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Christina Littlefield is an associate professor with a dual appointment in religion and journalism at Pepperdine University. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Journalism (Religion minor) and an MA in Religion from Pepperdine, as well as a PhD in Divinity (Church History) from University of Cambridge. As a journalist, Littlefield primarily covered higher education and religion for the Las Vegas Sun. She recently was appointed Web Editor of AJHA.
When and how did you first become involved with AJHA?
I first started following AJHA in 2014. I got to attend my first conference in 2017, and I immediately loved the community I met in Little Rock that year.
How would you describe the intersections between journalism and religion?
They are best connected in the First Amendment, where freedom of the press and freedom of religion are enshrined together. I first started studying religion as an undergraduate with the goal of covering it as a journalist. If I hadn't been sucked into academia that is what I would love to be doing today. Religious belief or world views inform all aspects of culture, including media and politics, and I believe better understanding the how of that helps us understand so much else in our world today. I also think we cannot fully tell the stories of our communities if we do not cover how their worldview, be that religious or secular, frames their lives. I believe we need at least one religion reporter at every news organization.
Funny, all of the history classes I teach are in the Religion and Philosophy Division or American Studies graduate program. In my introductory newswriting class, students receive a brief overview, but in my upper division investigative reporting class, we dive deep into the history and read Jon Marshall's brilliant "Watergate Legacy and the Press." But as we discuss news coverage in all classes, I am often helping students contextualize what is happening now with historical tidbits.
I am slowly working toward a book on this topic, but I've presented on about half the thinkers, have an article in American Journalism on Josiah Strong, and have a book chapter published on Walter Rauschenbusch in a centennial celebration, In the Shadow of a Prophet: The Legacy of Walter Rauschenbusch, edited by William Brackney and David Gushee (Mercer University Press). That work has taken a back burner to some more pressing research into Christian nationalism today.
Can you elaborate on your Christian nationalism work?
Much of my religion research has focused on a sociological concept called civil religion, which looks at how sacred and secular ideas come together to form the beliefs of the nation, shaping who citizens are and who they want to be. In the United States, civil religion is particularly pronounced and a common myth centers on ideas of American chosenness or exceptionalism. My first book, Chosen Nations, looked at how the British and American social gospel leaders promoted their nations as ushering in the kingdom of God in very nationalistic ways. (That's where I first saw how they were all using journalism to promote reform work.) Their brand of Christian nationalism was very en vogue during the Progressive Era. Today, we're seeing a new, more radicalized Christian nationalism under former President Donald Trump. This exploded into violence in the Jan. 6 insurrection. I am currently updating a book of my mentor, Richard Hughes, called Christian America and the Kingdom of God. It explores the history of Christian nationalism and myths of a Christian America against what the Bible actually says about the Kingdom of God. I am updating this 2009 book to bring it up to date with present scholarship but also working to enrich its critique to show how pervasive Christian nationalism is among even moderate and progressive thinkers historically.
What are some of your hobbies and interests outside of academia?
There's time for hobbies and interests outside of academia? My favorite part of my job, and the most time consuming, is advising the Pepperdine student magazine, Currents. So that's a chief interest of mine. Truly outside of academia, my husband and I love to hike through the Santa Monica Mountains, and we watch way too much Marvel/DC shows and movies.
by Susan E. Swanberg, University of Arizona
I recently wrote the following in my academic dossier: “Journalism, that first draft of history, opens a window onto the annals and accounts of our scientific progress, problems, and paradigm shifts.” My goal as a scholar of science journalism history is to reveal and report a more complete account of the feats and foibles of science, scientists, and science journalists.
Origins of a Science Journalism Historian
The inspiration for adopting science journalism history as my academic research topic was an essay written by Boyce Rensberger, former director of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship program and a science reporter for 32 years. In his article “Science Journalism: Too Close for Comfort,” published in Nature (2009), Rensberger explored “the progression of scientific correspondents from cheerleaders to watchdogs.”
According to Rensberger, New York Times science journalist William Leonard “Atomic Bill” Laurence was a prime example of the cheerleading journalist who was too close to his sources. In the spring of 1945 until shortly after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Laurence wrote articles and press releases for the U.S. War Department about the development and deployment of the atomic bomb – all while he was also on the payroll of the Times. I found the story of Laurence’s conflicted roles troubling and fascinating.
