Observational Reporting as Oral History: How Journalists Interpreted the Death and Destruction of Hurricane Audrey

By Tisdale, John R. | The Oral History Review, Summer-Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Observational Reporting as Oral History: How Journalists Interpreted the Death and Destruction of Hurricane Audrey


Tisdale, John R., The Oral History Review


The newspaper journalist and the oral historian are involved in compiling information that relies on the preparation of questions for witnesses to events, the accuracy of witness testimony, and the interpretations of what the witnesses experienced. According to Donald Ritchie, part of the definition of oral history is the "spoken memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews." Although Ritchie elaborates on the differences between oral history and journalism, this part of the definition creates room for co-existence.(1) The similarities are even greater when studying what media scholars define as the direct observation or impressionistic story. Instead of the standard interviews with experts, the use of direct quotations, and background material on the topic, the observation story relies more on the impressions of the journalist at the scene. This type of writing does not exclude direct quotations, but relies on personal experience and professional training; it is often more "personal" in that the pronoun forms are often in the first and second person. The published impressionistic story and the transcripts of oral history interviews share similarities.

Direct observation stories are not primary news accounts, but what media scholars label as "sidebars" or secondary/soft feature stories, which "supplement the formal stories; these stories reflect a genuine effort to capture the atmosphere or essential reality" of the situation without regard to the reporter's conscious biases.(2) These stories typically provide graphic word pictures of disasters, and are the reporter's observations, not those of the source.

Ritchie believed oral historians are the only historians who deal with the living.(3) That definition alludes to the fluid nature of history, which changes depending on who is being interviewed and when in time the interview is conducted. The "living" definition is juxtaposed to the traditional idea of the historian, buried deep in the library viewing microfilm and documents where the historian is interpreter of sources that cannot change. Ritchie's definition is salient for the oral historian, but it also applies to journalists involved in an evolving news story. Nonetheless there are differences in the two professions, including the type of technology, the depth of the interview, the delivery of the information, and most importantly, the passage of time and the effect memory plays in the telling and re-telling of history.

The differences between the journalist and the oral historian are systemic, but not dissimilar to the extent that a comparison is improbable. The journalist reports current events. The oral historian is more concerned with events long after they occurred. In fact, a significant portion of oral history research studies historical memory and how it affects the oral history interview. Michael Frisch's definition of oral history would seem, on the surface, to emphasize the differences in oral history and journalism:

   ... oral history material is produced in an interview situation, one in
   which the subject is triangulated between the interviewer and the
   experience being discussed. No matter how controlled the schedule of
   questions, the information is produced in a dialogue between individuals,
   each with a social position and identity, engaging in a conversation that
   exists at a necessary remove, in time or social space, from the experience
   being discussed. This is, of course, a fundamentally different relationship
   than usually exists between historians and the mute and frozen documents of
   the past.(4)

Frisch's definition describes a "triangulation" of interviewer, interviewee (or subject), and the experience being discussed. If this is part of the model under the definition of oral history, this too has application in journalism.

The question then becomes whether the journalist is the interviewer or the subject (interviewee). …

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Observational Reporting as Oral History: How Journalists Interpreted the Death and Destruction of Hurricane Audrey
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