As newspapers wrestle with challenges in today’s multimedia world, they can glean helpful insights from the history of news.
“The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself,” published March 25, sheds light on how the newspaper, which emerged in the early 17th century, gained a footing in a multimedia landscape. It took time for the newspaper to find its way in a world where news was spread in ways ranging from gossip to official proclamations. The newspaper eventually became the dominant form of news delivery.
Author Andrew Pettegree, a professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, answered NAA’s questions about the history of news via e-mail. He shared his thoughts about the great age of newspapers, false prophecies and more.
Question: Your book asserts that the basic principles of news dissemination have remained the same — the news must be current and trustworthy. Why?
Answer: Truth and trust lie at the heart of journalistic ethics. News is only news if it is true: Otherwise it becomes advocacy or propaganda.
This is a constant of news, though the underlying context has changed through the ages. In the first centuries of a commercial culture of news, trust was an issue because news was so hard to get. News would come in — to the court, the monastery or the merchant’s house — and it would be difficult to assess whether it should be believed. It might be important to act quickly, but what if the report was a rumour deliberately spread to mislead a rival, or to move the commodity market? So a great deal rested on the trustworthiness of the bearer; and the need to secure corroboration, a second trustworthy account, was a major driver in building news networks.
Nowadays the issue is clearly different. News comes so quickly, and from so many sources, that establishing the basic facts is much less problematic. The news business has become much more a matter of commentary and interpretation; fine in itself, but deeply problematic if these facts are shaped (or suppressed) to fit a case.