"Never underestimate the intelligence of your readers/viewers, but never overestimate their knowledge” is a popular media maxim. Readers/viewers are smart, but they might not have all the facts. It’s the job of the news media to provide them with the facts.
Glenn Frank (1887-1940) wrote in The Century magazine in 1923, “The ideal magazine will overestimate the intelligence and underestimate the information of its readers.” Raymond Clapper (1892-1944), a popular newspaper columnist, is often credited with “Never overestimate the people’s knowledge nor underestimate their intelligence.” Clapper died in World War II and Time magazine wrote in 1944, as it had written in a columnist profile in 1942, of “Ray Clapper’s guiding maxim: ‘Never overestimate the people’s knowledge, nor underestimate their intelligence.’” Olive Ewing Clapper, his wife, wrote in 1961 that the saying was “actually coined by Glenn Frank.”
Frank, Glenn, 1887-1940, American editor and educator, b. Queen City, Mo., grad. Northwestern Univ., 1912. He was assistant to the president of Northwestern Univ. from 1912 to 1916. In 1919, Frank joined the staff of the Century Magazine, becoming editor in 1921. In 1925 he was appointed president of the Univ. of Wisconsin, where he initiated the university’s famous Experimental College and instituted changes in the teaching of agriculture. Ousted from his position by Gov. Philip Fox Follette in 1937, Frank became editor of Rural Progress. He was also active in the Republican party and was campaigning for the position of Senator from Wisconsin when he died in an automobile accident. His works include The Politics of Industry (1919), An American Looks at His World (1923), and America’s Hour of Decision (1934).
The ideal magazine will overestimate the intelligence and underestimate the information of its readers.
Monday, Jul. 09, 1923
Glenn Frank, editor of Century magazine, comparatively young, and acknowledged as able, returned from a long lecture tour, and, as a journalist, “ confessed “ seven sins of American journalism. He said he was speaking chiefly of weeklies and monthlies. These sins are here summarized in the order of their definiteness or concreteness:
1) American journalism underestimates the intelligence of its readers.
2) It overestimates the information of its readers. “ This is the outstanding sin of highbrow journalism. . . “The ideal magazine article should be written as if the men and women who were to read it had just dropped from the planet Mars.”
“The ideal magazine will overestimate the intelligence and underestimate the information of its readers.”
The Methodist Review
Glenn Frank, in the Century, has pointed out that editors underestimate their readers’ intelligence and overestimate their amount of information.
Google News Archive
9 December 1927, Meriden (CT) Record, “The Way of the World” by Grove Patterson, pg. 20, col. 6:
It was Glenn Frank, president of the University of Wisconsin, who said that the average newspaper editor underestimated his readers’ intelligence but overestimated their information. The lack of information on the part of the people who are really intelligent is a startling disclosure to anyone who will take the trouble to investigate.
Press: Everyman’s Columnist
Monday, Jul. 06, 1942
Something significant will be missing this month from the press of the nation: Columnist Raymond Clapper has headed for Rehoboth Beach, Del., for his first vacation in two years. In those two years Clapper has more than doubled his readers (to 8,598,635, in 144 papers), has doubly cinched his unique place among U.S. columnists.
Columnist Clapper confirms his pragmatism thus: “Public opinion will not tolerate indefinitely theories that don’t work in practice.” He consciously writes his column for “the people I knew out in Kansas,” and his favorite maxim is “Never overestimate the people’s knowledge nor underestimate their intelligence.”
The Press: Raymond Clapper
Monday, Feb. 14, 1944
“You have a sense of living in a world apart. . . . You live only minute by minute through the routine that carries you smoothly, as if drifting down a river, toward the day of battle.” Thus Raymond Clapper wrote last week from mid-Pacific. Later, in a Naval air collision on his day of battle in the Marshalls, death came to the stocky, stooped, 51-year-old columnist. He was the 16th U.S. newsman to die in the harness of a war correspondent.
Ray Clapper was convinced that journalism is the most important of all professions, that fair and honest reporting is its highest skill.
His Scripps-Howard column, started in 1936, quickly built an audience of 10,000,000 in 187 papers.
He was notable for his intense respect for the little citizen, for the sanity of the U.S. mass mind. Ray Clapper’s guiding maxim: “Never overestimate the people’s knowledge, nor underestimate their intelligence.”
By Charles Fisher
New York, NY: Howell, Soskin
Once, in one of those generalizations which all columnists make to interviewers at one time or another, he said he wrote for the people he knew out in Kansas — being careful not to overestimate their knowledge or underestimate their intelligence.
Saturday Review of Literature
The late Raymond Clapper used to say that one should be careful never to underestimate the intelligence of the public and never to overestimate their knowledge.
1 January 1945, Hartford (CT) Courant, “The People’s Forum,” pg. 10:
Never underestimate the people’s intelligence and never overestimate their knowledge.
1 March 1948, Bradford (PA) Era, “Letter to a Red-Head” by Robert Quillen, pg. 6, col. 2:
The most respected of Washington reporters, who needlessly sacrificed his life in the Pacific, once remarked to his fellow scribes: “Your chief blunder is that you underestimate the intelligence of your readers, and overestimate their knowledge.”
Lack of knowledge isn’t always the fault of the people. Too many newspaper men, assuming that the reader knows the background of news as they do, leave out so many germane facts the stuff they write has little meaning to the average reader.
Reporting Agriculture Through Newspapers, Magazines, Radio, Television
By William Binnington Ward
Ithaca, NY: Comstock Pub. Associates
When you write for them never underestimate their intelligence, and never overestimate their knowledge of a particular subject.
One Lucky Woman
By Olive Ewing Clapper
Garden City, NY: Doubleday
Ray was sometimes credited with a quotation which was actually coined by Glenn Frank: “Newspapers are inclined to overestimate the information of their readers and to underestimate their intelligence.”
Google News Archive
21 August 1970, Dubuque (IA) Telegraph-Herald, “Gallup’s Silent Majority—Part III: The media mutes its voice” by Jeffrey St. John, pg. 4, col. 4:
Observing that one of the most accurate assessments on the imperfect relationship between readers and newspaper editors was made by the editor of the old American Mercury magazine and president of the University of Wisconsin, the late Glenn Frank, Gallup recalled: “He said that newspaper editors were inclined to underestimate the intelligence of the American people and to overestimate their stock of information. Now this is something we prove almost every week of the year in our surveys.”
The Times (London)
December 27, 2008
Never underestimate our ability to upset you
A look back at whom we have irritated and pleased in 2008
Feedback’s response was the old adage: never underestimate the intelligence of your readers, but never overestimate their knowledge.
The Times (London)
December 12, 2009
Grief, gratuitousness and the bigger picture
Readers have questioned The Times’s use of a grief-stricken girl on page 1
The old newspaper adage “never underestimate your readers’ intelligence but never overestimate their knowledge” should be stuck up on every journalist’s wall.
Incomparably the first political journalist of her time
By Carolyn Sayler
Santa Fe, NM : Sunstone Press
Doris’ fellow native Kansan in Washington, Raymond Clapper, began his popular “Between You and Me” in 1934, writing, “for the people he knew out in Kansas—being careful not to overestimate their knowledge or underestimate their intelligence.”
The Cavalier Daily (University of Virginia)
A new beginning
A new academic year brings both opportunities and challenges for The Cavalier Daily
By Tim Thornton on September 6, 2010
The general rule is to never underestimate readers’ intelligence nor overestimate their knowledge.
New York City • Media/Newspapers/Magazines/Internet • (0) Comments • Tuesday, January 25, 2011 • Permalink