The roots of investigative journalism lie in the abolitionist press

The study ““Behold the Wicked Abominations That They Do”: The Nineteenth-Century Roots of the Evidentiary Approach in American Investigative Journalism” by Gerry Lanosga from Indiana University linked the roots of the evidentiary mindset in investigative journalism to abolitionism in the 1830s.

In the popular imagination, Nixon’s Watergate scandal is intrinsically linked with the advent of investigative journalism, but before it, there were already many stories such as Seymour Hersh’s covering of My Lai in Vietnam three years before. 

Far before that, investigative journalism owes to early 20th century muckrakers, whose exposes of public corruption were similar to investigative reporting. The term “investigative reporting” itself seems to have come from the mid-20th century.

Even further before, there are journalistic investigations as early as the late 17th century in the form of Benjamin Harris’s journalistic investigation Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestic. In the independent period, Benjamin Franklin also relied on leaked documents about the misappropriation of public funds in Aurora and General Advertiser.

The abolitionist movement was focused on ending slavery and traces its roots to Pennsylvanie Quakers as early as 1688. Their arguments often had roots in biblical exegesis and were highly polemical. A combination of biblical and republican discourse became common.

Later on, abolitionist discourse also started using verifiable evidence. Quaker abolitionist Benjamin Lundy in his Genius of Universal Emancipation called for the readers to help in gathering evidence and facts, which the author terms an early example of crowdsourcing. The edition of Genius also included “The Black List”, a feature about the sufferings of Black slaves. Unfortunately, it lacked specific details to help with authentication.

William Lloyd Garrison was also heavily influenced by Lundy. He started his own newspaper, The Liberator, where he juxtaposed enslaver’s claims with inconvenient facts about slavery – a method also common in more modern investigative journalism.

Later on, Garrison became a critic of colonization – the removal of freed Black people to Africa, and published his masterwork Thoughts on African Colonization in 1832. In it, he thoroughly criticized ACS, the American Colonization Society, by revealing through documents and interviews that ACS often served as apologists for slavery and even supported the idea of Black people as property. 

This book served as primer on how to prepare and present an evidence-based expose, and there were similar treatises on other writers. A prominent and influential was American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses written by Theodore Weld with assistance from his wife Angelina Grimké Weld, and her sister, Sarah Grimké

This book allowed the readers to see slavery as it really concretely is by shining a light on the practice. By doing this, Weld countered for example a Mississippi minister’s argument that slavery is sanctioned by God by showing that the American slavery is unlike any servitude described in the Bible.

The author goes on to argue that Weld’s and the Grimké sisters’ method was much like contemporary investigative journalists in that they provided prefatory material, a detailed introduction and annotations throughout the text explaining how the work was conducted. Thus, not just the product but also the process is visible to modern readers.

The book was finally published in 1839, and throughout the process, Weld had made sure that all the information was verifiable and the final product was systematic, exhaustive, and evidence-based. The topic matter, however, made the book a difficult reading – it often described horrific abuses – prompting, in the title page, to add the a passage from the Book of Ezekiel in the Bible: “Behold the wicked abominations that they do!”

In conclusion, the author shows that the associational press of the abolition movement was the first to pioneer a model of sustained and methodical use of evidence in service of fact-based reporting, predating modern investigative reporting. Although the abolitionist movement also used propagandistic methods, their journalistic legacy is also unquestionable.

The article  ““Behold the Wicked Abominations That They Do”: The Nineteenth-Century Roots of the Evidentiary Approach in American Investigative Journalism” by Gerry Lanosga is in American Journalism. (free abstract).

Picture: Black power of the celebration of Juneteenth, now a national Holiday. By Tasha Jolley.

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