History in the Media and the History of the Media

Article by Alex Martin. Edited by Sarah Purssell. Additional Research by Lauren Puckey.

In the research for this article I came across a disappointing fact about the world we live in, there really isn’t that much history in the media. In fact where I thought there would be a torrent of history, there was a tiny trickle. Time Team, presented by a man who used to be Baldrick, is Channel 4’s offering, then the occasional talking head on the news with a PhD, or maybe an op-ed article if you’re lucky.

I became interested in why the media had a lack of good history. Was it the media’s fault or historian’s? The former seems to makes sense. The news is too condensed to mean anything much and newspapers either give opinionated spin a day late or horoscopes. However the latter explanation also appears to be valid – the majority of academic history that I’ve come across rewards meticulous research and immaculate footnotes, not accessibility. Perhaps the conspicuous absence of history in the media has more to do with the failure of professional historians to market the product of their craft to the public. But this proposition has its faults; the media isn’t dominated by historians, but at the same time it isn’t dominated by economists, biologists or geographers. There is a much simpler explanation: both are responsible. Most history is done by professional historians who care what other historians want and the traditional media has to appeal to a broad market.

However in order to write this article I had to do more research so I left the reassuring world of traditional media and headed directly for Google. All of a sudden things became interesting. A whole new world was open to me: Blogs, Wikipedia etc. Around this point something dawned on me, history is only a small part of what has changed for the world of the media and information. The internet really does have everything.

iphone This is a revolution in the way we receive media. No more broad sweeps of news, forward niche websites for those determined to seek it out. Gone are the days when pub arguments led to trips to library or left unresolved. This is the age of internet phones, Wikipedia and Yahoo answers. Extra! Extra! Newspapers give you news 24 hours later whereas it’s tweeted on phones instantaneously!

Naturally there was a backlash. We all know we can’t believe what we read on the internet, there are crazy people who put crazy things online, like the 9/11 truthers and the flat earth society, and as for Wikipedia we all know that is anything but trust worthy; full of unsupported assertions and lies. Well you shouldn’t believe everything you hear, a 2005 special investigation in Nature (the most respected peer reviewed academic science journal) presents data stating that Wikipedia is almost as accurate as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ironically Britannica refuted these claims erroneously.

Companies are wising up to this fact; the days of loud in your face advertising are numbered, and gradually being replaced with subtler facebook friendly ideas that can be cost effectively implemented, copy and paste this footnote into your browser for a “simples” example. This is very cost effective, if the population of facebook were considered a country it would be the 4th largest in the world.

All this change may appear to be trite. It would be easy to argue that the internet is a mere advance in communication technology, but this is so much more than the telephone: this is an information revolution. I will state that this information revolution is comparable to the industrial revolution in its magnitude. I am certain that the change we are going through will be studied by historians and be considered, by the more astute ones among them, an immense shift in the way we live. Whilst the industrial revolution was predominantly created by finding more efficient methods of utilising technology, the information revolution is predominantly about finding more efficient methods of utilising data, simply by connecting people with other people. People who know more, people with experience, people we trust7 , people who want to meet other people and sometimes even people who like history.

History: if you want it it’s out there. Wikipedia has some amazing articles on individuals, time periods, places and even concepts. Hnn.us (History News Network) is a fantastic website that gives us blogs, history related news and a historians eye view on events. Want to know what Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman thinks of Harvard University’s Tisch professor of History Niall Ferguson? Go online and google it. In fact, want to know any historical debate about anything? Find out the names of the historians and google them.

I was tired of shots of Simon Scharma standing in an empty church explaining the Tudors, and I was even more tired of History being boiled down and simplified when it was deemed necessary to be consumed by the media. We are lucky to come across any fierce debate or nuance, but thankfully the system has shifted to provide historians with what they want: History. Debate, accessible articles and even sometimes humour is out there. If this shift can provide me with this, what else is it doing for other people?

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