The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


How To Be An Advocacy Journalist

An image of Malcolm X, full-length portrait, standing, facing slightly left, being interviewed by reporters, 1964. Source: Library of Congress

Malcolm X, full-length portrait, standing, facing slightly left, being interviewed by reporters, 1964. Source: Library of Congress

The news is often the first line of defense when issues affecting local communities – like the recent numerous threats against Jewish community centers and synagogues – crop up. In BackStory’s recent episode “Behind the Bylines” we learned how journalists Ida B. Wells and Ruben Salazar more effectively covered their communities, and even changed journalistic practice, through advocacy.


Advocacy journalism, however, isn’t a thing of the past.


Traditional journalists are taught to approach their work with a certain level of detachment from the story and the issues. Advocacy journalism takes a factually yet non-objective view on things that are affecting society. It intentionally promotes a particular cause like environmentalism or racial equality.


In the current climate, you may feel the urge to advocate for a specific cause. You don’t have to be a professional to be an advocacy journalist. You can write your own blog, post to social media or use other online public platforms to share your stories. Here are some tips:

  1. Try coming up with an issue that matters to you, but don’t try to cover everything. Write about the issue or event and the affect it has on the community.
  2. Write about all issues that fall within the bounds of your primary concern.
  3. Think of this kind of journalism as a long-form essay. Though you are trying to promote a cause, do so from multiple points of view–allow your reader to come to your conclusion by providing them with the facts.
  4. Be knowledgeable about the issue and understand it in all aspects – from how it impacts people locally, nationally or globally to who the major players are.
  5. Provide a comprehensive/holistic view of the issue to create better communication and understanding. You alone are not dictating a single solution, but are aiming for change within the community.
  6. Focus on encouraging debate, negotiating a solution, and bringing about positive change.
  7. Don’t forget to celebrate when something good happens!

Remember, if journalism’s first obligation is to the people, then advocacy journalism takes that obligation one step further.


Fair and Unbiased

A photo of "The big type war of the yellow kids" by Leon Barritt. Published in Vim, June 29, 1898. Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, full-length, dressed as the Yellow Kid, each pushing against opposite sides of a pillar of wooden blocks that spells WAR. Source: Library of Congress

“The big type war of the yellow kids” by Leon Barritt. Published in Vim, June 29, 1898. Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, full-length, dressed as the Yellow Kid, each pushing against opposite sides of a pillar of wooden blocks that spells WAR. Source: Library of Congress


This year, the Pulitzer Prizes celebrates one hundred years of recognizing excellence and integrity in newspaper journalism and, more recently, other forms of media. However, prize founder Joseph Pulitzer wasn’t exactly known for honorable work during his lifetime. In fact, Pulitzer was a pioneer of yellow journalism.

Early American Newspapers and Bias

Eighteenth century newspapers mostly featured advertisements, including ads for runaway slaves and servants, and letters submitted by locals. According to Peter Onuf, BackStory co-host and history professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, papers became more politicized during the Revolution when editors “increasingly identified with political parties.” By the nineteenth century, many newspapers had partisan editors at the helm.

An image of a runaway slave ad for "a Negro Man named Peter." New-York Weekly Museum, July 17, 1790. Source: Proquest American Periodicals

A runaway slave ad for “a Negro Man named Peter.” New-York Weekly Museum, July 17, 1790. Source: Proquest American Periodicals

In the 1800s, newspapers were mainly the megaphones of political parties. A blog post by late University of Wisconsin-Madison professor James L. Baughman noted that political parties “actually subsidized the operations of many newspapers” and that wasn’t a good thing. In fact, the government contracts awarded to journalism outfits ensured that they “had a real interest in who got elected,” said Onuf. This type of bias gave way to yellow journalism, a form of reporting more focused on sensationalism than facts.

Yellow Journalism and the Rise of Joseph Pulitzer

"Pulitzer's treatment in the World emphasizes a horrible explosion." Front page of New York World, Feb. 17, 1898. Source. Wikimedia Commons

“Pulitzer’s treatment in the World emphasizes a horrible explosion.” Front page of New York World, Feb. 17, 1898. Source. Wikimedia Commons

One of the best examples of yellow journalism is the 1898 coverage of the Maine explosion. The USS Maine was an American battleship deployed to the harbor in Havana, Cuba as a display of U.S. power. According to the U.S. State Department, “On the night of February 15, an explosion tore through the ship’s hull, and the Maine went down.”

