Journalists and history lessons
Journalists like to make historical comparisons. They’re usually wrong.
Most journalists understand the importance of history in their reporting. It’s most commonly used as a tool for context, allowing both the journalist and reader to understand a complex set of events.
Unfortunately, it’s too often misused…
and at it’s worst, history becomes a tool for journalists to make convenient, superficial and basically lazy comparisons. This problem usually rears its head in foreign affairs reporting when journalists get sucked in by appealing, obvious, comparisons between current events, that they don’t really understand. Often, the reason for the comparison is because the breaking news is similar to a recent event in the same region; which could be the Middle East, Africa, Asia, or anywhere that isn’t the ‘West’.
I do (kind of) understand it. Making comparisons with an event that people remember helps them to relate to it. It seems like it’s part of a pattern. If they remember the analysis, they’ll also feel like there’s a cause and effect theory that helps them understand events. It fits into the popular idea people have that history repeats itself, is enslaved by its own patterns and ( more optimistically) can be used to learn lessons for the future.
The problem is, when you dig deep into history, you’ll find it isn’t about patterns. There’s no doubting that patterns seem to exist but they’re merely an illusion. Almost invariably, there are more, often fundamental, differences between the events of two sets of histories than there are superficial similarities.
History should’t be about theory. At all. It’s about busting theories and taking every case on its individual merits. Of course there is some room for comparison but not the throwaway type that is prevalent in the media. The comparisons we see in the news are part of what shapes ideas that Africa has more civil wars than elsewhere, the Middle East is under perpetual threat from ‘Islamists’ and Asia is a home for underdevelopment and overcrowding.
The Rwandan Genocide and Sierra Leonean civil war occurred at the same time. They both involved the use of machetes to hack victims’ limbs; an extremely shocking and memorable image. This meant comparisons between the two violent episodes. In reality, they had very little in common. The same comparisons didn’t go away and they fueled theories about “Africa violence” and the unfortunate idea that the continent was more prone to civil wars than anywhere else.
As I said, history isn’t about theories. They just don’t work. You can make comparisons that seem to explain all African rebellions, Islamist movements and the prevalence of dictatorships but it’s only takes a few moments to spot the differences. Pointing out these differences is something I’d like to take a look at in some future posts but high profile cases were when ‘experts’ predicted violence in Egypt resembling the brutality of the Algerian civil war in the 1990s, that Kenya’s election would lead to the same violence that occured in the previous election and implications that Syria is Afghanistan 2.0.
Of course there’s a space for history in journalism. There’s even space for comparisons but it’s about including it in an effective way, rather than misleading the reader. A country’s own history is often the most useful way to understand how it arrived at its current point. Sometimes you can draw on another country’s history if migration, shared borders, regional movements and diplomatic relations are relevant. But just because two countries in a similar region have a (civil) war or revolution, there’s no need to go looking for links that don’t exist.