New York Times
TWO IDEAS IN JOURNALISM.
In an article which is certain to become, upon it publication in the March American Magazine, a subject of wide discussion, Prof. W. I. Thomas proposes a psychological theory for the yellow journal. It is founded, in brief, upon the assumption of the survival in men today of the primitive instinct of hate, which inclines us to rejoice, at least stealthily, in the misfortunes of others. The sensational press is popular because it furnishes food for the satisfaction of that instinct: it deals with the life of the day strictly from the disaster standpoint; for it the high points of the dayís news consist of instances, more or less spectacular, or loss of life, property, or reputation. The theory is not new, but Prof. Thomas expands it with considerable ingenuity.
Civilization arise out of the modifiability of the primitive hatred of every man for his neighbor. Members of a tribe make common cause against members of other tribes; nations arise, their populations suppressing in some degree their predatory dispositions toward their neighbors, in view of the advantage of living in combination against a hostile world and of preying upon it more successfully in common. At all events, whether or not this be an adequate account of it, when society has arisen and exists, its interests require that the hate attitude be abandoned. Whatever ministers to its survival is opposed to the interests of society — is immoral. The daily picture of the misfortunes of others spread for the gloating satisfaction of those who are not that day among the unfortunate is retrogressive and immoral, because it furnishes food for an instinct which it is desirable should expire.
The most valuable part of Mr. Thomasís article is the hint which lies in his aversion to the present status of the press in point of authority, reputation for truthfulness.
The evil done by a sensational press lies less in its positive encouragement of vicious conduct than in its destruction of an agency, or at least its lessening of the power of an agency, which has always been powerful in its encouragement of altruistic conduct. The building of society, the creation of the social mind and the social consciousness has been largely due to the possession of language. When savages found they could talk to each other they ceased to fight each other. The vast fabric of human society to-day rests upon knowledge — knowledge which is disseminated and shared in common by vast numbers by means of language. For a large part, possibly for the most part, this knowledge has been spread by means of the printed page. Living speech is indeed more direct and more universal, but it is less enduring, and less importance is attached to it. It has ever been the case that the better considered and more important records of human thought and action have been committed to paper. Thus there has come to be attached to print a sense of reliability, in some sense of sanctity, which has made it a most important agency for the promotion of social interests — of morality. The experiences of the remote past and of distant lands have been preserved and made available in print, and the social mind has been awakened and strengthened. Indeed so conscious has humanity been of the important moral part played by the press that impressive safeguards have been thrown around it in every advanced nation.
Now a sensational press is the organ of untruth. Its purpose being to supply the excitement which lies in viewing the misfortunes of other, it inevitably gives a false picture of the times. As a matter of well-known fact, it distorts, suppresses, imagines, and invents until in most cases there is little recognizable resemblance between an event and the "story" suggested by the event. The iniquity of this goes further than its fruit in the reawakening and fostering of the hate-attitude; it tends to discredit the printed page and thus to destroy one of the chief moral forces of the world. Up to very recent years printing has been so deliberate an act and has been, as a rule, engaged in by men of so responsible a character, that mankind has had, and has been justified in having, faith in the printed page.
It cannot be denied that the power of the press has been in a considerable degree impaired by the sensational mendacity of "newspapers" of the class of which Prof. Thomas writes. Were the process which has produced them to go on, the result would be the passing of the authority not only of the daily journal, not only of the periodical literature, but of books as well. What will probably happen, what already is happening, is this: A clear distinction is growing up between journals which employ the more distressing items in a dayís news as suggestions for thrilling articles of fiction, and those which conceive it still their duty to record the news in simple truthfulness. It is not longer possible for even the most unsuspecting man to believe all he sees in print, but it is becoming possible for him to know, from the established character of the publication in which it appears, what to believe and what to read as more or less entertaining fiction.