Writing history takes time. But the work of journalists is, fundamentally, news, and therefore time-sensitive. Professor Ronald G. Suny took more than 30 years to complete his biography, Stalin: Passage to Revolution. When a news story breaks, a reporter may only have a matter of hours to gather their sources—including a soundbite from a historian.
“In several cases I’ve had journalists reach out, conduct an interview, and publish an article all within the space of 24 hours,” Ian Shin, assistant professor of History, described. “The pace they work is vastly different from what we are generally used to as academics, and can feel quite disruptive to the ways we typically prepare to share our scholarship.”
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Professor Pamela Ballinger has been interviewed by the Christian Science Monitor—explaining the legacy of the Iron Curtain. Professor Jeffrey Veidlinger has been interviewed by the Guardian and written an article for the Tablet on anti-Jewish massacres in the area. And Suny has written an article for the Conversation correcting misunderstandings about Ukrainian-Russian history that has been shared by PBS NewsHour.
U-M History faculty are regular contributors to all manner of local, national, and international news outlets—helping journalists create that first “draft” of history. Their insight not only contributes to the credibility of news outlets, but it makes their own work— typically bound in the ivory tower—more accessible to all.
But how does a historian prepare to translate their scholarship into news-for-the-masses?
Faculty schedules are already packed with research, teaching, and service. So when an email comes in from a journalist, they must first decide if a story is an appropriate match, and whether or not they have the time to participate.
When Professor Hitomi Tonomura was contacted by a writer for the Detroit News about a story on the re-branding of “Asian” carp, she quickly knew this was not a good fit. “I don’t know a thing about ‘Asian’ carp, although I always thought it a bad name,” she said.
Another time, Tonomura recalled, the subject matter was more appropriate, “but they wanted the response within a few hours, and it was impossible for me because I was teaching a class during those few hours.”
When it all works out and an interview is scheduled, however, preparation is important.
Kira Thurman, an associate professor in History and German, explained that how you prepare really depends on the nature of the interview. “If it’s a live interview, I feel like I have to formulate my sentences very carefully, because there’s no room for edits. If it’s not a live interview then I can be a little bit more chatty and repeat things or come back to a question again.”
Either way, Thurman said, she gives herself no more than an hour to review scholarship pertinent to the topic, including primary sources like memoirs, newspaper clippings, and photographs.
Shin does the same, and noted that he will have key statistics and facts ready so that he can cite them accurately. He added, “I also reflect on what takeaways I wish to convey about the topic I’m being asked to speak on, so that during the course of the interview I am able to steer the conversation back to those key points.”
In any interview there’s the potential for a disconnect between what the journalist has in mind for their story and what the historian knows and is willing to put forward.
On one occasion Tonomura, an expert in premodern Japan, was interviewed for a story on samurai. But she withdrew her appearance. “I just could not get them to see things outside of the stereotyped image of the samurai,” she said. “They knew what they wanted but I wasn’t giving it to them.”
Professor Alexandra Minna Stern described the worst-case scenario: “A journalist will rely on the painstaking research of historians to spin a topic into a digestible form, land a big book contract with a trade publisher, and give the impression that the topic or analysis is completely original.”
But these instances are rare. More often than not the relationships built between historians and journalists are positive. And in the wake of the 2016 election, this mutual trust is vital.
“Many historians that I know felt a new sense of urgency to figure out how to explain to the public the importance of historical thinking,” Thurman said. “It wasn’t that there was necessarily an uptick in historians working with journalists so much as historians in general wrestling with this question of how to explain our work to the public in such a way that it can have an impact.”
One way that historians are able to reach a public audience without the direct aid of a journalist is through writing their own editorials.
In the past year U-M History faculty have published pieces in the New York Times, Boston Review, Washington Post, and more.
Thurman’s article, “When Classical Music Was an Alibi,” co-written with Emily Richmond Pollock, was published on April 15. “I have found it much more meaningful and much more satisfying to write a piece for the New York Times instead of being interviewed by them,” she said. “Because then you can make sure that what you want to say comes out how you want to say it and in the order that you would like to present your argument.”
No matter the form of the outreach—op-ed, full interview, or even just a soundbite—being able to communicate with public audiences in a meaningful way is essential.
“There’s a way that you can present historically informed researchand ideas quickly and efficiently without watering down the content,” Thurman said.
“The way historians practice job interviews when they go on thej ob market—it’s a similar skill, but you just have to practice and practice and practice.”
It’s worth the practice when the payoff is a better-informed public.
In light of anti-Asian discrimination and violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, Shin noted that journalists have been very eager to seek out historians and other academic experts to help contextualize the moment.
“I’ve also worked with staff from the Office of the Vice President for Communications to put together a ‘Faculty Q&A’ about anti-Asian hate and the COVID-19 pandemic, which their office then used to set up interviews with journalists writing about the topic.”
When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, Stern said that, “Gender and health historians have been providing absolutely critical context to trace shifting patterns of the criminalization and decriminalization of abortion.”
By continuing to provide their perspectives through popular news outlets, U-M historians are proving every day that history matters. And while it might move a bit slowly at times, the repercussions are as loud and relevant as ever.
(Top image: Jeff Eaton, CC BY-SA 2.0)