Student essay: Max Thompson

In the fall of 2019, Journalism History conducted an undergraduate student essay contest. Students answered the question that our podcast hosts ask at the end of every episode: Why does journalism history matter?

Max Thompson, University of Tennessee, submitted this month’s essay. Additional essays will be posted each month throughout 2020.

Understanding the history of media and journalism is crucial for multiple different reasons. A basic understanding of the history of journalism is essential to success in that area. Also, comprehension of how far the technology has come gives us more appreciation and drive to utilize the fantastic resources we do have. Most of all, understanding the past can help us predict and adapt to the potential changes in the future.

This is mainly predicated by the sheer ubiquity of the media. According to the textbook [for Dr. Amber Roessner’s class at the University of Tennessee], it is everywhere because of the core value that it holds: “media, in all their forms, teach us the language, values, and traditions of a culture” (Pavlik & McIntosh, 64). In addition, it also transmits “the diffusion of ideas and knowledge, and entertainment,” which is a significant role for a single sector (Pavlik & McIntosh, 64).

Using the past to predict the present is everywhere in journalism. One great example is the pattern of economic convergence through consolidation. From telegraphs to telephones, nearly all forms of media and their specific mediums undergo this process. At the advent of the item, such as the radio, the field is littered with numerous small companies, each trying to turn a profit. However, over time these companies will eventually merge and acquire one another, until there is a relatively small group of much more powerful companies. By knowing this history, we can use it to be better prepared when a new invention is made. If quantum computers or virtual reality news ever become mainstream, a business would have more success if they knew about the history of media than a group that had no idea.

John Nerone agrees with this idea, because it confirms to his beliefs as well: “History is not about the past but about the relationship between the past and the present” (Nerone, 7). It is more than simply understanding the sequence of telegraph to telephone, but understanding the inner machinations that contributed to the production and development of the two. If we seek a deeper understanding of the history, we can gain more insights about not only the future, but the present day state of journalism as well. Nerone asserts that one key component of the media “should be about the relationship between past journalism and present journalism” (Nerone, 7). It is impossible to achieve that goal without fundamental insight on how journalism used to be.

Additionally, issues tend to emerge more than once, regardless of field. For the case of journalism, this holds true as well. For example, sensationalism, yellow journalism, the partisan press, and muckraking are historical concepts that have already played a large role in American history and culture. Nevertheless, we are bombarded today with all the talk about partisan media groups, slanted coverage, and the infamous buzz-word: “fake news.” To the average citizen, today’s cultural climate in regards to media would be a new horizon, with unique issues. To a media connoisseur with a background in journalism history, the issues of today are just a walk in the park of the past. That is precisely why the history of journalism matters. We need to know it to connect with the past, and use that knowledge to improve both the present and the future of our society.

Works Cited

Nerone, John. “Does Journalism History Matter?” American Journalism, vol. 28, no. 4, 2011, pp. 7–27, doi:10.1080/08821127.2011.10677800.

Pavlik, John V., and Shawn McIntosh. Converging Media: A New Introduction to Mass Communication. Oxford University Press, 2019.


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