Student essay: Will Buterbaugh

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?

Will Buterbaugh, University of Kansas, submitted this month’s essay. Additional essays will be posted each month throughout 2020.

When we think about a specific event in the past, what first comes to mind? Is it the exact date it happened? Who was involved? Where it happened? How, and why, it occurred at all?

Despite the efforts of journalists of days past, the who, what, when, where, how and why are not the first things we think about when we reflect on past events, ironically enough. In fact, a thought isn’t the first thing to come to mind at all. It’s a feeling. The details come after.

If you asked people what’s the first thing to come to mind when they think about the moon landing, would they start listing important scientists and dates related to the moon landing, like some sort of human search engine? Or would they tell you it was a great technological achievement, exciting their sense of wonder and patriotism?

What would they say if you asked them the same about the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? They probably wouldn’t start with the death tolls or its political implications. Would they get the same initial feeling, or would some feel disgusted, and others indifferent?

It’s clear we can have emotional perceptions of past events, even if we weren’t born when they happened. How people form these perceptions of history is related to a host of factors, but it’s largely due to how they learn the facts, whether from a reporter or a historian.

All but three Americans were grounded on Earth on July 20, 1969, and the American people, its representatives and president sat within our borders as atom bombs were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A small plaza in Dallas, Texas was the only witness to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and only a quarter of a million, or .01% of the population, watched Martin Luther King Jr. give his speech in person.

Before these historical landmarks were chapter headings in history textbooks, they were headlines in newspapers. Americans read the articles and watched the newscasts, consuming information, unbiased or not, so they could form their perceptions. Journalists found, selected, and framed the facts available, and Americans perceived them accordingly. And from their perceptions, they developed opinions they use to vote and values they use to live by.

Years later, the tangled knot of headlines were carefully untied to be put into history textbooks. We hope with the combined powers of time and retrospect we can write a more accurate account of events, one from which we can develop more nuanced perceptions than the ones we drew from the headlines. And for the most part, we’re successful.

However, even with an unremitting and unforgiving approach to the journalism that becomes history, the journalism of the past can still dictate what makes it into the next edition of the textbook. Journalism is naturally drawn to what sparks the interest of the audience, but what if the journalism of the past ignores certain audiences? What history has been ignored in the textbooks today because it didn’t get enough coverage in the past?

Journalism history matters because our perceptions of events, past and present, are founded from how and which facts journalists deliver to us. Journalists are the first ones to write down history, not historians. Historians can better see what journalism deserves to be in the books and what journalists left out with a strong knowledge of journalism history. It teaches journalists the power of their coverage for the future. In short, studying the press of the past helps us understand how journalist impressions become audience perceptions.

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