Who are the Muckrakers?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The muckrakers were a group of journalists from the 1890s to the 1920s who turned American society upside down by exposing corruption and informing readers about important social issues. Journalists who follow in their footsteps by publishing exposes and fighting against corruption are often also referred to by this term. The success of the Progressive movement in the United States owes a great deal to these journalists, who provided evidence that social reforms were vitally needed. Famous examples include Upton Sinclair, Helen Hunt Jackson, Jessica Mitford, Ralph Nader, and Seymour Hersh.

Ida Tarbell was one of the top "muckrakers," a term describing journalists in the late 19th century and early 20th century who exposed corruption and brought attention to social issues.
Ida Tarbell was one of the top "muckrakers," a term describing journalists in the late 19th century and early 20th century who exposed corruption and brought attention to social issues.

The term comes from a 1906 speech by President Roosevelt, in which he compared progressive journalists to a character in Pilgrim's Progress. In British English, the term is used pejoratively to refer to a journalist who engages in sensationalism designed to to stir up scandals. This type of journalism is better known in the United States as tabloid journalism. While these journalists often instigate scandals, they are about important social issues rather than celebrity relationships or soccer hooligans.

One subject that the muckrakers wanted to expose was child labor.
One subject that the muckrakers wanted to expose was child labor.

In general, a muckraker focuses on the public interest. He or she works to expose cases of government and corporate corruption, child labor, environmental abuse, and rising crime. Secret informers are often an important part of muckraking, as was the case with Deep Throat and Pentagon Papers. The informers are often on the inside of the issue being covered, and they can provide concrete information which will allow a journalist to go live with a story.

Many modern journalists carry on the work of the Muckrakers.
Many modern journalists carry on the work of the Muckrakers.

An exposé published by a muckraker will typically be thought provoking and will deal with an important social issue. Regional ones focus on a variety of topics, from corrupt development schemes to mysteriously under reported crime rates. National journalists look at issues that matter to the entire nation, such as corporate corruption, military spending, and questionable political decisions. Others branch into development journalism, covering scandals in the third world such as worker exploitation, the production of toxic food additives, and environmental devastation.

Muckrakers may work for tabloid newspapers.
Muckrakers may work for tabloid newspapers.

Hard work by these journalists has led to reforms at all levels of society, ranging from the formation of the Food and Drug Administration to the take down of corporate criminals. They serve a vital public service by making citizens aware of pressing social and political issues, and ensuring that corruption does not escape the public eye. Like other journalists, they sometimes take big risks, but they usually get big returns as well for themselves, their papers, and society in general.

Muckrakers may cover trials that have high profile defendants.
Muckrakers may cover trials that have high profile defendants.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon265536

What were the important issues the muckrackers went through?

bubbles100

What did Upton Sinclair and Helen Hunt Jackson write about?

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