The Ossification of Journalism History: A Challenge for the Twenty-First Century

By Blanchard, Margaret A. | Journalism History, Autumn 1999 | Go to article overview
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The Ossification of Journalism History: A Challenge for the Twenty-First Century


Blanchard, Margaret A., Journalism History


What is this thing called "journalism history" and do we have the theoretical and methodological tools to deal with it in a meaningful way? At the invitation of Journalism History, the author opens the discussion.

Recent years have seen an increase in the number of articles criticizing our particular subfield of history. James W. Carey, perhaps, started this critical examination by terming "the study of journalism history ... an embarrassment." The problem, he wrote twenty-five years ago, rests in the fact that "we have defined our craft too narrowly and too modestly and, therefore, constricted the range of problems we study and the claims we make for our knowledge."1

Carey's criticism unleashed the pens of other scholars who undertook to analyze the problems of journalism history and to offer solutions to those difficulties. Joseph P. McKerns, for instance, argued that the problem with journalism history was its over reliance on "progressive history."2 Garth Jowett called for scholars to study "the importance of communication as a force for historical change."3 And David Paul Nord pled for "journalism history," defining that as broader than newspaper history.4 The argument over what journalism history is--or should be-has gone on for years. These articles have tried to categorize journalism history in various ways, have sought to bring the knowledge base of other disciplines into journalism history, or have urged fiti-ther specialization within the field.' These articles have brought many of the best journalism historians into the fray, with each one offering a solution to a problem that is hard to define and harder yet to solve.

Such a plethora of criticism almost naturally leads to substantial concerns about the status of our field, especially as we enter the twenty-first century. Fundamentally, my concern always ends up at the same question: Will journalism history survive the challenges of the twenty-first century or will our subfield stand immobile in the face of these challenges, ossify, and die? I know it sounds strange to mix history and the future, but the two seem inextricably linked.

When any discipline is subjected to so much criticism and offered so much advice, its practitioners may well find it much more difficult to move in any direction. Indeed, journalism historians may feel that no matter what they do, the action will be criticized by someone. Consequently, our tendency is to ossify our positions--to stand immobile, to go with what we understand, to further limit our horizons by rigid definitions of what scholarship is and, indeed, of what history is.

One reason to tackle this subject again, however, may be the consequences of what might happen if we do not do so. At stake may be the development and loyalty of a new generation of journalism historians. This new generation-whose members are currently well along in their doctoral studies or are recent graduates-is increasingly eager to apply new ideas and new approaches to journalism history research projects. These scholars see great possibilities in melding theoretical constructs and research approaches from feminist studies, critical studies, and other disciplines as they approach their work, and they envision a broader field of study that encompasses a variety of media- including motion pictures, television and radio entertainment, books, and visual displays as well as traditional news-related topics, at the very least. The insights that these and other approaches allow them to reach about how such a variety of media both reflected and shaped American life over the years are substantial, and these newer scholars should be congratulated for their efforts.

But their efforts face a tremendous barrier--one that may force them to abandon their efforts at innovation in an attempt to survive in the academic world. The obstacle, of course, is the need to obtain an academic position in the first place and the need to earn tenure and promotion thereafter.

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