How did the advent of television affect journalism in the United States?

by Mirianna la Grasta

After World War II, the United States faced a change in social climate, which soon translated into a revolution of the media landscape. Starting in 1948, the American people began welcoming television sets in their homes, thinking to the medium as capable of restoring the family integrity that had been lost during the conflict: television was, in fact, ‘depicted as a panacea of the broken homes and hearts of wartime life.’ (Spigel, 1992:2-3) In addition, post-war consumerist ideas helped to boost the sales of TV sets, and by 1960 nearly 90 percent of the population owned at least one receiver (Spigel, 1992:1). The arrival of television promoted a certain relaxation in the American social life, as a matter of fact, the medium immediately substituted the communal experience, allowing people to enjoy their privacy and, at the same time, to live an alternative social experience at home.

As Garry Simpson, a NBC Television Director, put it, the new medium was a ‘window to the world’, a veritable ‘miracle’ which allowed the individual to see a distant event while it was happening (Spigel, 1992:99). Charles Siepmann, as well, regarded the advent of television enthusiastically: ‘Television is a form of “going places” without even the expenditure of movement, to say nothing of money. It is bringing the world to people’s doorsteps.’ (Spigel, 1992:102) The valorisation of live video, and therefore of immediacy, is what gave television the power to attract huge audiences and, above all, to affect journalism in the United States. To say nothing of the historical background of the post-war years. Television, in fact, gained a place in the industry by ‘interpreting the meaning of those days, when the simplicity of American life began to get confusingly complex.’ (Emery, Emery and Roberts, 2000:362)

This essay will analyse how the advent of television marked journalism, taking into consideration its impact on the industry itself, as well as its key role in particular historical moments.


Television’s potential and influence became particularly evident in the treatment of American politics (Baughman, 2006:51). Together with the United Nations conventions, the presidential campaign of 1952, which showed the political competition between the republican Dwight D. Eisenhower and the democratic Adlai E. Stevenson, was one of the first political events to be brought into the people’s living rooms. Documentaries, election-night specials and commercials allowed the audience to recognise ‘the familiar faces of political heroes’: while in the past newspapers provided the public with the candidate’s pictures and words, now people were able to see the person’s attitudes, manners and flaws (Emery, Emery and Roberts, 2000:363). Television affected radio as well. In fact, political speakers shortened their speeches to fit the telecasts’ short times, while in radio they would have run their speeches for nearly three hours (Baughman, 2006:51). Of course, when candidates began hosting TV programmes, advertising experts took advantage of the medium, crafting the whole programme and preparing their client-candidate to perform at his best (Emery, Emery and Roberts, 2000:363).

Eisenhower and Mamie Eisenhower arriving at Lowry Air Force Base. (credit:

After Eisenhower’s election, television started to cover the numerous plane trips of the president, showing the American audience the so called ‘arrivals of the jets’ (Emery, Emery and Roberts, 2000:365). Furthermore, the programmes that had a bigger impact on the public, where the aired proceedings of the congressional investigations into the political corruption (Baughman, 2006:52). As Davies (1997) argues, Senator Estes Kefauver’s Crime Investigating Committee attracted 100 percent views, and therefore established television as a medium of news dissemination, enlightenment, education and ethics. It is important to understand that, as television entered the conferences and the political events, print journalists seemed to have lost their voice. As a matter of fact, it became difficult, even for an important journalist, to interview politicians: TV reporters took the thunder away from the print journalists’ questions, and politicians gave priority to television cameras (Davies, 1997). Overall, the telecasting of political proceedings in America contributed to the building of a ‘new electronic forum’, thanks to which the public was able to monitor its Government without the words’ filter of newspapers (Baughman, 2006:53).


Barnouw (1970) defined the camera as the ‘arbiter of news value’, arguing that, with the advent of television, ‘a picture was worth thousand words’ (43). For this reason, ‘analysis’, a peculiarity of radio journalism, was set aside as ‘non-visual’ (Barnouw, 1970:43), and radio producers adapted their programmes to TV formats (Emery, Emery and Roberts, 2000:366).

