Kim Todd (Photo: Dani Werner)
In the waning years of the 19th century, women journalists across the United States risked reputation and their own safety to expose the hazardous conditions under which many Americans lived and worked. In various disguises, they stole into sewing factories to report on child labor, fainted in the streets to test public hospital treatment, and posed as lobbyists to reveal corrupt politicians. Inventive writers whose in-depth narratives made headlines for weeks at a stretch, these “girl stunt reporters” changed laws, helped launch a labor movement, championed women’s rights, and redefined journalism for the modern age.
The 1880s and 1890s witnessed a revolution in journalism as publishing titans like Hearst and Pulitzer used weapons of innovation and scandal to battle it out for market share. As they sought new ways to draw readers in, they found their answer in young women flooding into cities to seek their fortunes. When Nellie Bly went undercover into Blackwell’s Insane Asylum for Women and emerged with a scathing indictment of what she found there, the resulting sensation created opportunity for a whole new wave of writers. In a time of few jobs and few rights for women, crusading journalism offered a path to lives of excitement and meaning.
After only a decade of headlines and fame, though, these trailblazers faced a vicious public backlash. Accused of practicing yellow journalism, their popularity waned until “stunt reporter” became a badge of shame. But their influence on the field would arc across a century, from the Progressive Era’s muckraking of the 1900s to the personal New Journalism of the 1960s and ’70s, to the immersion journalism and creative nonfiction of today. Bold and unconventional, these writers changed how people would tell stories forever.
Drawing from her new book, Sensational, Kim Todd looks at the vivid history of undercover reporters who exposed corruption and abuse in America—and in the process redefined what it means to be a woman and a journalist. Todd is an award-winning author whose essays and articles have appeared in Smithsonian, Salon, Sierra Magazine, and Orion.
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