “muckraker” and some thoughts about muckraking journalism. From A Muckraking Model: Investigative Reporting Cycles in American History, by Mark Feldstein, 2006:

“[O]n March 17, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt coined a new phrase that soon entered the American lexicon: ‘muckrake.’ It was not a term of endearment. As a politician trying to curb the worst excesses of America’s industrial revolution while still preserving the nation’s capitalist system, the president’s delicate balancing act sometimes seemed threatened by a dangerous new kind of journalist: the investigative crusader whose writings inflamed the masses. Roosevelt likened this journalistic dirt-digger to a character from John Bunyan’s seventeenth-century fable, Pilgrim’s Progress:

The man with the Muck-rake, the man who could look no way but downward with the muck-rake in his hands; who was offered a celestial crown for his muck-rake, but who could neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor.

“Although the president’s use of the word was pejorative, the muckrakers themselves embraced the insult as a badge of honor. The term stuck.

“Muckraking–also known as investigative reporting, adversarial journalism, advocacy reporting, public service journalism, and exposé reporting–has evolved over the years in style and technique. Different practitioners have predictably offered different definitions: some emphasize in-depth reporting that is more time-consuming than traditional daily journalism; others claim that the very phrase ‘investigative reporting’ is a misnomer since all reporting involves investigation of some kind. According to America’s leading organization of muckrakers [Investigative Reporters and Editors], it is ‘the reporting, through one’s own work product and initiative, [of]matters of importance which some person or group want to keep secret.’ Nonetheless, despite…varying definitions, the core of investigative reporting throughout [US] history has been its use of fact gathering to challenge authority and oppose the abuse of power–political, governmental, corporate, or religious–on behalf of ordinary citizens….

“Investigative reporters are ‘custodians of public conscience,’…whose

reporting yields stories that are carefully verified and skillfully narrated accounts of special injury and injustice…with a meaning that…transcends the facts of the particular case. Their stories call attention to the breakdown of social systems and the disorder within public institutions that cause injury and injustice; in turn, their stories implicitly demand the response of public officials–and the public itself–to that breakdown and disorder. From Custodians of Conscience: Investigative Journalism and Public Virtue, by James S. Ettema and Theodore L. Glasser, 1998.

“[According to Bob Greene of Investigative Reporters and Editors], ‘The three basic elements [of muckraking]…are that the investigation be the work of the reporter, not the work of others that he is reporting; that the subject of the story involves something that is important for his or her readers to know; and that others are attempting to hide the truth of these matters from the people.’ The investigative organization originally adopted this definition in the early 1980s, only to drop the secrecy requirement in the 1990s, redefining the term to mean ‘digging beneath the surface so we can help readers understand what’s going on in an increasingly complex world.'”