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  • Writer's pictureWaitman Beorn

Don't hate the player...or the game

Why historians need to demand accountability from journalism and also need to get in the game.

There has recently been some interesting (and sometimes heated) discussion on Twitter recently about the place of history (and historians) in the popular press. In fact, I first started writing this before the excellent recent NYT piece on Haiti came out. This, then, felt like as good a time as ever to write my first blog post not least because I am in the process of trying to bring a book manuscript to a larger audience.

I want to encourage us to think about two particular subjects when it comes to the uses (and abuses) of history and historians in the popular press. First and most relevant in the heat of the moment is the role historians should play in journalistic endeavors like the Haiti article (and countless others). The second is how we ourselves should engage with market for popular books. This is, in some ways, related to the first but with more responsibility on scholars themselves.

First, let me begin by saying that, while the Haiti article may form the most recent example, I am not going to engage too specifically with the facts as it is not my area of expertise. I should also note that it is fantastic to see the popular press engaging with historical topics, particularly lesser-known ones, in this way. That is an absolute good. The problem, of course, is with the rather sensationalist claims that NYT reporters have somehow just unearthed an earth-shattering discovery by…doing precisely what historians do (and have been doing) for years. The NYT is to be commended for actually devoting a separate article to the scholars they have consulted and the sources they used (though they seem to have made some problematic choices as others have pointed out). Other examples of this “journalists discovering history” phenomenon

But the NYT could have (and arguably SHOULD have) done better. Why not name some of the historians whose work they relied on? Moreover, it is not enough for journalists to simply list scholars they consulted. Because journalists are quite often not doing the analytical work they are presenting. That is to say, they are drawing on more than just factoids from historians; they are repeating IDEAS. This, after all, is the hardest work of the scholar: making sense of the things they may find in archives. It is, therefore, not enough to simply note that one consulted a scholar’s work. One should credit the ideas, theories, ways of interpreting the past that are the ultimate contributions of the historian. This must be more than just “historians have shown…” etc. This should be most obviously be done in the text itself, but especially when the main method of consumption is digital. The NYT piece, for example, is visually striking in its digital form. And this digital format allows for forms of citation that are perhaps prohibitive in print. For example, one could hyperlink the text to its source. This is a seamless way to simultaneously give credit to a scholar and provide the reader with additional information while not interrupting the text too much (this is, I suppose the argument against footnotes though I think those would be equally appropriate as we are used to them in Wikipedia, for example). When I write much shorter pieces for the Washington Post, I have tried to at least link to the books that I have taken direct quotes from.

Journalists and historians should be allies in the critically important task of bringing the past to the general public. Journalistic sources offer a larger platform than most scholarly publishing outlets. But, all too often, it seems that scholars are unequal partners in this relationship. Too many times, we read of “discoveries,””never-before-told-stories,””hidden histories.” These terms annoy historians sometimes at a meta-level; here, we mean the idea that the past is negotiated, etc. But, more often, they annoy us because WE have down the discovering, the labor, the work in archives and with interview partners. The doing of history is always building on the work of others. This is why the footnote and the citation are such foundational elements of academic writing. We give credit to those who came before, even when we disagree with them, and we provide the reader the ability to follow in our footsteps and to interrogate the sources we rely on. It’s often said that journalists write the first draft of history, which may well be true. But when they are writing about actual history, that first (second and third) draft has already been written and needs to be cited.

Which brings me to my second subject which is more of a call to arms, an exhortation to historians to become more involved. Part of this, of course, relies on journalists being willing to share more of the spotlight. But another part is for historians to be willing to play the game in the popular press…and to support those amongst them who do. If we are annoyed and concerned about the similar phenomenon of popular historians and journalists “discovering” the past and writing best-seller while we focus on scholarly monographs for academic presses, then we must also be willing to dip our toes into those waters.

What do I mean by that? We need to understand that trade presses (and the media) like to have catchy headlines that claim new discoveries, hidden histories, and never-before-told stories. This is part of the marketing and sales process that cannot be separated from mass media. While this can be annoying when a non-expert claims this at the expense of scholarly work, I would argue that we need to be kinder to each other when popular books by scholars include this phraseology (often through no choice of their own.). This is what I mean by not hating the player or the game. The game requires some of this hyperbole and superlative language. It is, in a sense, the cost of doing business. And the price of access to the broader audience that popular media offers. We need to be a bit more accepting of this double-edged sword. Put another way, works by scholars in popular media can still be rigorous and nuanced within the pages of the text and also sport some of that overblown language on the cover. I would argue that this trade-off is worthwhile to get the message of our histories out there.

Journalists’ work is important and not to be minimized or written off. But, when they sweep in and claim or imply that they have singlehandedly done the work that many scholars have done in multiple countries over decades or even centuries, they are erasing historians. Perhaps more dangerously, as Richard Steigmann-Gall points out, they are “or lending the impression that they did better research than allegedly fastidious, fussy academic #twitterstorians.” Journalists certainly do research, but they are not historians. Claims to independent sweeping discoveries erase not only the work of historians but also of archivists, librarians, and a whole ecosystem of experts trained in working with the past. We need to demand better both of journalism in crediting the work of scholars and in ourselves in more forcibly interjecting our work in the public sphere.

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