One of the modules I currently teach is History and Journalism. The basic premise is to get students of history to keep that unique focus when writing a journalistic piece. The students are also meant to bring a sense of place into their writing and to consider ways in which to mine memory – people’s recollections, accounts from newspaper archives and much more. The overall idea is to provide historical context to contemporary events.
It’s interesting to consider the ways in which the lens of history can make or mar a piece of journalism. The worst way to keep a historical focus is to self-consciously zoom in on it, blurring what is already before us, or emerging.
A timely example is a Washington Post deep dive into the massive earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria on February 6.
The piece, which appeared on February 7, bore the bald headline: “Quake in Turkey and Syria follows a deeper history of disaster”. It appeared in the Today’s Worldview slot, which is mostly read by people who elect to receive the email newsletter of the same name. Today’s Worldview claims to offer “analysis of the most important global story of the day” and is generally worth reading for its unique take and 360-degree approach.
But when it came to offering an historical focus on the earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria, I’d argue that Today’s Worldview fell short. Let me explain.
It started off really well, as follows:
“In 1114, a monstrous earthquake hit areas of what’s now southern Turkey and northern Syria. Matthew of Edessa, an Armenian chronicler, described what befell the land in apocalyptic terms: ‘It sounded like the din made by a multitudinous army. From fear of the power of the Lord God, all creation shook and trembled like a churning sea,’ he wrote. ‘All the plains and mountains resounded like the clanging of bronze, shaking and moving about and tossing about like trees in a hurricane. Like a person sick for a long time, all creation produced cries and groans as, with great dread, they were expecting their destruction’.
“Matthew detailed how the ‘populous’ city of Marash ‘was terribly destroyed and some 40,000 souls perished.’ In his account, there were no survivors.”
So far so good. It feels right that the journalist next provides context for the current plight of Kahramanmaras, the city in southern Turkey where most buildings were reduced to rubble or badly damaged. He writes: “On Monday, rescuers in Kahramanmaras, Turkey, site of the historical Marash, were counting the dead and searching for lost loved ones…”
But what followed seems a strange way to bring historical context to current affairs. Check back in on Sunday for a full explanation.