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Muckrakers Effect on Society

Hannah Nelson

South Newton High School


When researching my topic, muckrakers, I had questioned what over-all effects the muckrakers had on today’s society. Also, I wanted to research some of the issues muckrakers had to overcome when doing the research for their novels or journal articles. Although most people today take the work of the muckrakers for granted, the effects of their work is presented everywhere in the country. I wondered if there were any rules that the muckrakers had to follow in order to obtain their goal. At first, researching this topic was difficult because I couldn’t find the proper way to narrow down my search. I started off with just a simple search of muckrakers then began to see some of the common themes that were present. Then I tried to build off those ideas. I used a non-specific search engine: Google; as time moved on in my research process I noticed myself using Google Scholar to try to find support that would be specific for my thoughts. I used my knowledge from US History and came to the conclusion that muckrakers were some of the most powerful people in the world at this time. They caused uproar in the public without using violence. This public uproar then produced change in the country. In most cases, these authors were not looking for wealth or fame, but they wanted change. People like this still exist today; a new name has been made for them: journalist.

Muckraker’s Effect on Society

March 29, 1899: I am living in a small room in which around 25 other people live. Well, make that 24 because the Jacobs family lost a child this morning. I heard the little girl had some kind of skin infection. She most likely got the infection from playing by the dead horse or in the mud streams that everybody dumps their buckets of feces in. I remember when I was young my mom yelling to me: “Edwin, you stay out of those mud creeks! Those creeks aren’t filled with clean water like the ones back at home!” Now that the little girl is dead, she lays here since the family can’t afford the proper burial, and they don’t want her to come back and haunt them. I am sure most residents have the same infection, including myself. My dad works, but there is not enough money for all of my family to eat every day. Strangers have been here recently, taking pictures and asking questions, saying that they are trying to help. All of us immigrants that live here know that if they are like the government officials that come by, there will not be anything done for us. These strangers say they are some kind of reporters, making a joke about what some people call them: Muckrakers. Still, I do not think they will take any action on what happens behind the walls in the tenement building. I have learned that it is best to forget about them.

Now that it is 2013, I see how naïve Edwin was when he doubted the power of the Muckrakers. With many health and sanitation laws passed, I now see how Muckrakers in the Progressive Era were hard-working people that are sometimes overlooked in society today.

Muckrakers, from 1890 to 1920 in the United States, helped shaped the country’s ideas into what they are today. Muckrakers, such as Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck, helped present the hardships of the social classes that were not exposed in the newspapers or novels. The government and the upper class were the only people seen in newspapers and talked about on the streets. Until muckrakers came into the society, most Americans were completely oblivious to what was happening around them. They didn’t know, nor did they care to know, about the harsh and unsanitary conditions workers faced in most jobs, including where food was processed and packaged.“Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle and Samuel Hopkins Adams’ Great American Fraud, combined with the work of Harvey W. Wiley and Senator Albert J. Beveridge, brought about passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.”(Muckraker, n.d.) Although Sinclair’s novel made American society reconsider when they picked up their favorite food, this was not the goal he had intended. When writing The Jungle, Sinclair wanted people to realize the conditions the working poor were enduring, but instead he generated public panic about the food they were eating (Upton Sinclair, n.d). ‘“I aimed for the public’s heart,” he wrote in his autobiography, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”’(Impact of, n.d).

There were few rules and regulations journalists had to follow when writing in the Progressive Era; however, there were huge risks with being a muckraker. In the Constitution, Americans have the Freedom of Speech and the Freedom of Press; however, there are some limitations to all things. Owners of the printing companies were often wealthy business owners. Muckrakers often targeted the wealthy people, “business owners often opposed the Progressives” (The Muckrakers, n.d), making them not want to produce what those muckrakers were wanting the American Society to know. Gruesome images and ideas would have easily gone unpublished because of the government and large corporations. “Sinclair had difficulty finding a publisher for his devastating novel The Jungle. An employee at the publisher Macmillan warned, ‘I advise without hesitation and unreservedly against the publication of this book..’”(Upton Sinclair, n.d) Most of the Progressive authors would push the limits, when pushing the limits, the journalists had to be aware of what statements they were making because this was also a time that communism fear was present.