Initial reports of the Maine’s destruction indicated that the explosion had come from onboard the ship. However, a later naval investigation stated the source of the explosion was a mine in the harbor. It was the latter report that Joseph Pulitzer clung to and used when reporting the tragedy on the front page of his newspaper, “The World.”

Pulitzer was born to wealth (or at least comfort depending on what story you read) in Hungary in 1847 and came to the U.S. during the Civil War, according to his Pulitzer Prizes bio. Pulitzer’s was a riches-to-rags-to-riches story since his early days in this country involved a brief stint of homelessness and starting at the bottom of a German daily called “Westliche Post.” During his early years as a writer, he was known for exposing corruption. 

A picture of Joseph Pulitzer, 1847-1911. Source: Library of Congress

Joseph Pulitzer, 1847-1911. Source: Library of Congress

By 1878, Pulitzer was owner of the “St. Louis Post-Dispatch” and by 1883, he’d negotiated purchase of “The New York World.” This made him a well-established player in the game, like fellow publisher William Randolph Hearst.

Hearst and Pulitzer had used their publications to fuel anti-Spanish sentiment for years. Both publishers seized upon the sinking of the Maine as an opportunity to further their goals. As you can see in the headline from Pulitzer’s paper, the facts of the Maine’s destruction weren’t the focal point of the story.




Has Bias and Yellow Journalism Disappeared?

An image of "The yellow press" by L.M. Glackens. Published in Puck Oct. 12, 1910. Source: Library of Congress

“The yellow press” by L.M. Glackens. Published in Puck, Oct. 12, 1910. Source: Library of Congress

Anyone who has been to journalism school will tell you that a journalist is taught to be fair and unbiased. Part of how writer’s accomplish this is by:

  • having multiple sources
  • attributing those sources
  • the writer not being a part of the story

Mostly, these methods work, but sometimes they don’t.

BackStory researcher Melissa Gismondi, a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia, believes that if we “take yellow journalism to mean journalism based on sensation and without evidence,” then that style of journalism didn’t end after its Golden Age heyday. She cites the “Massie Affair” as an example.

"Mrs. Massie Case Investigated Anew. More Than 50 Are Reported Questioned About Attack in Honolulu." a headline from a Washington Post story, Feb. 11, 1932. Source: ProQuest Historical Newspapers

“Mrs. Massie Case Investigated Anew. More Than 50 Are Reported Questioned About Attack in Honolulu,” a headline from a Washington Post story, Feb. 11, 1932. Source: ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Click to read the story.

In 1932, Thalia Massie, a wealthy white woman living in Hawaii, was kidnapped, beaten and raped. When the press covered the crime, they used words like “white woman of refinement and culture” to describe Massie and “thugs,” “degenerates,” and “fiends” to describe the five men accused of the crime who were of Hawaiian, Japanese, and Chinese-Hawaiian descent. Gismondi points out that this “shows the profound racial, gender, and class anxieties in the new, overseas American empire, as well as the tremendous power that journalists have to shape trials and the public response to them.”

Awarding Excellence and Integrity in Media

In Joseph Pulitzer’s 1904 will, he created the structure for the Pulitzer Prizes. In 1912, the year after his death, the Columbia School of Journalism was established and Pulitzer Prizes were first distributed in 1917.

It may seem odd that a man who used scandal to sell newspapers created an award recognizing the opposite. Onuf suspects the move may have been a “quest for posthumous respectability.”

Though there have been a few controversies surrounding the prize – mostly for making or not making the award to certain individuals – more journalism awards have gone to “exposure of corruption than to any other subject” according to the Pulitzer Prizes website.  It looks like Pulitzer found respect after all.

Media Contact:

Diana Williams
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist

‘Kissed By Hearst’

By Andrew Parsons

Odds are most Americans born after World War II have heard of Billy Graham. The 96-year-old preacher has met with every president in the postwar period. He made a positive mark on the Civil Rights movement and hosted religious revivals across the world to crowds that numbered in the millions.

But of course, it wasn’t always this way. Once, he was a traveling revival preacher with an audience only  as big as his tent. So, how did it get to this point? How did one preacher become so influential?

Billy Graham in September, 1949 during the Los Angeles Revival. Source: L.A. Times

Billy Graham in September, 1949 during the Los Angeles Revival. Source: L.A. Times

Duke University historian Grant Wacker, says Graham’s rise to stardom was fast, not a slow boil. “In the 1940s when Graham came into the scene there were dozens of conspicuous revivalists. And by 1950 there was no competition.”

He says this sea change can be pinpointed to one particular event in the fall of 1949. That’s when Billy Graham, this itinerant preacher from North Carolina who had been holding revival meetings all around the country, pitched his tent in Los Angeles.

