What journalists miss when they ignore history

Kathryn Palmer

A downpour of historic events saturated the year 2018. Or did it? Journalists and historians might have divergent answers.

History-making is a recurring theme of today’s media coverage, blasted across the instant-access social media platforms.

Take for example, a New York Times headline from July that promised to unpack the “biggest trade war in economic history,” quoting China’s Ministry of Commerce. Or Time Magazine’s September cover story which declared that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh “changed America.” Or this November photo gallery published in the Tampa Bay Times, documenting busy election officials gearing up for a “historic recount.”

Each story was big news, to be sure, but each also had robust historical precedent.

So what?

American media historian Earnest Perry says journalists would do well to consider the historical antecedents of breaking news — ignoring the context diminishes the media’s credibility.

I asked Perry, who also serves as associate dean for graduate studies at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, about the relationship between journalists and historians, what journalists are missing, and how a deeper understanding of history can improve the 24-hour news cycle.This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the relationship between journalists and historians?

By and large journalists will use historians to help them have a better understanding of how an historical event connects to a possible current event, especially if the journalist recognizes that this has happened once before, which in most cases it has. Usually if a journalist does do that, then they’re a good journalist. Most journalists have a difficult time seeing how history plays a role in many of the things happening today.

Why is there a disconnect between historians and journalists?

Journalists live in the moment. Journalism, as it is practiced, is reactionary. Journalists tend to spend a lot of their available time in dealing with where we are right now and where we’re going to go instead of how we got here.

Is there harm in news presented without historical context?

Oh, it’s a huge harm.

If you look at the (focus on) partisanship and vitriol you see in today’s news media — that we’re at this major point in time and we’ve never really seen anything like this. We have seen it.

It happened back at the founding of the Republic. President John Adams, for example, was pushing for the curbing of press freedoms during his administration; President Abraham Lincoln did the same thing during the U.S. Civil War; President Woodrow Wilson during World War I.

You had some instances in which President Franklin D. Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover did it during World War II. President Richard Nixon pushed it early in his administration and particularly during Watergate.

There have been many instances in which presidential administrations have pushed back against the press. The difference is now that there are so many outlets in which to do it with Twitter, Facebook, and blogs. It’s a disruption within the media landscape itself.

What are some other examples of how today’s journalists overlook historical precedent?

White supremacy. White supremacy is nothing new. Again, it goes back to the founding of the Republic. We are a country that legalized slavery and fought a civil war to end it and then established laws afterward that legalized (racial segregation). But so many of today’s journalists cover all of these instances of white supremacy as if we’ve never seen this before.

Media is not proactive. It is reacting to events in a larger society.

What can journalists learn from historians?

Historians reflect on, analyze and interpret what was going on in a particular time period. Historians talk about context. Journalists talk about context. That’s one of the great similarities between journalists and historians. They both try to present the facts in a context.

Where journalism can be informed by historians is coming to an understanding of what people in that time period were living through, what they were thinking and the social norms of the period. Then journalists should think about those same questions in the present day. That provides context that moves through time.

How do politicians use history to support their platforms?

Good politicians and good political operatives understand and know history about where people are coming from in a contextual, historical perspective. Politicians stop and listen to people’s stories about where they are now and where their families came from. When they have an understanding of that then they know they can touch them at certain points that get them emotionally, maybe intellectually. But people will act on emotion before they will act on rational thought.

People have an emotional connection to the past in a way that they don’t have to the present.

How can journalists become more aware of that in their reporting?

Journalists like to hear themselves talk, but they need to listen more. Listen to what people are saying and why they are saying it.

What are some examples of how historical awareness could be better applied in journalism?

Pick any election. There are stories that are being missed out there. A lot of journalists go into an assignment thinking they already know what the story is instead of listening to what people are saying — or not saying.

Journalists having more knowledge about the history of the areas they’re covering and how the stories they’re hearing connects to that history could give them a more well-rounded, authentic contextualized narrative of what they’re hearing and seeing. Do this instead of trying to connect these communities to the overall narrative someone else has put out there.

Go to any small Midwestern town. The narratives journalists think about those towns are oversimplified, not contextualized, not authentic and not as complex as the communities themselves.

How can journalists better prepare themselves for reporting stories with more historical context?

Look beyond the most recent news clips. You can’t stop there. You have to go and look at what other books and articles were written about a particular topic.

Understand that every story has a history that goes further back than the last 48 hours. Almost any economic story has a history. This is not the first trade war the U.S. has ever been in, for instance. Not every U.S. Supreme Court decision is “landmark.”

You can’t claim that something is “landmark” or historic because it just happened. For example, John Roberts siding with the liberal wing of the U.S. Supreme Court in upholding the Affordable Care Act could be historic, but the only way we will know that is if it lasts because it could be the beginning of national health care in this country. But we don’t know yet.

Describing something that just happened as “historic” is a fallacy.

Kathryn Palmer is a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history and served as the historian of the Florida State Archives.


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