Edward R. Murrow, first known as a brilliant radio broadcaster, can be considered the pioneer of TV journalism. He first understood that the medium had  the potential of exposing ‘the hard, unyielding realities of the world in which we live’, but, at the same time, he realised its limits: ‘This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it toward those ends. Otherwise, it is merely wires and lights in a box.’ (Murrow, 1958 in Barkin, 2003:22) As Barkin (2003) argues, Murrow’s way of doing journalism was strongly influenced by the radio reporting of World War II and by the documentary film heritage. In the 1950s, Murrow and his co-producer Fred Friendly proposed to CBS a TV version of their last radio programme, ‘Hear it Now’. The documentary series was called ‘See It Now’, and it soon became one of the bastions of television journalism, which transported the audience to different parts of the world in a few seconds (Barnouw, 1970:45). As Barkin (2003) puts it, the range of current affairs stories covered by the programme was impressive. One of the programme’s milestones was ‘Christmas in Korea’. This powerful and strong reportage of the Korean War was new for the industry and showed the intimate war experience of the American soldiers in the battlefield. In fact, while print reporting provided the readers with mere facts, the cameras reproduced a personal dimension of war (Barkin, 2003:30).

Edward R. Murrow (credit:

The ‘unique characteristics of TV news’, helped Edward R. Murrow in ‘ending the shameful era of McCarthyism’, ‘a political gamble’ that accused American people of being communist, thus traitors (Streitmatter, 2011:139-140). Streitmatter (2011) highlights the glaring contrast between the newspapers’ approach to McCarthyism and the television’s one: while print journalism inflamed McCarthy’s phenomenon with sensational stories that supported his cause, Murrow and Friendly’s TV coverage was a crusade against the cruelty and recklessness of the Senator. Every programme exposed and attacked McCarthy through the defence of his victims, such as Lieutenant Milo Radulovich, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Barkin, 2003:30-31) and a Civil Liberties Union group (Emery, Emery and Roberts, 2000:368). 9 March 1954 was a crucial day and a turning point for ‘See It Now’s’ accusations: this time the programme ‘showed films of McCarthy in action’, condemning his disloyalty to the U.S. (Emery, Emery and Roberts, 2000:369). ‘The entire drama, thanks to the TV cameras, unfolded in the living rooms of 80 million Americans’ (Streitmatter, 2011:154), and definitely turned the public opinion against McCarthy, leading ‘to his downfall’ (Barkin, 2003:32).

The television coverage of hard news by Murrow incredibly marked journalism and promoted a certain ‘devotion to the common people’s rights’ (Emery, Emery and Roberts, 2000:367). He brought to journalism the importance of ‘free and vigorous debate, open assemblies, independent gathering of the news and critical commentaries about public affairs’, as well as the value of conscious and responsible reporting and the ‘relentless pursuit of the truth’ (Emery, Emery and Roberts, 2000:367).


Walter Cronkite, CBS Evening News (credit:

In the mid 20th century, the advent of television and its dramatic spread led the path to the creation of TV personalities. In 1951, the radio-TV columnist John Crosby argued that Americans were literally ‘glued to that machine’ (Davies, 1997), as they saw the people appearing in the ‘box’ in a familiar way. As an illustration, ‘the repetition of weekly or nightly programming and the intimacy of the home-viewing made the television personality more approachable and relatable.’ (Conway, 2014:452) In order to be profitable, the media system exploited the effect of dependence that TV had on people, believing that the promotion of a personality would have been less expensive than the funding of news coverage (Conway, 2014:453). Audience research became fundamental and networks were constantly looking for broadcasters who had the ability to connect with the viewer (Conway, 2014:452). The newscaster, or ‘anchor’, was the man who presented the news in an objective way, ‘providing clarity, reassurance and wisdom’. As argued in Emery, Emery and Roberts (2000) and in Barkin (2003), broadcasters as Edwards, Swayze, Huntley and Brinkley became extremely familiar to the public, and the networks depended entirely on them. In particular, Walter Cronkite distinguished himself as the personification of the ‘anchorman’: he was ‘an experienced reporter with a passion for accuracy and an instinct for breaking news’, whose voice accompanied the historical events of the period (Barkin, 2003:43-44). From the 1950s onward, Americans welcomed the anchors in their homes and spent more time with them than they did with their relatives and friends (Conway, 2014:452-453).


