Covert’s Thoughts on Journalism History Research

by Erika J. Pribanic-Smith

In the spring of 1974, a new journal emerged dedicated to the history of journalism. As discussed in a prior post, Tom Reilly helmed Journalism History at the time of its founding. However, a thoughtful essay by Catherine Covert in the inaugural issue helped set the tone for the journal and offered insights that remain inspiring to journalism historians.

Touted in her 1983 New York Times obituary as “an award-winning science writer,” Covert covered health and medicine for more than a decade before transitioning into academia. She ultimately became the first woman to achieve the rank of full professor in the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

Covert served as chair of the Association for Educators in Journalism History Division in 1972-1973; the division later named its annual award for best article or book chapter in media history after her. Her Spring 1974 Journalism History essay “Some Thoughts on Research” first appeared in the division’s newsletter Clio.

In the essay, Covert noted several differences between the journalism historian and the “classic academic historian.” For instance, like Covert, many journalism historians come to academia after a professional career in journalism. They seldom train in graduate school specifically to become journalism historians, and they rarely teach only history.

“Most of us punctuate our concern for the past with a lively investment in the present and future of other skills and arts we teach,” Covert wrote. “Seeking historic truth for the sheer joy of it becomes a sort of secret vice, practiced in stolen hours.”

Covert compared journalism historians to historians of other professions–such as science, architecture, and education. In each case, Covert noted, first-hand experience within a profession had shaped the histories of that profession. Similarly, journalism historians tend to approach historical scholarship like journalists.

“We write history in somewhat the same way we used to cover fires, responding to now-vanished environments, colleagues and patterns of thinking,” Covert wrote.

She explained that journalism historians were most comfortable focusing on “the ingredients of front-page play”–story, personality, or institution–rather than concepts and abstractions. Few posed interpretative or speculative questions of significance, and few wrote “cantankerous letters to quarterlies” criticizing others’ work.

“For the most part,” Covert lamented, “we do not sustain either the continuity or the rigor of critical evaluation that might enable the discipline to grow and develop.”

While challenging journalism historians to push beyond what felt comfortable, Covert argued that professional journalists possess certain experiences and values that classic academic historians don’t have. Professional journalists bring their own historical perspective both to their writing of journalism history and to the journalism classroom.

Because of journalism historians’ unique origins and strengths, Covert wrote that they could capably chronicle the depth of important events, project alternative futures on the experience of the past, and recount how it felt to live and act as journalists.

“We may be peculiarly qualified to enter into the consciousness of what it meant to be a journalist in a past age,” Covert declared. “We have been there ourselves.” 

 

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