Journalism is the first rough draft of history

“Journalism is the first rough draft of history.”

This line has over time become a maxim within the industry as a whole. It connects what explains unfolding events with events that have unfolded and must be explained. I thought this quote had an obvious origin in former Washington Post president Philip Graham, however a feature on Slate pointed out that it comes out of the 1940s and has been said by many people in the same era that Philip did.

One news trope that has emerged, most egregiously at Vox, are articles about big issues stating that they are “everything you need to know”. Several red flags come from titles like that. In some cases it comes off as empty swagger; does anybody really think that this article explains everything you need to know about the Israel-Palestine conflict? This attitude about big issues has received criticism (examples here for fairly apolitical and here for a conservative response). When media outlets go big-scale, they run into the maxim: journalism is not equivalent to history, rather they are two points connected within the same space but quite different times.

Vox is a fun site. WonkBlog was a place for very smart people to analyze really dumb, ineffective legislation. In contrast, Vox is more free-flowing and creative. Still, they run into a wall when it comes to big, long-standing issues. What many data-driven news sites attempt to do (538 is another, though narrower in focus) is explain historical issues within the style and vocabulary of news. Any deference to history would see “everything you need to know” stricken from article titles. Israel-Palestine is still unfolding, so is the war on terror and the Eurozone crisis. One thing that history guarantees us is that more significant events are around the corner, and it will take time to see if this news reporting supports or conflicts with prior history.

If there is anything that history teaches us, it is the complexity of events, even those that seem straightforward. Journalism has neither the space nor the context to accommodate deep complexity. News is like soda- produced to exacting standards, each unit identical in quality and makeup. History is wine- full of variation and changing over time. It is important to bring historical context to new events- how else can you understand why ISIS exists, and has gained such power in a few short years? But that’s just a thumbnail. To claim to be comprehensive is dishonest, and stunts the intellectual growth of readers. After all, if Vox really had everything I needed to know about Israel-Palestine, why do any more research on the subject?

3 thoughts on “Journalism is the first rough draft of history

  1. Thanks for that comment on the relationship between journalism and history. I am a journalist, but many years ago I worked as an economist. At this time I made a similar observation. I found that journalists did a lot of economic work, but the stories were so current they identified topics for economic research long before the data existed to do the work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do think of journalism as not only the first draft of history, but the barometer by which history is developed, especially at the popular level. Whatever news topics are most talked about today will form the popular literature in a couple years’ time.

      Also of course that much great academic work emerges from reading a news story. The promise of journalism is that it can open a window to a great body of historical work, or it can as you point out show us a vision of what future knowledge will look like.

      I just think that journalism, like all fields, should be careful with what they promise, and give credit to what made their jobs possible.

      Like

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