Reporting today, with yesterday’s context

In San Francisco, Becca Andrews pulled the filing for a 1976 Supreme Court decision that granted abortion providers the power to sue for their patients’ well-being.

In Chicago, Michael O’Loughlin headed to an archive to pore over records documenting the lives of gay Catholics during the aids epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.

And in New York City, David Russell conducted an in-depth interview with the director of a police training film from 1991.

These people are not historians. They are journalists, and at a time when the country is confronting a global pandemic, a nosediving economy, and a reckoning over the role of race in police brutality, they are among many reporters turning to history for perspective in their work. 

“Sometimes we as journalists get very used to having the answers, and no one knows the full scope of everything that’s ever happened in the history of the universe, right?” says Andrews, an assistant news editor at Mother Jones. “I often find myself really surprised by history.”

Over the past several months, historical reporting has helped reporters make sense of the seemingly unprecedented events of 2020. In the spring, when the coronavirus upended American life, newspapers in Charlotte, Cleveland, New York, and Santa Cruz turned to archival sources—including their own back issues—to describe how their cities coped with the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.

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As fears rose of an extended economic downturn, CNN mined oral-history interviews to uncover stories of people who emerged from the tumult of the Great Depression, while the Associated Press looked to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal as a template for how Wall Street and Main Street could claw back this time around.

In June, after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis on Memorial Day, 60 Minutes examined the deep-rooted history of violence against African Americans in the United States by airing a segment titled “Exhume the Truth,” about a race massacre that happened in Tulsa ninety-nine years earlier during the same week as Floyd’s murder.

These reports follow the high-profile effort by the New York Times to tackle America’s history of slavery through the 1619 Project, which debuted last year on the four hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the first slave ship in the colonies. The 1619 Project’s introductory essay by its creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in May.

“We’re in a transitional moment in our profession,” says Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a PBS NewsHour special correspondent who won two Emmys and a Peabody for her reporting on apartheid in South Africa in 1998. “Not every piece that a journalist is assigned to do is going to require that you go back to 1619, but certainly, if you write analytic pieces, it’s so important to have that historical perspective.”

A survey last year of about 200 journalism programs in the United States found that more than 25 percent of them fail to offer courses on the history of journalism or mass communication

In December, O’Loughlin, the national correspondent for the Catholic magazine America, released a series of podcasts on the aids epidemic, turning to the archive of a little-known network of church leaders, and was stunned by what he found.

“I’ve been writing about LGBT issues in the Catholic Church for a decade or so now, so I have a pretty good understanding of what’s going on in the current day,” says O’Loughlin, himself a gay Catholic. “I had no idea about this huge confrontation between the gay community and the Catholic Church from the 1980s and ’90s.”

In 2017, the Washington Post began publishing a blog, Retropolis, that promised “daily posts aimed at connecting present-day news with [the paper’s] rich history.” In response to the July headline that First Lady Melania Trump planned to restore the White House Rose Garden, one Retropolis post traced the garden’s history, from its origins in the Woodrow Wilson administration through its redesign under John F. Kennedy. Following the death of Congressman John Lewis, another piece explored the potential renaming of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, which Lewis crossed with six hundred protesters in 1965 to press for African-American voting rights.

Meanwhile, Retro Report, a nonprofit news outfit, has harnessed investigative journalism and narrative storytelling to document what it calls “the history behind the headlines.” The organization has partnered with outlets ranging from NBC and Univision to Politico and The New Yorker while producing more than two hundred short documentaries and stories on topics such as the legacy of dissent by Black athletes in America and the roles of Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci in the fight against the 1980s aids epidemic. Last October, Retro Report launched a one-hour newsmagazine series on PBS.

Despite the recent resurgence of history journalism, academics fear that the makeup of the college curriculum may result in a generation of reporters who lack an appreciation for media history. A survey last year of about two hundred journalism programs in the United States found that more than 25 percent of them fail to offer regular courses on the history of journalism or mass communication. The survey headlined an anxious report by the American Journalism Historians Association, which contends that history can sharpen students’ critical thinking, underscore the value of the press in public life, and provide comparisons to assess the present state of the news media.

“It is sort of frustrating to see people so caught up in speeding up and not being able to consider the nuance of situations that history can really provide,” says Andrews, who combed through the 1976 filing from Singleton v. Wulff in February to better understand a brewing Supreme Court battle over abortion rights.

When student journalist Ronald Davis became interested in New Orleans’s decision to take down statues of Confederate leaders in 2017, a local activist from Take ’Em Down Nola tipped Davis off that the fight dated to his parents’ generation or possibly earlier. But when Davis looked for more on the movement’s history, he found that the city’s main newspaper, the Times-Picayune, barely referred to nearly half a century of activism and instead portrayed the anti-monument effort as a fight waged by only one or two people.

Then he turned to the archives connected to one of the three African-American newspapers he and his classmates contributed to as journalists: the Louisiana Weekly, New Orleans Data News Weekly, and New Orleans Tribune. His Xavier University professor Shearon Roberts recalled his success: “We went into the archives for the Louisiana Weekly and, boom, we saw the same coalition” that the activist had mentioned. The archived stories referenced victories in the 1960s and 1970s that “got this school to be renamed, that area protected, and new historic markers to recognize different pioneers in the city.”

Despite that kind of success, in an industry focused on breaking developments, some journalists may be reluctant to concentrate too much on the past.

Russell, an associate editor at the Queens Chronicle, a community newspaper in New York City, noticed a scourge of police suicides last year, and he tracked down the director of a decades-old police training film to get a better sense of life behind the blue line. He thought the context from their interview improved his story, part of a series that recently won a first-place award from the New York Press Association. But he also gets why some of his colleagues wouldn’t go that route.

“What are we called? It’s news,” Russell says, emphasizing the new. “I could see people being like, ‘Save it for some history book.’ ”

THE KICKER: ‘Eugenics’ in Georgia

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Nicholas Hirshon, Amber Roessner, and Kristin Gustafson are the authors. Hirshon is a journalism professor at William Paterson University in New Jersey. His research focuses on the history of sports media in New York, and he is the author of the book We Want Fish Sticks: The Bizarre and Infamous Rebranding of the New York Islanders. Roessner is an associate professor at the University of Tennessee’s School of Journalism & Electronic Media. She coedited the volume Political Pioneer of the Press: Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Her Transnational Crusade for Social Justice. Gustafson is an associate teaching professor at the University of Washington Bothell's School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. Her work appears in American Journalism, Journalism, Journalism History, the Newspaper Research Journal, and Visual Communication Quarterly.