Treat Historians (Almost) Like Journalists

James Walpole/ September 2, 2020

When you first start reading history, you treat the historian as an infallible reporter of historical fact. Then you read other historians, and you see that historians disagree. That’s when it’s necessary to understand how historians can come to disagree, honestly or dishonestly. To do that, it takes understanding how historians do history.

In the end, the process is much the same as the process of journalism. You go out and look around the place where it happened, and you interview the people who saw it happen. In the historian’s case, that means reading primary sources: letters, journals, newspaper clippings, government documents, tablets, etc.

Of course, interviewing and walking around is only a limited way to understand something that happened. You can only get incomplete information from witnesses who only incompletely witnessed an event, and who have biases of their own. You will never be able to interview all of the witnesses, and you will tend to interview the ones who most loudly promote themselves, or who seem likely to confirm your own biases. And you can only process so much information before you must begin to write.

In their “interview” options, historians are working with a limitation with which journalists also have to deal – only it’s much worse for the historians. Their sources are dead.

Given how difficult it is to establish the fact of a matter one week ago in the media, we should be circumspect about the claims of historians writing about events one hundred years ago. But the similarities are enough that we should save some of the skepticism we have for the reporters of the “now” for the reporters of the “then.”

This isn’t to say that all historians or journalists are corrupted or useless. And there are some important differences between the two – while journalists and historians are both subject to an institutional groupthink (leftist these days), at least historians don’t have the same economic incentives forcing them to print trash, catchy headlines, or “fake news.”

There is hope for better history just as there is hope for journalism – that at least when we understand the process by which these things are created, we can catch more obvious lies and maybe even discover some of the truth for ourselves.

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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