If you’ve ever heard the term “stunt journalism” before, you can thank the pioneering female journalist and muckraker Nellie Bly.
Bly, born Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, was arguably the most groundbreaking, significant female journalists of 19th century, if not of all time. She greatly impacted the newsroom nearly three decades before the United States had established women’s suffrage, serving to be a prominent figure in first-wave feminism in addition to transforming investigative journalism.
Bly is most famously known for her investigative expose titled “Ten Days in a Mad-House.” This expose was assigned to her by Joseph Pulitzer during her time writing for the New York World. She was asked to cover Blackwell’s Island, which was home to most New York workhouses, prisons, and an infamous women’s insane asylum.
Using her method of “stunt” journalism, she trained herself to feign insanity so that she would be committed to the asylum, where she would then conduct her reporting from the inside. Bly was successful, and her coverage of the squalid conditions within Blackwell’s Island was so moving that it produced change.
“Ten Days in a Mad-House” led a grand jury to investigate the asylum, granting the Department of Public Charities and Corrections an $850,000 increase in funding, and prompted sweeping reforms of mental institutions across the state.
This piece also was impactful in the field of journalism; Bly’s stunt journalism tactic soon became her trademark in reporting and was dubbed a national sensation during a prime era of American media culture. Her new form of muckraking exuded the concrete specifics of one’s experience with observational reporting on other aspects of the subject being exposed.
This type of immersive muckraking became even more popularized with the growth of American urbanization. Journalists used similar tactics in the decade between 1902 and 1912, which is known as “the golden age of public service journalism”. Bly’s impact is seen in heavily circulated pieces of investigative journalism like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Lincoln Steffens’s The Shame of the Cities. Both works expose American capitalism’s corruption and produce a change in their respective areas.
Another of Bly’s most famous works was Around the World in Seventy-Two Days, which she recorded in a book. Bly wanted to see if she could defeat the fictional Phineas Fogg’s record, the protagonist in Jules Verne’s 1872 novel Around the World in Eighty Days. The editors at the New York World were fond of the idea but thought the trip would be better suited for a man, as he would need no protection. Typical of Bly, she exclaimed that she would complete the assignment for another publication and win if they did not send her.
Bly was successful in her efforts, completing her trip in 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes–setting a new 19th century world record. She documented the various people, sights, and cultures she came into contact with during her trip.
Bly is both the embodiment of a first-wave feminist icon, breaking the harsh gender barriers set up during the 19th century Progressive Era, and one of the most innovative journalists of all time. Though the presence of women in the newsroom has steadily grown, there is still a lot of work to do. Female journalists face a plethora of harassment, both within the newsroom and while reporting.
However, this does not stir from the progress women have made in spurring a growing presence in journalism. If it weren’t for Bly and her groundbreaking achievements, gender would’ve perhaps remained dichotomized in the newsroom for longer, further entrenching the separate gender spheres in the workforce.
Bly was an icon of a journalist and an icon as a feminist. Whether they be a woman in the newsroom or covering an investigative beat, all journalists can thank Bly for their influence.
You can read more about Bly and her legacy in one of our #MultiCommSC student’s research paper here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1amfo9dBmlqORA_gzy9c56RToD4-8J7_i3i1kdx_bruA/edit?usp=sharing