Media History Research: Five Top Myths

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Media History Research: Five Top Myths
(By Ross F. Collins, North Dakota State University)
Comments presented at an AEJMC convention teaching panel, Montreal, August 2014.
Media historians operating in what Fred Blevins called our “boutique discipline” know very well the challenges we face. It’s not only among some of our colleagues in history, though mainstream historians themselves often wonder about us. But it’s also within our alternative field of communication studies. We face considerable skepticism from an academic world that, as Blevins also noted, “favors quantification over archives, theoretical constructs, and the narrative of storytelling.”1
It goes farther, I think. The world beyond the universities, at least in the United States, often suspects history in general is irrelevant, and that those we hire who do academic research in history may be wasting more tax dollars than even the philosophy department. Our field has a bad rep. What’s particularly annoying is that it’s a field that seems defined by our detractors, whose conclusions are mostly based on ignorance.
Our graduate students may not know the whole fog of myths choking our discipline’s standing in and out of the academy. But they’ll be aware of a few wisps, and have likely intuited the rest, badly. So to begin with, it seems, we have to pull our discipline out of that fog, to at least bring to our students some kind of clear picture regarding what media history really is. (Okay. End of lame metaphor.)
To work toward that, we might begin by addressing what may be the top five myths of media history research. I based this compilation on my review of recent scholarship on the subject, published in American Journalism and in textbooks addressing qualitative and historical research methods.
Myth One: Media history is a johnny-come-lately to the field of communication research.
William David Sloan thoroughly debunked this in his essay, “Why Study History,” in a 1993 issue of American Journalism. History formed the basis of academic research in journalism until after World War II, he observed, when “theory-based research offered intellectual challenges and a means of gaining respectability for journalism professors in a university environment that previously had been none too kind to mere skills teachers.”2 Doctoral programs that developed after the war built on this trend, and the result was a snowball in which social and behavioral scientists in communication graduate programs came to dominate, and propagated what they knew.
David Nord added that mass communication research is not even a discipline, but “a subject matter that has attracted a company of scholars from many disciplines.”3 That has produced methodological diversity the communication historian must live with, for better or worse. And to do that, Nord emphasized that the media historian more than other historians should be trained in social science methods as well as in history.
Myth Two: Media history is just a list of names and dates.
I can only presume this is a common myth because it’s the way some high school history teachers who have little background in history teach it. “This is not only an unfortunate idea, but a wrong one,” said Gregory A. Borchard. “Analogous, I think, to saying the pyramids of Egypt are simply rocks in the desert.” I tell my journalism students that if journalism is about people doing things in the present, history is about people doing things in the past. Sloan observed, “History, it should be remembered, is the study of human deeds. It is about real human beings who lived in the past…since no other study of human experience has these hallmarks, one is led to conclude that historical study can be distinguished from other investigations of the past.”4
Myth Three: Media history research is not precise because it can’t be quantified.
Quantitative researchers try to convert human phenomena into numbers. Often this can provide useful information. While a “good” or “bad” student is not easy to determine, a “4.0 average” or “2.0 average” is easy to rank, and so define. But is academic performance inherently numerical, as Zhou and Sloan ask in their text, Research Methods in Communication? President George W. Bush famously said that even a C student can be President.5 On the other hand, historical research has in common goals of social science research in that both deal with analysis, explanation and generalization. Both aim for precision, and verification of conclusions. The social scientist seeks laws; the historian hopes to generalize.6 While historians since Ranke have argued over the objectivity of historical research, James Startt emphasized, for historians, “Belief that a reasonable degree of objectivity is achievable, that a properly designed and controlled narrative element belongs in history and can communicate truth as far as it is known, and that research should be controlled by inductive inquiry into sources rather than by theory, represents a continuum of consensus.”7
Nord observed that all research methods share fundamental characteristics. “In every field, the specific procedures of method involve, in one way or another, the control of variables,” he said. “If we can, we control variables physically or statistically; if we cannot do that, we manage them intellectually. That is, we weight them and challenge them by asking, ‘if this, then what about that?’”8
Myth Four: Media history research is an antiquated and imperfect version of modern qualitative methods.
Sloan, Stamm and Startt observed that social and behavioral science methods are relative newcomers to communication research, becoming popular in the last half of the 20th century. They are still being refined, still in a growing phase, while “methods of historical research have been subject to scrutiny for a much longer time, and so are long past their infancy.”9 Sarah J. Tracy, in her textbook Qualitative Research Methods, explained that qualitative researchers make themselves the instrument for research. “Rather than deny our way of seeing and being in the world, qualitative researchers acknowledge, and even celebrate it. A person’s demographic information provides the basic ingredients of a researcher’s perspective.”10 Most historians would reject such a celebration of what we might call present-mindedness, that is, making judgments about the past based on our modern assumptions of what life should be like. Research in media history may sometimes be grouped under “qualitative methods.” But it really is not. Nor is it quantitative. However, that mass media historians seem to be neither fish nor fowl in method or even discipline may be their biggest weakness in today’s academy that increasingly requires taxonomic precision. That is, administrators want to categorize, and media historians keep bouncing from folder to folder.
Myth Five: Media history can’t, and shouldn’t build theory.
Here we reach a sticky wicket. Traditional historians have often adamantly maintained that historical research cannot be about building theory, that is, predicting the future. Ranke called theory in history “frivolous speculation.” Sloan wrote that “history helps us to understand the present through knowledge of how the present came to be.”11 Writing with Michael Stamm and James Startt, Sloan explained that history “can subordinate itself neither to…deterministic theories nor to the social scientists’ ‘models,’ and still be history.”12
But recently some journalism historians have begun to reconsider the possibility of employing theory in media history research. Roessner, Popp, Creech and Blevens last year in American Journalism devoted an essay to theory in communication history. They argued, “To restore relevance in journalism history, we need to overtly grapple with theory.”13 John Nerone noted that a key to making journalism history relevant today is to move in favor of a more theoretical approach. In his essay, “Does Journalism History Matter?”, he suggested that for journalism history to matter its practitioners need to engage with the communication scholarship of their colleagues. Framing, agenda-setting, sourcing; these are the kinds of theories historians need to consider, according to Nerone.14 Even Sloan, Stamm and Startt acknowledged that history may lead to theory, but warn that the deductive approach to historical research is risky. “Spurious historians ask how they might select and interpret facts to fit their theory.”15 Historical research still seems to be at its core inductive.
Apparently, then, that while dispelling the myths, journalism historians as teachers need to emphasize the contribution historical research can make to our admittedly fractured and disparate field of communication studies. And in doing that, at least some of the scholars in our boutique discipline argue that to avoid creeping irrelevancy we have to make an effort to engage in new approaches that bring us into the 21st century. Otherwise, as Nerone pointed out so uncomfortably well, “it becomes harder and harder to justify a life’s work if all it does is change a sentence in a textbook that is no longer used in a course that is no longer taught in a curriculum that is offering job training for jobs that no longer exist.”16

