One of the things which can frustrate/inspire/depress historians is the way that their subject is misused by the media. We can be irritated when our – vitally important – topic areas are ignored because they aren’t perceived as media-friendly. We can be driven to distraction when our topic is simplified or misrepresented (one obvious example is the lazy use of the same piece of footage or audio to represent a historical event). All of us, as practitioners of an evidence based profession, used to rigorous critical thinking, will be annoyed when we see the past being used illogically or inadequately to justify current policy (think of the resonance of ‘appeasement’), or to make a quick buck without regard to the historical record (was about to link there, but might just check with my lawyer).
I’ve long had a pipe dream of inaugurating a historical hit squad who would scrutinise the public use of the past, and point out errors and inadequacies. The web offers obvious opportunities – and to an extent this function is already carried out by Cliopatria and the Carnival of Bad History. Both of these sites, however, rely on individual research and opinion (indeed, that is a strength). Over the weekend, I was fascinated to meet an old friend who now runs a project for the NHS on evidence based practice: ‘Hitting the Headlines’. You can see daily updates in the top right hand corner here. A major problem for GPs is that news reporting of medical developments affects patient attitudes and demands – so a report of a miracle drugs will see surgeries crowded with patients demanding that treatment, whether it is useful or not. As the critically minded amongst you will know, scientific research can be presented in a multitude of different ways, and factors like sample size, blind testing, and reproducibility are all key.
What the ‘Hitting the Headlines’ website does is to assess all national newspaper reports in the medical arena, and provide the background story which will allow doctors to rate research and treatment. It therefore functions as a portal through which they can learn about the facts behind the headlines. Although it will judge how well papers reported the story, the site doesn’t make value judgements about why stories might have been misrepresented, either by the media or by industry. As a result of the nature of scientific research, it is able to assess research on a number of criteria.
This is obviously a massive undertaking, requiring a great deal of time and effort. But it seems to me to be an extraordinarily useful idea, and a great use of the net – not least because ‘Hitting the Headlines’ can not only summarise relevant research, but provide links to the studies, so that readers can judge for themselves.
My instinctual reaction was that something similar would be wonderful for history. Providing an opportunity to rate the public use of history would not only be a release valve for academics – it would encourage better public understanding and use of the past. Rather than doing this on an ad hoc basis, as currrently occurs in many reputable blogs, this is an area where a central group blog could have a purpose and a mission. History is of course a matter of discussion, opinion and debate in a way that science – it could be argued – is not. But history does have methodologies and is based on the use of evidence to back up argument. These are both rate-able.
Then reality struck. Doing this properly would take a lot of time and money. An whilst the AHRC might look on this as a worthwhile project, I’m just not sure how you’d justify it in total.
So I started thinking about how else we could use this approach. And what I’m going to work on, as an idea, is a “History in the Headlines” site to which undergraduates would have to contribute as part of a first year course. This would be a way of encouraging them to think, not only about the use of evidence and about writing for different audiences, but also about how the past is used. We actually run a joint honours History and Journalism degree, whose students might find this particularly relevant. Lots of problems to address before anything could actually happen: how to integrate it with existing teaching, how to assess it, how to ensure a quality standard. But I think the idea of a wikki-approach – a self-moderating and improving website – icone that might have wings (it could also be a way of publicising the department, which is a subject much on my mind at the moment).
Coming up: Writing War updates