Although the profession of muckraking may have been a dangerous job, most authors thought the risk was worth taking or else they wouldn’t have published their work. Sinclair had said in an interview that “[He] was dangerous to the targets of my exposes, but [he] was never a Communist and [he] was never an advocate of violence” (The Work, n.d). The dangers were in exaggerating the truth. All muckraking authors in the Progressive had the same theme of exposing business tycoons, but not exaggerating the truth (The Muckrakers, n.d). This allowed the public to see what was happening inside the monopolies. Since what the muckrakers were writing was true, businesses could not avoid distrust in the public’s eyes. If the muckrakers would have exaggerated the truth in some of their work, it would have been hard for the public to believe what they were reading from the muckrakers ever again. Muckrakers would study the past and present personal records carefully in order to ensure the truth in their writing (Filler, 1976 p. xix).

Whether muckrakers were attacking monopolies or the injustices inside tenements, most had the overall goal of improving life for American citizens. Though the muckrakers have to same goal when writing, they have different ways of presenting their research and investigations.. Some authors felt as if their work would be best presented in the form of a novel, while others wrote in magazines that would be distributed regularly. There were also the different styles and purposes of the way authors wrote: some muckrakers provoked violence while others just wrote about the truths that occur in big monopolies. In The Iron Heel, “Coupling Socialism with violence, [Jack London’s] radical romance was commended for both unpleasant detail and unpleasant doctrine” (Rideout, 1956, p.47). By the popularity of The Jungle, when it was written, compared with The Iron Heel, the less violence in the muckrakers novel, the more successful the novel could have been. .

In the late 1800’s, there was a lot of migration and overpopulation in the United States. With the overpopulation came less space for people to live and fewer jobs available in cities. This allowed for monopolies to pay their workers lower wages. If the muckrakers could catch the attention of the society, they could easily get a reaction because the public wanted exciting news. “The muckrakers’ work grew out of the yellow journalism of the 1890s, which whetted the public appetite for news arrestingly presented, and out of popular magazines (Muckraker, n.d.).” Once the muckraker could catch the American’s attention, there was a great deal of concern with upper class citizens. With the growing concern, government often stepped in. Soon laws and acts were passed to fix the issues presented by the muckrakers. Even though muckraker’s attempts were successful, there were other issues that were never addressed. Muckrakers and Reformers noted that key issues, such as race and sex equality, were never addressed in the muckrakers work (n.d).

Even though the muckraking movement disappeared largely between 1910 and 1912 (Muckraker, n.d.), some of the key concepts and findings are still used today. Many of the acts were passed in the Progressive Era and most are still in action today. The Sanitation Acts improved the sanitary and working conditions of the country, allowing workers’ rights and consumer awareness of what the society was eating. Recently, the Humane Society was behind “biggest beef recall ever” that shut down a slaughter house after disturbing images and videos were taken of cows “stumbling their way to a California Slaughter House” (Muckrakers & Reformers, n.d.). The Meat Inspection Act was an important tool for the closure of this plant. Most importantly, muckrakers didn’t just leave behind the acts and laws their work assisted, they left behind tools for other journalists to use. Comparing records of a group from many years ago greatly affected the Wall Street inquiry. To this current muckrakers finding, many of the present and past leaders had bought step stocks and were not paying taxes. (Wiseman, 2010) Research and reporting were used by the Progressive Era muckraker just as they are used in present day, allowing the public to hear about corruptions in important businesses and corporations, without the use of slander.

The generations that came after Edwin will not have to work in sweatshops or live in tenement housing. Even though most lower class citizens had no faith in the power of words, the laws were passed to help improve their life. The power of truthful words in the Progressive Era was what allowed the muckrakers work to be effective. There are now journalists that report on almost every event that happens in the country. Without these people, American citizens would be unaware of what is happening around them. Government corruption or unconstitutional events happening are almost always witnessed and then fixed. Muckrakers helped shape journalism and reporting into what it is today. Without journalism, American’s may have never discovered the truth about Watergate or diseases in the food eaten. Although there are many laws and acts passed to protect the rights of the American Citizen, corporations and government will always have dirty secrets that just need to be let out of the closet by a bold journalist.


Filler, L. (1976). The muckrakers (New and enl. ed.). University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Impact of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. (n.d.). A Practical Policy. Retrieved November 8, 2013, from

Muckrakers & Reformers. (n.d.). Shmoop. Retrieved November 4, 2013, from

Rideout, W. B. (1956). The radical novel in the United States, 1900-1954: some interrelations of literature and society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

The Muckrakers During the Progressive Era. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2013, from

The Work Of A Muckraker. (n.d.). This I Believe RSS. Retrieved November 8, 2013, from

Upton Sinclair and The Jungle. (n.d.). World Socialist Movement. Retrieved November 8, 2013, from

Wiseman, P. (2010, January 13). Depression-era muckraker shapes Wall Street inquiry. USA Today. Retrieved September 4, 2013, from

Muckraker (journalism). (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Retrieved November 5, 2013, from

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