History, Journalism, and Sharing Authority

At work today there was an interesting discussion regarding the media coverage of the tragic Boston Marathon bombings. Some people expressed great outrage at the fact that so much misinformation has been thrown out by the major media moguls (especially CNN) and it was suggested that the general public and their interactions on social media (specifically Twitter) were to blame for perpetuating much of this misinformation. Every person thinks they’re a reporter now. Professional training is unnecessary to “report the news.” As a result, these attitudes have led to a genuine distrust and loss of authority in the journalistic profession, perhaps even a loss of the “truth” of journalism. It was also suggested to me that back in the day there were only four TV stations, all staffed by professional journalists that always “double checked” their sources before reporting.

I couldn’t help but think of how relevant this discourse over journalistic authority is to the field of history. We are having the same discussions about the proper relationship between professional historians and the general public. I wholeheartedly agree with those who say that anyone can “do history,” but to what extent should people receive some sort of formal training in historical methods, if at all? With the preponderance of tweets, blogs, and websites about history that are created by non-professionals on a daily basis, how do professional historians maintain some sort of authority or “legitimacy” in this rapidly expanding information age? Should they fight to maintain authority? Do professional historians even matter anymore (did they ever in the first place?) How do we balance the desires to share our expertise and achieve historical accuracy with the goal of ensuring that all voices and perspectives are heard when looking at the past?

The concerns about misinformation expressed in the first paragraph are real and legitimate, but we will never return to the days of only four TV stations, nor was there ever a time when the media ever got their “facts” completely right. Looking at the field of history, it is more and more evident to me that the professionals should use their expertise to empower non-professionals with the tools to conduct their own explorations into the past using the best historical research methods. I have no clear answer as to the best practices for “sharing authority” with the public, but I am really taking Kevin Levin’s observations on the changing nature of historic interpretation to heart. In this passage Levin referred to interpretations at Civil War battle sites, but these words go far beyond the battlefield interpretation. To wit:

Public historians (broadly speaking) should be pleased with where they find themselves right now, given the history of interpretation at Civil War sites, but we would do well to remember that any claims to authority vanish on the interwebs.  The amount of time visitors spend at historic sites and museums with intelligent and qualified guides pales in comparison with the amount of time spent online.  What I would like to see in the coming years is for public historians and museum educators to shift their focus somewhat from content delivery to the teaching of skills that assist people in the gathering and assessment of historical content, especially online.  Empowering history enthusiasts at historic sites and museums and through their websites must include finding creative ways to teach how to properly interpret a primary source and how to evaluate the historical content of a website.

I am not for a moment diminishing the importance of place or the power of the connections that visitors forge at historic sites such as Gettysburg.  If anything, I am trying to reinforce its importance.  What I am suggesting we need to acknowledge is that the learning process of visitors begins long before stepping foot on a historic site and will continue long after the stories told fade away.  That process has become more and more for the average reader much more difficult to navigate owing to the democratization of history that has taken place as a result of the revolution in digital technology.  As history educators we need to rethink what it means to do public history or what it means to serve the public.

Well said.

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