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?
Anna Ullmann, University of Kansas, submitted this month’s essay. Additional essays will be posted each month throughout 2020.
History is written by the victors.
While this statement is certainly highly debatable, and there even are counter-examples, there is also a lot of truth to it. Imagine this scenario: The Nazis won the Second World War. Germany is one of the biggest superpowers in the world, imposing dictatorship over Europe. The Nazis kept up the coordinated press; there is no freedom of speech. What would our present look like? What would we even know about the Nazi regime? Of the horrors? Of the Holocaust? Who would have told us about it? Who would have had the power to reveal their secrets? The victors write history.
This is too speculative? Let’s look at China: Freedom of speech and of press have always been a delicate issue here. Certain foreign websites and platforms like Facebook are banned and the government imposes censorship on the media. While there are media outlets that belong to the Chinese government itself, critical voices are often ignored. This is a fact. This is our present. The government has a huge impact on how China’s history is written. The powerful write history.
But then how do we know about the world’s secrets? How do we find out the truth, how do we learn? How did we learn that the NSA is committing massive espionage? Not because they told us. Because Edward Snowden turned to journalists. Because the Washington Post and the Guardian revealed their secrets. They disclosed the espionage system PRISM, which has been collecting phone and internet data from users worldwide for years. Without Snowden and the journalists, people would still not know about this invasion of their privacy. The bold can write history.
Journalists reveal the world’s secrets to us by being persistent and relentless. They dig deep and bring things to the surface that would have stayed hidden without their efforts. What journalists write about today will be journalism history tomorrow – but this history still affects us because the knowledge given to us doesn’t simply go away. People remember. Journalism history matters because it is not something far gone. It is not only in the past, but it also influences our present and future.
But it doesn’t always have to be government secrets. In 1987, Jacqui Banaszynski was the first journalist to write a major feature about AIDS patient Dick Hanson and his partner Bert Henningson, AIDS in the Heartland. She received the Pulitzer Price in 1988. Today we know that without her piece and all the other stories about AIDS that followed, our perception of the illness and the acceptance of AIDS patients would be different. People’s lives would be different. At the time Banaszynski published her piece, she immediately changed the present of Dick Hanson, of her newspaper and of her readers. At the same time, she paved the way for a different future regarding the perception of AIDS and the LGBT community, thus still having an effect on our lives today.
Journalism history matters because history is not something that is in the past and does not have any meaning for us today. When we talk about a person, we say that their character has been shaped by their experiences, their upbringing – that is, by their past. And just like a person, our whole world is shaped by its past. To understand who we are today and how our world works today, we have to understand our past and know about it. Therefore, journalism history is vital to society, to politics, and to everyone’s lives. Our world would be a different one today, if even one tiny piece of journalism history was missing.
History is written by journalists.