In 2015, after I was hired as an assistant professor at the University of Arizona School of Journalism, I began examining Laurence’s science journalism under a microscope. In the course of my examination, I uncovered the journalist’s previously unrecognized plagiarism of an eye-witness report on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. I presented this research in March of 2017 at a conference sponsored by Washington State University, Tri-Cities.
The essay I wrote about Laurence’s journalistic shortcomings was published as a book chapter titled, “Borrowed Chronicles: New York Times Science Journalist, William L. ‘Atomic Bill’ Laurence and the Reports of a Hiroshima Survivor.” My essay appeared in Legacies of the Manhattan Project: Reflections on 75 Years of a Nuclear World (ed. Michael Mays; WSU Press, 2020).
E.W. Scripps and the Science Service
I try to keep multiple articles in the publishing pipeline, so as I was drafting and editing “Borrowed Chronicles,” I was also working on other manuscripts. Somewhere along the way, I’d learned about the Science Service, an “agency for the popularization of science” founded in 1921 by E.W. Scripps. I was delighted to learn that, in addition to a corps of male science journalists, Science Service had engaged several women to write about science – an unusual situation in the early-to-mid twentieth century. I became interested in the women of Science Service and was determined to find out more about them. I was especially interested in Marjorie Van de Water who wrote articles about psychology.
As I continued my Science Service research, I discovered that issues of the organization’s Science Newsletter were available online through JSTOR. At a meeting of the American Society for Environmental History I met a scholar who told me that many Science Service materials were archived by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. A visit to the Science Service archives was an obvious must! I applied for and was awarded an AJHA Rising Scholar Award in 2018, which provided funding for an archival visit. Within weeks of receiving the award, I was in Washington D.C. on a mission to find out more about Science Service and its journalism.
The Science Service/Eugenics Connection
When I arrived at the Smithsonian Institution archives, I was thrilled to find the boxes I’d requested on a cart in the reading room. I dove eagerly into the files within those boxes – exhilarated at the thought of questions they could answer and surprises they might contain. Before that first day ended, I’d found (“hidden” in plain sight) evidence of the organization’s involvement with eugenics – an unscientific, nativist belief system used to justify social policies such as sterilization of those deemed “unfit” to reproduce. In a number of carefully labelled Science Service files, I found correspondence between Science Service leaders and the American Eugenics Society (AES) as well as documents revealing that a substantial number of the organization’s board members and staffers had been closely involved with the American eugenics movement. To my knowledge, nobody had written about the Science Service/eugenics connection before.
After I returned home, I examined in more detail the documents I’d scanned. Next, I searched JSTOR for Science Newsletter articles on eugenics. I found many articles about eugenics - most of which were favorably inclined toward the pseudoscience. Curious about E.W. Scripps’ personal attitude regarding eugenics, I googled “E.W. Scripps archives” and found, quite fortuitously, that there was an online digital collection of the publisher’s private papers maintained by Ohio University. In these online archives, I located pro-eugenics writings authored by Scripps. The results of my research, described in an article titled, “’Well-Bred and Well-Fed,’ the Science Service Covers Eugenics: 1924-1966,” were published in American Journalism 38(2): 202-230 (2021).
To those who might think that the topic of eugenics is no longer relevant, I would point to the harsh rhetoric we see today regarding immigrants – rhetoric that mirrors early twentieth century debates in the U.S. Congress concerning restrictive immigration laws justified on the basis of eugenics’ flawed principles of human heredity and unscientific concepts of “race.”
A Final Note
Re-inventing myself as a science journalism historian has been challenging at times, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have benefited from the knowledge of more experienced journalism history scholars. As a result, I am an enthusiastic convert to the study of journalism history. Thank you, AJHA, for your guidance and support!
 For further information about Van de Water, see: Swanberg, S.E. (2019). “Psychological Armor: The Science News-Letter Warns Against Propaganda (1926-1965),” Journalism Studies 20(13): 1883-1902; Swanberg, S.E. (2020). “‘Wounded in Mind’: Science Service Writer, Marjorie Van de Water, Explains World War II Military Neuropsychiatry to the American Public,” Media History, 26(4): 472-488.
