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UNC-CH History Department professors and students work as journalists and historians.

In 1902 The New York Times ran an Op-Ed entitled “Journalism and History” in which the Times went head to head with Rev. Dr. Parkhurst over the relationship between history and journalism. Dr. Parkhurst adamantly defended the superiority of history when compared to journalism. But the Times did not back down: “We think that he errs when he finds journalism a hindrance to the writing, the reading, or the making of history.” More than a century later we are still revisiting this question of the relationship between history and journalism. In the Department of History  here at UNC-CH we have faculty members, graduate students, and alumni with varying degrees of journalistic involvement and ambition who would no doubt take issue with some of Dr. Parkhurst’s pronouncements. However, this debate over history and journalism provides a window through which to rethink our own discipline and the ways we relate to the public.

Molly Worthen, Assistant Professor of History, dons multiple caps as both historian and journalist. She teaches a diversity of courses in American religious and intellectual history and recently published Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (2013).  As a New York Times Contributing Op-Ed writer, Worthen approaches her journalistic endeavors, in which she writes about religion, politics, and ideology, as an opportunity to hone her craft as a historian. “I think that my journalistic writing keeps me honest,” Worthen said.  “There’s a way in which as professional academics we can get spoiled by writing solely for our colleagues, who already understand our jargon and our assumptions, and it can lead to bad writing and lazy thinking.” Writing for a broader public audience, combined with the limitations of shorter word counts, requires a crystallization of ideas and arguments. As Worthen explained, “you have to make a lot of painful compromises when you write short pieces for a popular audience,”  but “there’s a real art to that simplification that makes you a clearer thinker and a better teacher and a better historian.” Worthen has managed to keep her feet in two fields—history and journalism—an identity shared by one of the department’s PhD students as well.

A former interviewer and producer for Al-Jazeera English, Samee Siddiqui reflected on his work in broadcast journalism in London and Doha before pursuing his doctorate. After finishing his MA in Japanese Studies, Siddiqui realized he wanted to continue doing in-depth research; journalism provided him with that opportunity. However, after working in broadcast journalism Siddiqui realized “that general historical illiteracy was even worse than I had imagined”—especially “for those regions where there are strong geopolitical interests.” At UNC-CH, Siddiqui is studying the connection between Japan and the “Muslim World.” Rather than disengaging from journalism, Siddiqui’s experience has convinced him that it is crucial for academics to engage with the media—albeit in diverse ways. He continues to contribute articles to Al-Jazeera, writing about Japanese history and politics.  However, he thinks that the real question isn’t whether engaging is important, but rather how academics engage with the media. “Engaging doesn’t have to necessarily be writing articles or giving interviews,” Siddiqui said, “It could arguably be more fruitful to educate people in the media who cover the topics you are looking at.”

Claire Williams ’15, a recent graduate who majored in history at UNC-CH, has fully immersed herself in the world of journalism, covering agriculture for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Williams grew up pouring over her parents’ issues of National Geographic, “reading and re-reading” all of the history-related articles. Abandoning plans for law school after she started to work at the Daily Tarheel, Williams saw a major in history as the natural companion to a career in journalism: “Being a journalist gives you a chance to witness history.”  “My degree in history,” Williams reflected, “helps me be skeptical of sources, to think deeply about the issues I’m writing about, and to put issues in long-term context.” While not many of her colleagues have a background in history, Williams has learned that it is helpful to have training in an area other than journalism. For Williams, history and journalism are intimately tied to one another.  Viewing journalism as “the first draft of history,” she said, “I hope that, someday, a historian is able to find my articles in an archive and explain the things I write about with the benefit of hindsight and much, much more time than I have,” Williams said. This fall Williams held an Arthur F. Burns fellowship, which allowed her to live in Munich and write for the Süddeutsche Zeitung. There she wrote articles on the Roma in Europe and Arkansas, meat stem cell experimentation for grocery store products, and lobbying overseas by American states.

Clearly Worthen, Siddiqui, and Williams have made connections between history and journalism in their own careers. So, whether historians work as journalists or develop working relationships with them, there is no denying that history and journalism enjoy a closeness that harbors the opportunity for creative collaboration. Worthen reflected that not only has her work in journalism made her a better historian, but also that “having to write these articles has made me a more thoughtful citizen.”  “It’s important,” Worthen concluded, “not to fetishize any one part of our job,” recognizing that we need to “push the boundaries of knowledge,” while not being held “captive to the whims of the masses.” Undoubtedly we will continue to explore the relationship between history and journalism as we seek a balance between our academic commitments and duty to the public.

–Danielle Balderas

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