Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a two-part column.
As an undergraduate journalism major at the University of Texas at Austin, I learned in introductory reporting classes that every article needed at least three sources. A basic “spot news” article, reporting events from where and when they occur, using three sources was supposed to convey a due diligence of sorts on a tight deadline.
Often, that rule fell apart quickly when I went out to report the news. Many people just want someone to listen to them. Even if you do not use any of their quotes in your article, people really like to be heard—especially when they are talking to someone with a public platform. I reported on politics and government, which made sources exceptionally eager to talk when they had news to break or debates to shape. Of course, it was also common to have doors slammed in my face or to hear a dead dial tone after I identified myself. Still, I had no story if I had no sources. And I had to get the story.
After nearly a decade of reporting, I began graduate coursework in American studies at the University of Kansas, where my advisers encouraged methodological diversity. This was welcome news as I entered a new profession and sought out points of continuity with my reporting days. I also saw how historians and journalists used human sources (interviews or testimonies) and textual sources (government records, for instance) in related, though not always similar, ways. Crucially, I realized how much some historians rely on accounts of events in newspapers, magazines, and mass media from the past. Likewise, I recognized that some oral history practices closely resembled journalistic interviews; both create new knowledge bases with which to further the public’s understanding about a topic. The journalist and the historian can quite literally shift how their colleagues approach a topic, no matter how well-worn, by adding new context and evidence to the public record. However, I also confronted unavoidable differences between the two. For example, a journalist working on a deadline is most interested in interview subjects who offer analytical explanations about the news in question, not evocative descriptions of event and memories.
My past professional experience raised fresh questions about the nature of sources in my coursework, teaching, and writing as a historian-in-training. For example, I started thinking differently about a news story’s placement in a paper and its significance at the time. I also started to reflect on how I evaluate a piece of journalism that, in some cases, was likely revised by any number of managers or editors whose names we may never know. What was the conversation, if any, between the editor and the reporter about the story’s significance or about the use of anonymous sources? While some outlets now include the name of the editor responsible for shepherding copy to publication, most still list only the reporter’s name in the byline. The involvement of editors has changed over time, and historians using these sources often explain journalistic practices during a specific period of interest, but it certainly complicates how I approach journalistic work as historical sources.