Figure 1: Photo illustration - cover, and page 4 of American Eugenics Society (AES) membership recruitment pamphlet containing the Watson Davis quotation that inspired my manuscript’s title. Photo illustration by Susan E. Swanberg.
Figure 2: Bookshelves containing eugenics research materials. Photo by Susan E. Swanberg
by Aimee Edmondson, AJHA President
As many of you know, long-time AJHA member and friend Hazel Dicken-Garcia bequeathed $22,664 to the organization. She died May 30, 2018, at the age of 79.
There have been many discussions about how best to honor her memory and utilize these funds to further the work of the AJHA. And one of my first acts as president last October was to ask outgoing President Donna Lampkin Stephens to lead the Long-Range Planning Committee in developing a recommendation for the use of the gift.
The Long-Range Planning Committee consists of the current chairs of all committees and two immediate past presidents of the AJHA; it is chaired by the immediate past president of the organization.
At the last in-person conference in Dallas in 2019, the president of our organization first asked the Long-Term Planning Committee to investigate ways to use the Dicken-Garcia bequest and make a recommendation to the board. However, due to continued disruption caused by the pandemic, the chair of that committee determined to wait until in-person conventions returned in order to best engage the AJHA membership regarding funding proposals. The chair felt that issues related to the pandemic might change priorities for the funding in unpredictable ways.
Hopefully, we are emerging from the pandemic. Or maybe we just have a new normal. And as we ramp up for our in-person conference in Memphis, I have renewed the focus of the AJHA leadership in establishing and executing a plan for Dicken-Garcia’s generous gift this year.
Also, as many of you know, she was known for her dedication to journalism education and media history. She taught in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis for 30 years. She also was the 2006 recipient of the AJHA’s Kobre Award for Lifetime Achievement. In addition, she was among the first to explore the evolution of journalistic ethics, and her students populate newsrooms and universities across the country.
For additional context, Dicken-Garcia also bequeathed funds to the History Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, and in 2019 that organization established the Hazel Dicken-Garcia Outstanding Master’s Thesis in Journalism and Mass Communication History award to recognize the top thesis completed in the prior calendar year.
by Mike Conway, AJHA First Vice President
It will be no surprise to those who knew Dr. Michael S. Sweeney of Ohio University that one of his final acts before passing away on January 15 involved helping graduate students pursue their interest in journalism and media history as well as finding a home in AJHA.
We’ll start with the renewed initiative to help graduate students reduce the cost of attending our conference and then explain how Dr. Sweeney helped make it happen.
$400 Graduate Student Travel Stipend. The Michael S. Sweeney Graduate Student Travel Stipend will provide $400 to graduate students who have a paper accepted and attend our 2022 AJHA Conference in Memphis in September. Student who are on conference panels or have their research-in-progress work accepted for presentation also will be eligible. In exchange for the $400 stipend, students will agree to attend the full conference and work a set number of hours to help with conference logistics. We will be setting up a registration process for eligible students who would like to receive the stipend.
Return of the AJHA Auction. Many of us first “experienced” Mike Sweeney through his yearly role as the auctioneer for the AJHA conference media history auction. After the silent bidding was complete, Mike got on the microphone and encouraged, shamed, cajoled, and used any method necessary to get us to bid higher on all of the items, always reminding us the money was given directly to grad students. By the end of the night, many of us had stacks of books, historic newspapers, trinkets, glasses, and other random items connected to journalism history that we didn’t know we needed. One of my favorite memories was when Mike was able to create a bidding war for a half-eaten ham sandwich that someone had left on an auction table.
We are reviving the AJHA Conference auction for two reasons. First, the auction did raise money for graduate student travel. But maybe just as important, the auction created a space during the conference where graduate students and other new members could get to know members of AJHA away from the panel and paper presentations.
The format for the renewed auction is still under discussion. We may not have the space necessary for the traditional Friday night auction event at our Memphis hotel. If not, we will conduct a silent auction that could run through much of the conference, keeping the items near the presentation rooms to allow people more time to bid. We may even reserve some top items for a short live auction during the Saturday Closing Gala, depending on our meeting space.