Discrimination of black students in Little Rock (credit:

The television coverage of the African-American civil rights movement (1954-1968) has contributed to the definition of TV journalism as ‘a profound social and political force’ (Barkin, 2003:35). As Barkin (2003) explains, television made evident the U.S.’ racial problems and pushed for the Government to solve them (38-39). The medium, filming the African-American oppression in the South of the nation, served as a memento for the public, as it made them realise the seriousness of what was happening (Streitmatter, 2011:155-156). Vivid sequences captured the physical and verbal horrors of racism, the live humiliation of ‘black’ students in Little Rock and Athens (Georgia), the initial optimism of the ‘freedom riders’ and the subsequent shameful segregationist attack, which injured the students and disfigured them for the rest of their lives (Streitmatter, 2011:157-161). American television cameras provided ‘footage they’d (the viewers) never forget’: the pictures showed Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. ’s hopes, and depicted the contrast between the peaceful protestants and the whites’ violence (Streitmatter, 2011:161). The intense coverage of the movement caused national awareness, and pushed towards the recognition of the ‘black’s’ rights. Television in that period had a true impact on journalism, because, as Streitmatter(2011) argues, ‘Newspapers and magazines can communicate information about an event, but television news has the power to stimulate the experience of actually being part of that event.’ (170)


In the early days of television, journalists were distrustful of the new medium. They considered it as a veritable antagonist, ‘an illegitimate cousin who had come into a lot of money’ (Donovan and Scherer, 1992:258). However, despite the fog of disdain that surrounded it in the industry, television was well welcomed by the American public: data show that, over the second half of the 20th century, television ‘gained in credibility’, becoming one of the public’s favourite sources of news (Williams and Delli Carpini, 2011:60-61). As stated in Donovan and Scherer (1992), while in the past people talked about the stories they had read in newspapers, in the late 1950s, people started talking about what they had seen on television (258). The medium established itself in a few years and soon showed its mettle in the battle for time and revenue (Donovan and Scherer, 1992:259).


Davies (1997) argues that, by the end of the 1950s, the television’s success in audience grabbing forced print and radio journalism to adapt to a new media marketplace. Nevertheless, the advent of television did not cause the decrease in newspapers and magazines’ circulation. As Davies (1997) shows, the new medium benefited print journalism. As a matter of fact, ‘readers expected newspapers to flesh out the sketchy accounts they’d seen on television and to cater the interests that television had created.’ This was particularly true for sports journalism, because televised sporting events made the readers ‘hungry for sports pages’ (Donovan and Scherer, 1992:291). As a consequence, sports reporters were forced to go behind the game itself, and to cover the background aspects of it. Generally speaking, newspapers left the breaking news and the entertainment reporting to television, and privileged a more depth, brilliant and interpretive way of writing: the feature (Davies, 1997). Moreover, the fresh and innovative nature of television pushed for a modernisation of the newspapers, with the introduction of ‘graphics, colour, layout, topics and special sections’ (Donovan and Scherer, 1992:261). Finally, the competition with TV became evident when newspapers started delivering their afternoon editions before the people could start watching television: ‘With television making its big play between 6:30 and 9:30 p.m., it becomes a necessity to get the evening papers in the readers’ hands as early as possible.’ (W.C. Todd in Davies, 1997)


The arrival of television has been described as ‘an unprecedented acceptance of a new household technology’ (Baughman, 2006:30-31), and in fact it was. Looking into the past, the new mediums have always fought for years in order to acquire a national consideration. By comparison, television can be considered as a disruptive technology that, entering the Americans’ living rooms in less than a decade, has brought the most important historical events to the eyes of an entire population. The first years of television have to be considered as the most thriving ones: they constitute a ‘unique historical moment in which complex modern societies’ all attended ‘a single forum for their most important “formative conversations”.’ (Williams and Delli Carpini, 2011:63)

To conclude, during its youth, television used its ‘dramatic potential’ to ‘enhance, and even re-create, actual events’ (Barkin, 2003:16), and it will continue to do so during the second half of the 20th century. The coverage of the Vietnam War, as well as Don Hewitt’s 60 Minutes, are just some of the turning points through which television will continue to affect American journalism.

South Vietnam police chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan shots a young man, whom he suspects to be a Viet Kong soldiers. The images were shown on TV. (credit: Eddie Adams)



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