The Historian and the Journalist

The Historian and the Journalist

Journalists and historians can learn from each other to create responsible journalism and informed histories

In our age of information overload how does one compare the historian and the journalist? Though they appear to be similar in what they seek to do, nonetheless the ways and means of doing it are not often similar.

While they are both interested in digging up the ‘fact’, as we understand it in the ordinary sense, the techniques and the sources they employ are different. Secondly, whereas the historian engages with the Past, the journalist is usually more concerned with the ‘here and now’, the immediate! But of course over time the journalist’s documentation also becomes a write up about the past. So in that sense the journalist also produces history, or creates sources, one that the historian employs in writing histories.   

Journalists often shape public mood which in turn provides historians with the key issues warranting more attention. So while the journalist does not have the time to go to the archive, what he/she reports eventually makes it to the archive. In that sense the journalist does have a role in shaping the reconstruction of the Past. However, the two disciplines are characterized by markedly different intellectual underpinnings. Obviously, there is a presumption that doing history involves rigour while journalism involves the press of deadlines. Usually history’s use of sources has a reliance on tangible documentary evidence – often including journalism itself – and a clear privileging of print as a source. In contrast, journalism, in a way, is still very much tied to oral traditions. If you think of what an interview provides in terms of information and the essentially assumed lower level of reliability than a print source, there are also very different intellectual starting points to the two disciplines.

The second important contrast concerns the culture of production of the two disciplines. The assumption here is that both disciplines are, in effect, social constructions producing their output under different conditions in different social contexts. For example, the contrast here is the contrast between the culture of the newsroom and the academic culture of the historical profession. There is also in journalism the obligation to capture a moment’s worth of reality and deliver it in summary form as quickly as possible, whereas historical scholarship attempts to be far more definitive, tends to take far more time, and expends far more resources. Yet, I would like to say that as sources for an historian, newspapers provide a sense of street, a sense of everyday. I remember a particular historian who relied exclusively on ‘letters to the editor’ to write about some aspect of modern South Asian history.  

Nonetheless the journalist and the historian can feed into each other usefully. As one journalist correctly emphasised: ‘there are a great many things that are going on right now in today’s world that we think of as news but we simply cannot begin to comprehend without understanding the history behind it’. A case in point is the Kashmir conflict and the war going on in Pakistan and Afghanistan. People’s memory for historical grievances is longer, and it becomes very incumbent upon journalists writing about all this, to try to understand these things. Journalists who have a sense of the history of the place that they’re writing about, their reporting is always much deeper and much richer. One can interpret the Present by basing it on how the Past has unfolded. So having a sense of history makes a good and a responsible journalist.

On the other hand, what are the things that historians can learn from journalists? Storytelling! How do you frame a story so that people are going to read it? Probably one of the most widely read among professional historians is Howard Zinn. While reviewing his A People’s History of the United States, another well known historian aptly remarked that ‘Professor Zinn writes with an enthusiasm rarely encountered in the leaden prose of academic history’. In short a good historian should be a good storyteller, someone who pays a great deal of attention to how the story is framed and yet has the ability to be rigorous. Aside from historians, there have been journalists who have written quite successfully and interestingly as historians, and I guess that has to do with their narrative technique and the evolved sense of everyday, which they bring in their narrative. Tariq Ali and John Keay come to mind here. The other guy I can think of is William Dalrymple. Dalrymple, as we know, has written on history especially on Mughals, and his writings are very readable, precisely because of the narrative technique, even though some hardcore historians dismiss it as journalistic writing! 

Nonetheless, good academic histories have become a bit of rare thing. The Sri Lankan historian Nira Wickramsinghe in the preface to her new book, Metallic Modern: Everyday Machines in Colonial Sri Lanka tells us why so few books today have the capacity to entertain and instill a sense of wonderment and curiosity or even surprise [us]? As she aptly remarks: “Our freedom to write fugues seems to be constricted in these very dispiriting times in which we live and work, forced as we are to obey the demands of the market and of intellectual fads!” And as we negotiate these dispiriting times, there is a dire need to write informed histories much as there is a dire need to do responsible journalism.

(Idrees Kanth is a historian and a Researcher Fellow at the Asian Modernities and Traditions Research Profile at Leiden University, The Netherlands)