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.
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.
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.
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.
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.