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Journalism (The Great War #AtoZChallenge 2021)

J (AtoZ Challenge 2021)

Journalism had evolved enormously in the second half of the 1800s. Newspaper were able to gather information from all over the world, and since literacy had risen, increasing numbers of people could read newspapers.
WWI was a terrible setback for this system. Reporting became propaganda, hiding was more important than revealing. Newspapers only bloom again after the war.

European and American society up to 1914 were better informed than any previous generation. Journalism went though a veritable revolution in the second half of the 1800s, with a significant rise in the number of newspapers and journals being printed and their corresponding distribution.
Most European states abolished censorship in the course of the 19th century, which allowed a (more or less) free press to establish. Great Britain was the forerunner of this trend, to the point that the press defined itself as the Fourth Estate of the realm.

Newspapers covered not only national news, but also the most important international events. They would send correspondents abroad, who covered these events with fist-hand reports. News agencies, like the Reuter, were establish in this period with the very goal to set up an international news communication network.
Although the press did come with strings to the political power, overall reporters were free to reports what ‘was actually happening’ anywhere in the world.

WWI put an end to all of this.

Journalism (The Great War #AtoZChallenge 2021) Reporting became propaganda during WWI, hiding was more important than revealing. Newspapers only bloom again after the war. #WWI #journalism #historymatters Share on X

The press during the Great War

The Great War - Journalism - WWI was a terrible setback for journalism. Reporting became propaganda, as hiding was more important than revealing. Newspapers only bloom again after the war.

As soon as the war broke out, all belligerent nations put a tight censorship over news. Reporters managed for a short time to reach the front and write what was happening there, but soon all governments took the matter in their hands and allowed only optimistic, often totally false news in the paper.
They were very aware that newspapers were the main source of information for the population, and of course, everyone wanted to know what was happening at the front, where their family members fought. But it’s quite telling that, while circulation figures kept to increase, the number of the newspapers on the market decreased.

Access to the front was restricted greatly for the press representatives. For example, Great Britain only had five reporters from the front and they were watched closely, and fed whatever information the generals thought appropriate to divulge. Unauthorised reporters could be arrested and put in jail – as it indeed happened.
Authorised reporters were integrated into the army, and lived in the rears bases just like soldiers. This instilled in them the need to keep up hope as all soldiers tried to do, which led to writing what they hoped more than what was actually happening.
As Philip Gibbs, one of these reporters, later noted, “We identified absolutely with the army in the field… There was no need of censorship on our dispatches. We were our own censors.”

And still, some of it came through even to the wider population if, as David Jessel highlighted in his documentary on war reporting, WWI was the first time ever than ordinary people began to realise that what was printed in the papers was not always true.

Philip Gibbs in a trench on the Somme
Philip Gibbs in a trench on the Somme

Propaganda

Propaganda wasn’t totally new to the press. It had been used in the past, during the French Revolution, for example. But during WWI it became pervasive to the point the virtually every news about the war printed in the papers amounted to propaganda.
Beside, the sheer number of people who now read the papers made it the perfect means to put out propaganda messages and cultivate consensus on the home front.

Trench newspapers

Nobody was more aware of the press’s lies than the soldiers at the front. Most soldiers distrusted the civilian newspapers that were hyper-patriotic and overly optimistic, so they ended up turning to one another for their news, and their amusement. They started to write their own papers, that circulated only in the trenches. It was a phenomenon that was common to all armies.

In papers with names such as The Listening Post or The Dead Horse Corner Gazette, soldiers found a ‘safe’ environment to reveal their true feelings and their true souls. It was often prohibited to reveal actual information about how the war was going, but that was not the primary goal of the trench newspapers. In these papers, there were above all satire, jokes, ridicule of the life in the trenches. They were, in essence, safe places of relief of fears, row emotions, discomfort, and often gave a means to handle these feelings. Most papers were humorous, although poetry was also present, with surprisingly lyrical expression of the soldier’s feeling. Many artist that were afterwards important heralds of the avant gardes served in their nation’s armies, and some of them started to produce art – especially poetry and prose – in these papers, which sometimes turned into workshops for these artistic vanguards to come.


RESOURCES

Writing Roughshod – Over There: Yes, Female WWI Reporters Did Exist
Deutsche Presseforschung Bremen – Female War Reporters during the First World War
International Encyclopedia of the First World War – Press/Journalism
Taylor&Francis Online – Writing the First World War after 1918
History Extra – Censorship in the trenches: why didn’t journalists report the horrors of the First World War?
Encyclopedia.com – Journalism, World War I
Cardiff Universty – Propaganda and the Press in World War I
Canadian War Museum – Trench Newspapers


LIVING THE TWENTIES by Sarah Zama - The Great War created a new world. This is that world.

12 Comments

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 11, 2021 at 09:21

    It says a whole lot about the nature of war that no one allowed journalists to print what was actually happening…

    The Multicolored Diary

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 17, 2021 at 08:50

      True. And it also speaks of the power of truth: nobody can afford it, apparently.

  • Linda Curry
    Posted April 11, 2021 at 15:15

    I was interested to read the funny story about the salvage man because not much is said about them in wartime records. After he was wounded in Gallipoli my biological father was put on salvage duty in northern France and Belgium and describes entering deserted houses and removing anything of use before the enemy got to it. He also sorted through vegetable gardens to find food to add to the troop’s supply. He was working on his fitness and trying to get another post but the war ended while he was undergoing training in England. I’m enjoying your WW1 topics.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 17, 2021 at 08:51

      What a story!
      You’re right. There are so many things we don’t normally know about WWI. It was such a complex time and experience.

  • Pradeep
    Posted April 11, 2021 at 20:47

    I am sorry I have fallen behind in reading your posts. I am catching up as fast as I can.
    I enjoyed reading this post particularly because I am a journalist myself, and I have not only studied newspaper history, I also talk to university students about the history of journalism.
    One of the topics we recently discussed in class was “embedded journalists”. As you know, that’s a term associated with war reporting.
    Thank you for this lovely post.
    J for Japanese Language School

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 17, 2021 at 08:53

      Tell me about being behind! I’m so behind with my reading that I don’t even know where to start!

      So happy you’ve found the post interesting. It means a lot for me, coming from a journalist.

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 13, 2021 at 00:57

    I’ve definitely seen propagandistic headlines and stories from that era while looking at archived newspapers. As a modern person, it can be shocking to see people writing such things so publicly, openly, and matter-of-factly, even using ethnic or racial slurs for the other side.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 17, 2021 at 08:54

      But you know, I sometimes wonder what people will think of our news and headlines one hundred years from now.

  • Birgit
    Posted April 14, 2021 at 06:13

    “Johnny, get your gun, get you gun, get your gun. Go and kill the Hun, Kill the Hun, Kill the Hun.” Gotta love Irving Berlin. This is excellent about the journalism of that day and even now. Nothing much has changed except the Social Media which makes it harder to show the myth. Erich Von Stroheim was the man you loved to hate who played all sorts of evil German soldier ready to rape mothers and kill babies. An excellent documentary done in the 1970s was simply called “Hollywood” a 13 part series with one dedicated to the war. I am certain you have seen this.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 17, 2021 at 08:55

      As they say, in love and war, everything’s permitted 😉

  • Anne Nydam
    Posted April 14, 2021 at 20:34

    I didn’t know about the papers written and distributed by the soldiers themselves.
    Black and White: J for Prester John

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 17, 2021 at 08:56

      I didn’t know it eaither. I discovered about them when I first started researching WWI- It’s a fascinating subject, don’t you find?

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