Why I Teach Journalism in My History Classes
Journalism—the first rough draft of history—reinforces information gathering, effective writing skills, and audience engagement.
In high school, I struggled to write clear, concise prose. My command of structure was minimal, and I didn’t make effective use of sources to inform my analysis. I also had difficulty differentiating between summary and analysis, much to the chagrin of my teachers, who worked diligently to help me hone my writing.
However much I struggled, it was only when I found my passion for news reporting that I began to succeed as a writer—so much so, in fact, that I now teach journalism to my history students, hopeful that they too will benefit from combining history and journalism.
I recently discussed this with Adam Hochschild, a journalist who co-founded Mother Jones and has written eight nonfiction books, including one of my favorites, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa.
“Spending ten years as a magazine editor was hugely useful to me,” he wrote in an email. “All the time you are making judgments: Are people going to want to read this article? Why? Why not? How can we make it better? Does it need more scenes, characters, suspense?... Those are things that a historian always has to think about if you want people to read what you write.”
In my experience, teaching journalism reinforces information gathering, effective writing skills, and audience engagement.
Preston Michelson, who recently graduated from Northwestern University with degrees in journalism and political science, agrees with Hochschild. He was the founding editor of The Falconer, the student news site of Palmer Trinity School in Palmetto Bay, Florida, which I once advised. I also taught him in several history classes.
His experience as a high school journalist taught him two skills that were valuable in the college classroom: clarity and information gathering.
“The role of a journalist is to act as a sort of expert no matter the newness and complexity of the topic, and that calls for doing your homework on every story,” he said. “I conducted research for my history and political science research papers with much the same intensity.”
Effective Writing Skills
Journalism also teaches effective writing skills, a point made by Nicole Font, who recently graduated with a teaching degree from High Point University. In high school, she says, she found it difficult to write clearly and concisely. A specific turning point, she told me, was when she enrolled in my history and journalism classes.
“I was immediately challenged to hone my writing and trim unnecessary words that I used to sound ‘interesting’ or ‘more intelligent,’” she said. “As a result, I found that my writing—in all subjects—developed so that I was writing for more than just my high school teachers. I could piece together paragraphs and join ideas in a more natural way, which contributed to my success as a writer in high school and college.”
Font’s comments remind me of conversation I had with Sam Ravina, the former editor-in-chief of The Gator, an award-winning student site that I advise. Ravina said the newsroom helped him succeed at Brimmer and May, in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, where I currently teach.
When you learn to write about events with a “piercing objectivity,” Ravina told me, you can transfer that skill to numerous forms of communications. He believes that journalism is as fundamental as English or history, and credits his time in the newsroom with his success in other academic classes.
Introducing students to journalistic writing also helps them engage an audience. Too often, teachers ask that students follow a formal, academic structure—a worthwhile endeavor, but not if it precludes introducing history students to different forms of written expression.
To address this deficiency, when teaching about Andrew Jackson I read aloud several of my favorite passages from American Lion, a biography by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jon Meacham, a former editor-in-chief of Newsweek.
I recently spoke with Meacham, curious about whether he thinks historians, in the trenches of archival research, could or should learn from how he crafts engaging narratives, which appeal to a wider readership than historical monographs might.
“It’s not my place to lecture or speculate on other people’s literary styles,” he said. “If we are writers, we all have different seasons, if you will.... There’s room for everything.”
Meacham nails what I hope to convey to my students, that even as teachers defend the virtues of the five-paragraph essay, they should also make room in the curriculum for not just narrative writing but journalistic writing as well.
If you’re still not sold on the potential value of teaching journalism to history students, Meacham says, “I see a direct connection between what I learned in journalism and what I'm doing now,” explaining that insofar as he has anything to say in his books, it’s because journalism exposed him to politics and public life at an early age.