Hitting the headlines

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

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5 Responses to Hitting the headlines

  1. Top post, Dan – I too gnash my teeth often at the abuse of history. Yet HEFCE and the Research Councils don’t pay us to do anything about it.

    In an ideal world, there’d be a UK version of HNN which would do this sort of thing. I wonder if this is a job for Pledgebank?

  2. I think this is why the blog is such a great platform for historical commentary: it combines some of the collective knowledge-building of the wiki (through comments and links) with the core knowledge of an actual historian….

    If you haven’t already seen it, Sharon Howard had some thoughts on why this isn’t a terribly attractive project, at least at the individual volunteer level.

  3. Dan says:

    In reverse order – I take Sharon’s point about the problem for ‘proper’ historians being that we feel the need to do some actual research. And the comments left on her blog bring up a number of interesting points – career, time and readibility implications. But I think that’s why I’d suggest a site which simply made clear how historical comment had made use of the evidence. Okay, we’re not a science, but I don’t think it would be that hard to come up with a set of criteria by which to judge popular history (and that could take into account the very different audiences and styles involved).
    On funding… Well, we’re never going to be talking health sized budgets. But it strikes me that the research councils, rather than HEFCE, are more and more concerned (or so they say) about dissemination and crossover. It might be that this is the sort of project which needs to be set up with a non-academic partner – a museum, a broadcaster or an archive.

  4. The Research Councils tend to go a bundle on the dissemination of the original research that they’ve funded, but seem far less keen to shell out for day-in day-out correcting of bloopers. For example, we know that the story of the British army on July 1st 1916 is not the story of the first world war, and indeed we’ve known that for over 40 years. It’s no longer news to the academy, but it is news to lazy producers and columnists.

    As for the blog – yes, it’s a good idea.

  5. Steve says:

    Dan –
    I’m glad you’ve had the idea but you’re a little behind in the game. Us grey-haired types have been circulating and studying misuse-of-history for about 30-40 years, especially the use of Hitler/Nazis as a propaganda motif.
    Jerry Kuehl, who spoke at your WW1 conference at QMC last year, runs a “Szent Istvan Award” for the annual worst misuse of the famous archive film of that Austro-Hungarian battleship sinking in a TV documentary – I have just nominated a programme that I appeared in for the prize; it was used to depict Allied merchant shipping being sunk by U-Boats in 1917!

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