1 Amber Roessner, Rick Popp, Brian Creech and Fred Blevens, “’A Measure of Theory?’ Considering the Role of Theory in Media History.” American Journalism 30 (2013), 277.

2 Wm. David Sloan, “Why Study History?” American Journalism 10 (1993), 7.

3 David Nord, “A Diverse Field Needs Diversity of Approaches,” American Journalism 10 (1993), 27.

4 Wm. David Sloan, Michael Stamm with James D. Startt, Historical Methods in Communication, 3rd ed. (Northport, AL: Vision Press, 2010), 12-13.

5 Shuhua Zhou and Wm. David Sloan, eds., Research Methods in Communication, 2nd ed. (Northport, AL: Vision Press, 2011), 14.

6 Sloan, Stamm and Startt, 10-11.

7 James Startt, “Historiography and the Media Historian,” American Journalism 10 (1993), 23-24.

8 Nord, 28-29.

9 Sloan, Stamm and Startt, x.

10 Sarah J. Tracy, Qualitative Research Methods (Chichester UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 2-3.

11 Sloan, 9.

12 Sloan, Stamm and Startt, 15-16.

13 Roessner, Popp, Creech and Blevens, 263.

14 John Nerone, “Does Journalism History Matter?”, American Journalism 28 (2011), 22-23.

15 Sloan, Stamm and Startt, 24.

16 Nerone, 24.

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