Editor's Note: Why Teach Historiography or Study Media History?

Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Editor's Note: Why Teach Historiography or Study Media History?


Investigative journalism, producing documentaries, and the writing of history are tempestuous parallels (Godfrey, 2006). Indeed, a famous quote often attributed to Philip Graham of the Washington Post, among others, suggests that "journalism is the first rough draft of history" (Rees, 2006, p. 219). So, why is history not a central part of every media academic program around the globe? Required research courses nearly always reflect behavioral science methods of analysis as opposed to historiography. Historical methods are often skipped, forgotten entirely, or relegated to a minor part of another course--in any case rarely emphasized. As a result, we leave our future of the profession to be auctioned to the current moment.

The research method of historiography requires skills similar to an experienced journalistic producer in gathering, organizing, and verifying facts, along with the vital evaluation of different kinds of evidence. Even the uses by historians and journalists are often similar. The journalist-producer must dissect written, oral, and visual records; analyze physical evidence; and make sense of these as a factual story. We hear often about an historian acting as a kind of detective, and while that analogy fits, it would be more appropriate to see the historian as an investigative journalist looking at the past.

On the other hand, most students and faculty live for the day.... They may plan days or weeks ahead, but few give much thought to their own past, let alone that of the field they are studying. History for most of them has little interest or meaning, so why spend time studying it?

What the field needs, in fact, is historical research in mass communications to build the foundations history can provide in our discipline and its practice.

History is about recording and assessing past events. History is the heritage upon which the present and the future are constructed. History includes the preservation, recording, systematic analysis, correlation, and the interpretation of past events. Asa Briggs, author of the five-volume History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom (Briggs, 1961, 1965, 1970, 1979, 1995) among other acclaimed works of English history, argues that the purpose of history is fourfold: "(1) to obtain a knowledge of English people [and I think he'd include American and other nationalities]; (2) to compare population and social structures; (3) to reconstruct ... family life of our ancestors; and, (4) to provide evidence against which to judge the societal policy of the present day" (Briggs, 1984, p. 8). Briggs adds a personal note describing the research experience, "The historian restores life. He[she] is interested not in dead people but in living people" ... "I have a queer sensation," he says, when, "the dead entries begin to be alive. It is rather like the experience of sitting down in one's chair and finding that one has sat on the cat. These are real people" (Briggs, 1984, p. 4). Christopher H. Sterling, coauthor of Stay Tuned: A History of American Broadcasting (Sterling & Kittross, 2002), editor of the Encyclopedia of Radio (Sterling, 2004), and numerous other works on electronic media history describes history as a single word, "context." History, he argues, is understanding "the situation [context] at the historical time to really understand what is happening at a given moment" (Sterling, C. H., personal communication, May 2004). Critical historian Robert W. McChesney, author of Telecommunications, Mass Media and Democracy (McChesney, 1993) and numerous other histories, says we study history:

   Because we are living on the edge of history, and if you want to
   know where you are going, you have to know where you are coming
   from. More important, if you want to change this world, to make it
   better and to preserve what is good, there is an expression for
   what you are trying to do: make history. And if you want to make
   history, you had better know what you are doing, or you will do it
   poorly. … 

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Editor's Note: Why Teach Historiography or Study Media History?
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