Why history matters to journalism

Thoughts from a panel conversation at this week's NLGJA

A panel conversation at The Association of LGBTQ Journalists titled “History Matters” featured journalist Sherry Boschert, author Helen Zia, NY Times contributor Linda Villarosa, and public historian Jason Steinhauer.

I spent the latter half of this week participating in the national convention of the NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists. This was my first time (virtually) attending the event, which was very interesting and extremely welcoming. I highly recommend those interested in media to learn more about the organization.

Our panel discussion focused on why history matters to contemporary journalism. My fellow speakers included author and journalist Sherry Boschert; writer and activist Helen Zia; and New York Times Magazine contributor Linda Villarosa (all pictured above). It was a rich conversation with lots to ruminate on, and so I thought I’d share some brief reflections.

The subject of how history and journalism intersect has particular resonance for me. When I served as the founding director of the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest (2017 - 2020), I led a pilot program with the Philadelphia Inquirer that brought local reporters into collaboration with local historians. The idea was that journalists and historians would brainstorm story ideas together and collaboratively write those stories into the newspaper. Subjects included the causes of the opioid crisis; debates around immigration; and questions surrounding infrastructure and the environment. Funded by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, in summer and fall 2019 the partnership produced several articles. It even sparked similar conversations in other newsrooms nationwide. But the pandemic brought everything to a halt, and later I departed the Lepage Center to take my career in new directions. You can read about what the pilot accomplished on Harvard’s Nieman Foundation website.

Because I led that pilot program, the journalists at NLGJA asked me to offer a public historian’s perspective on the uses and misuses of history in journalism. The conversation illuminated how professional history and professional journalism operate differently, and why the two fields must continue to work together to infuse historical knowledge into the public domain.

Most journalists are not trained as historians. This matters because in the 7-10 years (or more) it takes to become a professional historian, certain skills are acquired and honed that allow for thorough and honest historical analysis. One such skill is reading historical evidence. In my remarks at NLGJA, I cited the case of author and journalist Naomi Wolf who had to retract one of her books because she misread historical evidence. Wolf confused accounts of 19th century homosexuality with bestiality and pedophilia, a confusion that rendered moot some of her conclusions and angered many professional historians who work on LGBTQ history. The late Kokie Roberts also infamously misspoke on NPR about abortion history, which led to a similar retraction. Certainly many journalists accurately analyze historical sources. But the Wolf and Roberts incidents—and several others—highlight how archival documents do not speak for themselves. Learning how to decipher and decode historical records is an acquired skill, one that journalists and historians should work together on when publishing stories.

Another key difference between historians and journalists is the time it takes to produce an end-product. Journalists file stories quickly under tight deadlines, often in a day or two. Contrast that with historians, who might spend years working on a book or article (my current book project began in 2015). The divergent timelines can create challenges when the two professions try to work together. Journalists may need information right away to meet a deadline, whereas historians may need more time to conduct research in order to answer a journalist’s question. When historians do publish books, there have also been instances where journalists have taken the information in those books and written stories that do not properly credit the work. This occurred to historian Danielle McGuire, who wrote a landmark book on Rosa Parks. Several journalists reported on the research without acknowledging McGuire’s book or the years required to write it.

Journalists and editors—and in particular headline writers—can also tend towards the hyperbolic. There can be a tendency when journalists wade into history to frame an event as the “most important” or “most significant.” Professional historians, on the other hand, are more cautious about making such proclamations. Because the events of the past are so interconnected and complex, it does not always make sense to identify one particular moment as a “turning point” (another favorite phrase of journalists and editors). Historians often hedge in their language, and operate in intellectual spaces with more grey area, preferring to see events unfolding in messy, uncoordinated ways that do not always produce singular defining moments. What counts as a defining moment can also change as new evidence comes to light and new research emerges.

One of the panelists, Linda Villarosa, contributed to the New York Times 1619 Project, which offers a useful case-study when examining how journalists and historians work together. The original New York Times Magazine issue in August 2019 included barely any historians. This angered some professional historians, and also allowed a few historical errors to slip into the writing, including the assertion that the American Revolution was fought to preserve slavery (it wasn’t). To the project’s credit, subsequent essays and books have leaned more on the scholarship of professional historians, making the interpretation and analysis stronger and more convincing.

It’s my personal belief that these types of collaborations should be happening all across the country. In 2019, we envisioned newsrooms nationwide partnering with local historians in their regions. One such collaboration occurred in East Lansing, Michigan, where graduate students in history at Michigan State University teamed up with local reporters from the Lansing State Journal to produce a series of articles. Why not have similar collaborations in Seattle, Kansas City, Austin and Tallahassee? Part of my efforts in months ahead will be to revive this idea and help to bring it to fruition. If you are interested in being a part of it, please contact me.

There is much more that could be said about this intersection between professional history and journalism—so much so, that an entire chapter of my forthcoming book will be devoted to it! Among the questions posed in the book is whether all this history in the news media actually improves public understandings of the past? That is a complex question, too complex to delve into here, but one that keeps me up at night as I think about all the information, misinformation and disinformation swirling in the public sphere. It will be a good topic for future History Club events—hopefully with the terrific journalists from NLGJA as guest speakers.

Have a good week.

Remembering 9/11: A melancholy 20th anniversary to all of us as we commemorate two decades since the 9/11 attacks. There has been so much written in the media by historians and journalists that I hesitate to offer anything further. On the 10th anniversary, I spoke about the event at a conference at St. John’s University in New York City. My remarks from that event are published in the book, Recovering 9/11 in New York. If you’re interested in a good book on 9/11, I recommend that one.

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