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.


There is No Such Thing as “Fair and Balanced”

"No one will want to watch this crap. Find something that will boost our ratings."
“No one will want to watch this crap. Find something that will boost our ratings.”

Part of my coursework this semester involves taking H501 Historical Methods. Seeing that I never had the opportunity to take a methods class while in undergrad (that has changed for the students currently enrolled there, thankfully), I am looking forward to being challenged like I never have before to think critically about the methods historians use to analyze sources and build arguments. I realize that this process is going to hurt and that I will most likely make many, many mistakes, but I believe that this will be the most important class I take throughout my graduate studies. Even though I am training to teach history in a non-academic setting, my hope is that I will someday share the sentiments of Bob Beatty, who commented at History@Work that “a grounding in history made the [public] programs I created and contributed to stronger and more effective and provided me fodder to fight against the tides of myth and sentimentality that can sometimes permeate the study of local history.”

The first book I am reading in Historical Methods is From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods by Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier. While reading today a brief passage stuck out to me on page 32 about the art of journalism that I think does an excellent job of not only describing journalistic media, but the process of creating an argument in history. To wit:

No matter the medium in which it is delivered and no matter the care in which editorial freedom is protected…every news report is in some sense selective and therefore “biased.” The journalist who composes it–or the team of journalists and editors who put it together–is choosing among the thousands and thousands of pieces of information available, on the basis of what might interest or please the “public,” the owner, the state, one or another interest group, or a certain ideological position. One journalist may decide that, having been told of one instance of a development–let us say the first heart transplant–the public does not need to know about subsequent operations of the same type; another journalist, in contrast, may decide that the successful repetition of the operation is the important point, and she will thus continue to “follow the story.” In fact, she is not “following” the story; she is creating it… The point is that journalists are always affecting the news, making one story “important,” and another “unimportant,” making “news” on one hand and “not-news” on the other.

So it’s not a matter of being “fair and balanced.” It’s about embracing biases and using them to ask certain questions about contemporary problems and holding leaders and institutions accountable. In journalism, how those biases shape the flow of a newscast or report says a lot about the sort of things that constitute “news” for a given media organization. Also, before you get whacked out about the title of this blog or think that I’m picking on a certain news organization that embraces that moniker, keep in mind that it’s not about the “liberal news media” or the perceived biases of the sometimes called “Faux News,” it’s that the process of interpreting the “news” is something all stations do and is inherent in the process of creating news, because even a 24/7 news station can’t tell the full story.

Interestingly enough, HBO and Aaron Sorkin’s show “The Newsroom” does an excellent job of demonstrating this point. I’ve only seen the first episode of the show, but in that episode we see a journalism staff enter into a new television organization and actively fight to change the content of Jeff Daniels’s (I forgot his character name) program, shooting for a more “investigative report” style of questioning and inquiry. There is disagreement among the staff as to whether or not the program should pick up a story about the BP oil spill in the Gulf, whether it constitutes “news.” The staff decides to include it in Jeff’s program, and it turns out that they are the first channel to report on what turns out to be a very “newsworthy” story (as it was in real life). Everyone celebrates the increased ratings and the fact that it got the station increased attention, but what they were really celebrating was their ability to create “news” that pleased the various interests associated with the news station, including the station owner, the constituency that regularly watches the show, and channel surfers who may have stopped to watch and see what was happening.

While history isn’t exactly the same as journalism, some of these ideas permeate and are embraced by the bulk of the history profession. Historians create their own depictions of the past and construct meanings from it using the most reliable sources of a given time period. They are storytellers who ask questions of the past based on their personal biases and what sort of contemporary problems they yearn to solve. They determine what is “historical.” By attempting to hold past leaders and institutions accountable, historians help us keep contemporary leaders and institutions accountable. Although I’m arguing that the biases of historians should be embraced, I am also adamant that such biases should be transparent and that historians must be honest with their sources. One of the best ways of doing this, I’ve learned, is by distinguishing between information that comes from primary sources and what is a personal interpretation of the historian creating a story around such material. Being clear with such biases allows us to engage in a more honest dialogue that allows for new perspectives and interpretations of the past that have the possibility of enhancing our understanding of the past.

Until next time.