No matter what the format, it’s time to start searching your journalism history collection for items that we can auction off for graduate student travel funds.
Mentorship. The other piece of this initiative to help our graduate students involves a renewed commitment and new ways to help our graduate students succeed in their historical research and in navigating the world of academia. Many of us were drawn to AJHA as graduate students because of the way we were treated at AJHA compared to other academic conferences. I still remember senior members of AJHA that would stop me in the hallway to ask me about a research presentation or even just say hello. They seemed genuinely interested in my research and my hopes for an academic career. My first book and many of my research articles were directly a result of help from AJHA members at the conference. Our AJHA members still have that giving and inclusive spirit, so we want to find more ways to connect professors with graduate students.
One of our ideas that we hope to set in motion this spring is one or a few Zoom sessions featuring AJHA members speaking on topics of interest for graduate students. We hope the timing could encourage them to submit their research for the AJHA Memphis conference. We could make these Zoom sessions year-round depending on interest.
We also want to increase our efforts to make graduate students feel welcome at our conference and in our organization. We’re working on ways to connect graduate students who will be coming to Memphis so they can meet other students and faculty who will be at the conference.
The enduring legacy of Dr. Michael S. Sweeney. This initiative began when AJHA President Aimee Edmondson appointed a temporary committee last fall to look into ways to recruit and retain graduate students for AJHA. She asked Claire Rounkles (Missouri; AJHA Graduate Student Committee Chair), Michael Fuhlhage (Wayne State), Gerry Lanosga (Indiana) and me to come up with some ideas.
When we first considered the idea of bringing back the auction, I was in touch with some of the people who had been involved in the past, including Mike Sweeney. He provided important background and insight into the AJHA auction for us.
We all know Mike’s commitment to students--not only those he directly mentored at Utah State and Ohio University, but also all of the students he has encouraged through his work at AJHA and as editor of Journalism History. He is also a role model for all of us in AJHA for his prolific and important scholarship over the years. In the past decade, he has taught us a master class in how to live with terminal cancer. His acceptance speech for the 2015 Kobre Award in Oklahoma City was a moment I will never forget.
As we were working on these graduate student initiatives, we learned Mike was close to death. Aimee Edmondson and I talked about the strong connections between Mike, AJHA, and graduate students. We came up with the idea of naming the stipend after him. Mike’s wife Carolyn was able to talk to Mike about the idea during his final week and they were both enthusiastic about the opportunity. They even made it a point to encourage donations to the AJHA Graduate Student Travel Fund in his obituary.
On February 17, the AJHA Board voted to rename the fund The Michael S. Sweeney Graduate Student Travel Stipend as well as to provide one-time seed funding to guarantee the $400 stipend for the Memphis conference. The amount of future stipends will depend on how much we can raise through donations to the Sweeney Stipend fund as well as AJHA auction proceeds.
Because of the decision by Mike and Carolyn Sweeney to include AJHA in his obituary, we already have received more than $4000 to help fund the travel stipend for Memphis.
Of course, these initiatives only will work if we can find members willing to help us with the auction and mentorship plans as well as help raise money for the Sweeney Stipend. The ad hoc committee has agreed to work on the auction for 2022, and then we can hopefully come up with a plan to keep it going beyond Memphis. If you would like to help us with any of these initiatives, please get in touch with any member of our committee: Michael Fuhlhage, Gerry Lanosga, Claire Rounkles, or Mike Conway.
by Jon Marshall, Northwestern University
My fascination with the presidency was born at age five during the summer of 1968 when my family went on vacation to San Diego. Richard Nixon, fresh from winning the GOP presidential nomination, was staying at a hotel a couple of miles down the beach from us. My dad, never one to be shy, decided my brother and I should meet Nixon. We hiked across the sand to Nixon’s hotel and stationed ourselves outside the entrance. When Nixon walked by, my dad greeted him, and the soon-to-be president graciously walked over and shook our hands.
My interest in the presidency deepened a few years later as I learned about Nixon becoming ensnared in the Watergate scandal. My mom and I spent the summer of 1973 watching the U.S. Senate Watergate Committee hearings on television. The next summer we watched Nixon resign as I wondered how this powerful man could have such a steep downfall.
