Nellie Bly and Investigative Journalism for Kids: Mighty Muckrakers From the Golden Age to Today

 by Ellen Mahoney, Chicago Review press

GOT A YOUNGSTER with an inquiring mind, writing skill and a bit of moxie? If so, s/he might be excited to read Nellie Bly and Investigative Journalism for Kids (Chicago Review Press). Bly was the pen name given to 21-year-old Elizabeth Jane Cochran when she became a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1885. A Dispatch columnist had infuriated Cochran by asserting that women should be content with cooking, cleaning and other domestic duties. Cochran wrote a letter to the editor challenging the columnist’s conservative opinion and signed it “lonely orphan girl.” The editor invited Cochran to write about the real lives of women in America. He was so impressed by her story on hard-working, low-income women that he gave her a second assignment—to write about divorce. After that story was published under the headline “Mad Marriages,” the editor hired Cochran at a salary of $5 a week.

Cochran, who later changed her surname to Cochrane, had a taste for adventure and social justice, and at the turn of the century “Nellie Bly” joined with other progressive journalists and writers, including Jacob Riis, Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair, who were crusading against such societal problems as disease-infested tenement houses, corporate monopolies, lynching and abusive labor practices. They were called “muckrakers,” a term first used by President Theodore Roosevelt.

In addition to profiling America’s most influential investigative writers, this book includes 21 activities that can help a young person develop journalistic skills. Learn how to write a letter to the editor, build a writer’s block, practice conducting an interview and find the “5 W’s” that are the essence of every news story: who, what, when, where and why.

Ellen Mahoney, author of Nellie Bly, notes that Cochran wasn’t a polished journalist. “Her pieces were often opinionated, self-centered and at times one-sided.” But she had a knack for descriptive writing, and she was intrepid. In 1887, working for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, she went undercover at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York. It was a dangerous assignment, but the result was a series of articles titled “Ten Days in a MadHouse.” A book on the same material was published in 1887. Adopting a character was Cochran’s investigative specialty, writes Mahoney: “She posed as a single mother with an unwanted child to uncover baby trafficking, got herself thrown in jail to report on its deplorable conditions, and she worked in a sweatshop to witness the mistreatment of workers.” And some of her exposés sparked needed reforms.

Cochran published four books under the name Nellie Bly, including a novel and Around the World in Seventy-Two Days (her attempt to beat the 80-day record set by the Jules Verne character Phileas Fogg). She covered World War I from the trenches for the New York Evening Journal and never lost her love for hard work, adventure and trying to improve the world. As she once said: “Energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything.”


Originally published in the June 2015 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.