The revival was supposed to last just three weeks, and at first it seemed like it would be. “In the beginning, the crusade did not fare well,” says Wacker. “The attendance was mediocre. Graham and his associates became discouraged.”

Like any good preacher, Graham prayed for something to happen. Hoping for divine intervention, he kept his tent pitched for one more week.

The fourth week, Graham walked into his tent to find a sea of journalists. “Reporters started writing down his comments and he was astonished. He was a very young man at this point, he was a man in his early 30s,” says Wacker. “Bulbs are popping and these reporters are taking notes. And he asked naturally, what’s happened here. ‘why are you writing down everything I’m saying?’ And one of the reporters said to him: ‘You have been kissed by William Randolph Hearst.’”

Hearst was the owner of a newspaper empire, and all-around media mogul. He had apparently told his reporters to start writing articles about Graham’s L.A. gathering.

“And almost immediately the Los Angeles Times, which Hearst did not own picked it up – the story. In a few days Time magazine picked it up, then LIFE Magazine,” Wacker says. The story even reached audiences in Europe and Asia.

All this press attention attracted scores of gawkers, many of whom came out of pure curiosity. But the crowds continued to build. Wacker describes it as a sort of truck stop mentality. “If there are a lot of cars parked outside, a lot of trucks – this must be good. The press presented this as a landmark in the history of American revivalism.”

Soon a space that could seat 3,000 was expanded to accommodate 9,000. On one occasion, it was estimated that another 15,000 people stood outside listening.

And what of the man at the center of all this attention? Well, the content of Graham’s sermons wasn’t very different from what many others preached at the time. It hit all of the familiar notes of revival preaching — troubles of the world, personal issues, salvation.

What set Graham apart was his presence. And his delivery. He was tall, handsome, and commanding. His voice boomed at a lightning clip. Wacker says that stenographers clocked his preaching at 240 words a minute.

“He did that deliberately because he thought that successful newscasters spoke very very rapidly. He was animated. He paced the platform and one account he often paced a full mile in the course of the sermon. And then the gestures. A flurry of gestures with his fists, hitting into the plumb of his hand, fingers stabbing outward, the crouching of the knees.” One reporter even wrote that he had the energy of a coiled panther.

His sermons were also peppered with appearances from figures — sure to play well in glitzy L.A. Radio personalities, actresses and athletes appeared to testify to the power of Graham’s message. And this was also conscious, says Wacker. “The word of the satisfied customer to put it in marketing terms. And he understood that this was more powerful than technical theological apologetic.”

All this gave the press yet another story to tell. Newspapers across the country, and around the world, were fascinated by the fascination with Graham.

The revival was originally slotted for a three-week run, but it lasted for two months. By the end of November 1949, Graham was an international commodity.

This story of Billy Graham’s lightning fame at the hands of William Randolph Hearst has become something of a legend. It’s been told time and again in Graham’s circles. But to Wacker it does leave one thing unanswered.

“So the question is why? Why did Hearst give him this attention? Hearst was not known to be a particularly religious man and he was not known to be an evangelical figure like Graham.” The truth, he says, is that no one really knows why Hearst turned his attention to Billy Graham.

But nothing in American history happens in a vacuum. Wacker thinks all the attention was actually a response to bigger, international forces.

“Two days before the revival started, the Soviets had successfully exploded an atomic bomb and Harry Truman announced this. And by all accounts people were frightened to know that this nation possessed nuclear weapons and could inflict terrible damage upon Americans.”

About a week later, communists, led by Mao Zedong, toppled the Chinese government. These were both themes that Graham pounded in his eight week revival.

In sermon titled, “What’s Wrong with the World?” he shouted about weapons the Soviets were developing and their shadowy networks. “We’re told today about death rays as far as the light can penetrate it will burn everything under the penetrating ray of that light. And we’re told that there are more subversive forces in Los Angeles than any city in America. Your own mayor told me that just the other day in his office. And I’ll tell you, if there was ever an hour that Los Angeles needs to come to its knees before God it’s the crisis now in which we live in.”

Hearst was a smart newsman. He no doubt recognized the value of a really good story. A story about frightening times, the individual sitting in that tent, and of course, God.

It’s a story that has always been a part of Billy Graham’s sermons. But Los Angeles 1949 was a moment where that story was particularly compelling.

And Graham was talented enough to ride that wave.

Listen to our whole show, Born Again: Religious Renewal in America. To read more about Billy Graham’s influential life, read Grant Wacker’s America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation.