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Ida Tarbell: More Than Just Another Name From History Class

How one courageous woman changed journalism forever

By Ben Jones


I’m not a history whiz. Somehow though, I can remember sitting in history class during the spring semester of my sophomore year at the University of North Texas and learning about Ida Tarbell, a brave journalist who stood up against one of the United States’ largest companies with nothing more than a pen, paper, extreme determination and the power of the press. As a journalism major, her story intrigued me, and researching her taught me lessons that history class simply couldn’t.


Image via the Library of Congress

Perhaps Tarbell’s most impressive trait was her determination to expose the wrongs she had witnessed. Her experiences with the Standard Oil Company causing her father’s business to suffer convinced her to examine the company and expose its dirty secrets. Although she didn’t consider herself to be an exceptional writer, Tarbell felt that her research and dedication into the Standard Oil Company “ought to count for something. And perhaps [she] could learn to write.” She went on to write a 19-part series about the company which she called The History of the Standard Oil Company. This piece went on to pioneer investigative journalism and increased anti-trust attitudes in the United States.

Strong ethics

Another admirable trait that Tarbell possessed was an inherent willingness to speak out when she saw injustice. She felt that the Standard Oil Company’s actions were so horrendous and inexcusable that she had an obligation to expose the corruption she had seen. By following her sense of ethics and morals, Tarbell was able to produce a piece of writing that was incredibly powerful. New York University even listed The History of the Standard Oil Company as the fifth-best piece of journalism to come out of the 20th century. Tarbell is an example of how important it is to follow a set of values and ethics in the journalism profession and how these traits can benefit writers.

Excellent writing skills

Image via the Library of Congress

Lastly, it would be a mistake to focus solely on Tarbell’s character traits and ignore her powerful writing skills. Although she originally wanted to be a scientist, Tarbell’s work shows extreme mastery over writing. In his book More than a Muckraker: Ida Tarbell’s Lifetime Journalism, author Robert C. Kochersberger Jr. described Tarbell’s writing as “fair and professional” and acknowledges that her work set the standard for investigative journalism. Tarbell’s writing created a new type of journalism and was powerful enough to set the precedent for this field, which shows just how skilled she was as a writer.

Ida Tarbell certainly deserves her spot as one of the greatest journalists of the 20th century. She’s a true American journalism hero. Her dedication, commitment to her ethics and strong writing skills are traits that I hope to carry into my work. Ida Tarbell is more than just a figure in a history book.



About the author:

Ben Jones is an aspiring public relations practitioner located in Denton, Texas. He is currently a senior studying journalism with a focus in public relations at the University of North Texas. He will graduate in the Spring of 2021.