Thursday, September 23, 2010

Newspapers as "the first draft of history"

Tim Lacy at U.S. Intellectual History had an interesting post that asked readers to respond with an overview of how they used newspapers as primary sources in historical research ("Newspapers As Sources For Intellectual Historians: Or, Jack Shafer Doesn't Understand How Historians Work"). Lacy's post was prompted by a recent Jack Shafer article at in which Shafer asserted that
    "Historians tend to view journalism as unreliable and tend to be dismissive of our work. They'd rather work from primary sources—official documents, photographs, interviews, and the like—rather than from our clips."
His lamentation, however heartfelt, is quite inaccurate, at least from my point of view.

This post got me thinking about the historian's craft -- a topic I'm quite fond of -- and I replied with the following:

    Following Anonymous 9:29 AM, it does seem to me that Mr. Shafer's characterization of the way historians use newspapers is extremely off-the-mark. In this way, Mr. Shafer actually illustrates how I approach my own use of newspapers as an environmental historian: I see news reporting as a product constrained by deadlines & word limits, influenced by the tide of public sentiment, and beholden (to some discernible degree) to economic/political powers in ascendancy at the time of publication. Therefore, news reporting, in my experience, tends to be cursory, episodic, fickle, melodramatic, and discernibly biased.
    From my perspective, news reporting is the "first draft of history" because it tends to be written without much reflection, context, cross-referencing, or complex interpretation. I see it as a valuable primary source because it explicitly documents basic facts -- who, what, when, where, why, how -- and implicitly documents other important elements, such as communal perspectives, ethnic biases, regional power structures, changing cultural values, political viewpoints, etc.
    Because of the above considerations, I use news reporting, primarily, as a way to establish a basic chronology of events and learn about key people and organizations. When I have a sufficient pile of news articles in front of me, I can then look for the meta-level details that indicate changes over time in cultural values, demographics, economics, political power structures, impacts of national and global events, etc. These are the things that historians do, by definition, that journalist don't usually do; journalist's don't generally do this because they can't, and they can't, generally, because of the constraints of deadlines and the influence of the economic & political power structure within which they are employed.
    I see journalism as the "first draft of history" because it tends to mirror my own first drafts of articles and chapters -- explicitly about the basic facts, implicitly about values, politics, perspectives, biases, etc. Then, as I revise my work, the basic chronology worked out in the first draft becomes the skeletal structure, and what was formerly implicit becomes the "meat" of the matter -- that which I strive to make clear, concise, and meaningful to my readers.
    I find news reporting highly valuable, actually, even given the constraints under which journalists work.
    One of the reasons that history blogs are usually filled with more posts about journalism than posts about historical articles or books is that journalists publish with much more frequency during any given period of time.
    It's not so much that "Historians tend to view journalism as unreliable and tend to be dismissive of [their] work," than it is that historians tend to view journalism as one source among many (many!) kinds of sources. Journalists tend to see whatever sources they're using as grist for the next 500- or 1,000-word article or Op-Ed; historians tend to see their sources as another data point in a complex three-dimensional triangulation to help them make a defensible claim about their given topic in their next 7,500-word article or 60,000-word book. These are very different approaches to knowledge. Different, yet complementary.
    In summary, Mr. Shafer's lament reflects a profound lack of understanding of the historical profession and seems to me a moment of personal angst unnecessarily made public.


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