Famous Journalist, Nellie Bly, Paved the Way for Investigative Journalism
Updated: Nov 18, 2020
Nellie Bly’s 10-day journey into insane asylums and her exposé in the 1880’s caused a ripple effect that changed procedures to this day.
By Rachel Pollard
When someone says the word “journalist”, what do you think of? Your answer largely depends on your experience with the world of journalism. Do you think of paparazzi? TMZ? Click-bait headlines? Or do you think of “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair? Do you think of the journalists killed overseas trying to uncover the truth? If you fit in with the latter, then you would be a fan of Nellie Bly. Elizabeth Cochran Seaman, better known by her pen name as Nellie Bly, dedicated her life to investigative journalism to improve the lives of women and those in mental hospitals.
Nellie Bly started her career in journalism as the strong woman the world came to know. She was offered a position at the Pittsburgh Dispatch after writing a rebuttal to one of their stories, in which they called a working woman “a monstrosity”. Upon getting a job at the Pittsburgh Dispatch, Bly decided to dedicate her writing to pieces exposing the adverse effects behind sexism, and strived to assert the importance of women’s rights issues.
During this time, she took on her first investigative journalism piece, going undercover into a sweatshop to expose the detrimental conditions under which women were working. The factory owners complained to the Dispatch regarding her piece, and Bly was moved to the “women’s section” of the paper, covering beauty, fashion, and makeup. She left soon after.
As an exceptional female journalist, she was undeterred by the Pittsburgh Dispatch, and set off to Mexico, where she spent six months writing. She released her first book, which was an accumulation of her pieces called, “Six Months in Mexico” detailing the life and culture of the people of Mexico. One piece focused on the imprisonment of a Mexican journalist who was behind bars after speaking ill of the Mexican government. Bly was threatened with imprisonment, and fled the country.
After her time in Mexico, she wrote her famed book, “Ten Days in a Mad-House”. This notorious exposé unearthed the grotesque and inhumane conditions of Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum in New York. Her book led to a large-scale investigation of the hospital which was assisted by Bly, and resulted in changes in the New York City's Department of Public Charities and Corrections. These changes included larger budget allocations for the mental hospitals, an increased staff to monitor neglect, and regulations regarding fire codes.
What came next?
After going undercover in the asylum and watching a cascade of positive reforms, Bly wasn’t done yet. Following her asylum exposé, she continued endorsing proper treatment in many different areas, including New York jails and factories, and even unearthed corruption in the New York legislature. She also decided to traverse around the world, aiming to test if one could truly go around the world in 80 days, and did it in 72.
Despite her passing in 1922, nearly 100 years ago, Nellie Bly’s legacy lives on with the investigative journalists of today. Her tenacity is inspiring for journalists digging for the truth, and for every woman who has ever been told “no” because they aren’t tough enough. Women Journalist Without Chains promoting civil rights, Dorothy Thompson who investigated Nazi Germany, Inita Martini who was the first woman sports journalist at a Major League Baseball game, all follow in the footsteps paved by Bly.
Bly’s self-starter journey is testament to the strong-willed and determined attitude she had, and this attitude holds fast to the attitude of journalists today. She is looked up to by many journalists who champion for the less-fortunate, and are brave enough to erupt change.
About the Author:
Rachel Pollard is a junior at the University of North Texas in Denton. She is pursuing a B.A. in journalism with a concentration in public relations, a minor in psychology, and a certificate in sports journalism. She hopes to work in the sports industry as a PR pro, or go into non-profits and work to help the less-fortunate. She is on track to graduate in December 2021.