#ThrowbackThursday: Nellie Bly’s Investigative Journalism

By: Emily McAfee, NWHM Intern

Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, known as “Nellie Bly,” reached international celebrity status when she traveled around the world by ship, train and burro in 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes, ahead of the fictional hero of Jules Verne’s popular book “Around the World in Eighty Days.” Her journey began today in 1889.

Bly’s big break, though, came two years before her round-the-world trip, when she faked insanity to study an asylum from the perspective of a patient. After months of rejection from editors on the basis of her sex, Bly received the opportunity to investigate the insane asylum from the New York World. Jean Marie Lutes, a scholar of women journalists, argues that Bly’s success with this story was, in part, due to her “female-ness.” Lutes suggests that because Bly was a woman, and therefore already outside the traditional image of a “reporter” in 1887, she was able to go beyond the limits of traditional reporting for her story:

“Bly’s reportage exulted in the concrete specifics of one individual’s experience and scorned the relative abstraction of disinterested observation. By adopting the hysteric’s hyperfemale, hyperexpressive body, she created her own story and claimed the right to tell it in her own way. Moreover, impersonating insanity allowed her to flaunt the very characteristics that were being used to bar women from city newsrooms: her female-ness, her emotional expressiveness, her physical—even her explicitly sexual—vulnerability.” (1)

On the basis of her diversity—by virtue of being, as a woman, an outsider to the profession—Bly was able to generate huge success. Her success was not just a personal achievement. Bly changed the field of reporting entirely with her innovative investigative techniques, and paved the way for important works of investigative journalism in the early 20th Century: for example, Ida Tarbell’s The History of the Standard Oil Company (1904) and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906). Nellie Bly’s career is a powerful example of how diversity in the workplace can strengthen a business (or, in this case, an entire profession) in unexpected ways.

Click here to read more about Nellie Bly.

(1) Lutes, Jean Marie. “Into the Madhouse with Nellie Bly: Girl Stunt Reporting in Late Nineteenth-Century America.” American Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 2 (June 2002). Page 218. Emphasis added.

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