Fast forward to 2017. The recently elected Donald Trump was shattering every norm in the relationship between presidents and the press. He was using Twitter to bash journalists, calling them enemies of the people, and threatening them with violence. Much of the media was fractured along deeply partisan lines. I wanted to know, “How did we get here?”
To find an answer, I began the research that resulted in my second book, Clash: Presidents and the Press in Times of Crisis (Potomac Books, 2022). I had already satisfied some of my Nixon fascination with my first book, Watergate’s Legacy and the Press: The Investigative Impulse. This time I wanted to take a broader look at the history of presidents and the press during some of the nation’s tensest moments.
Clash has the dual aim of providing knowledge that will be useful to historians while also appealing to students and other readers who are interested in government, politics, and the media. I chose ten presidents (John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Trump) who encountered severe crises and whose relationships with the press tell us something important about how we arrived at our current toxic media environment. By exploring this history, Clash seeks to identify what was truly unprecedented about Trump’s relationship with journalists.
I began by reading the many outstanding books, articles, and papers that other scholars have produced on the presidency and the history of the Washington press corps. During the AJHA conference in Dallas, I was able to visit the archives at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum and found fascinating material about his efforts to woo conservative radio hosts. However, like other scholars trying to conduct research in the age of COVID, I was soon limited in the number of physical archives I could visit. Fortunately, the cavalry of digital resources came to the rescue. I found a bounty of online primary sources in presidential archives, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the Internet Archive. I examined White House and congressional documents, speeches, public opinion polls, letters, oral histories, memoirs, and much more.
One of my researching joys was using America’s Historical Newspapers, Gale’s Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, NewsBank, ProQuest, and Readex’s African American Newspapers series to find and analyze articles, editorials, and cartoons in more than six dozen newspapers and magazines stretching back to the 1790s. In addition, I used clips and transcripts available from the C-SPAN Executive Branch Archive and Vanderbilt Television News Archive. For the Trump and Obama years, I also sifted through collections of social media posts.
One of my biggest challenges was sifting through this rich material to determine what to include within my publisher’s 90,000-word limit. I had to ignore some presidents (sorry about that, Millard Fillmore fans), and there was a lot more I could have written about each president who appears in Clash. In the end, I cut twice as many words as I included.
Based on my research, Clash highlights eight main themes:
Presidents have frequently attacked, restricted, manipulated, and demonized the press to strengthen their own positions.
Using new technology, presidents since Franklin Roosevelt have boosted their power by avoiding the White House press corps and communicating directly to the public.
Presidents who developed respectful relationships with the press have had more long-term success than those who didn’t.
Journalists who advocated for political and social movements have pushed presidents to dramatically change their policies.
Despite their own mistakes and formidable forces trying to hinder them, reporters often have courageously served the public when covering the White House.
Starting with Reagan, policy changes have led to a surge in partisan, divisive media content that widened polarization.
Faith in democracy has been undercut by presidents and their media allies who spread conspiracy theories and other lies.
The news media’s economic woes have weakened its ability to hold presidents accountable.
I had the most fun writing about the moments that bring the relationship between presidents and the press to life: Adams stomping on his wig out of frustration, Lincoln chatting amiably with Frederick Douglass, Wilson lecturing the White House press corps as if they were dimwitted schoolboys, Roosevelt and Edward R. Murrow discussing World War II over sandwiches and beer deep into the night, the inept Watergate burglars accidentally locking themselves inside a banquet room, George H.W. Bush carrying Rush Limbaugh’s luggage into the White House, and Trump studying printed copies of his first tweets to learn which words sparked the most controversy.
Before completing Clash, I faced one final challenge. I thought it was important to include the Trump presidency, and so I had negotiated an early 2021 deadline with my publisher, figuring I could wrap the book up quickly after the November 3 election. But then Trump refused to concede, leading to the bloody January 6 insurrection. I scrambled to include at least a rough draft of that history and the role some media played in America’s descent into political madness.
Clash ends with Joe Biden’s inauguration. Coincidentally, Biden is the other president I’ve met. When my family was visiting Boston in the fall of 2007, my wife, Laurie, spotted Biden coming out of a restaurant. Like my dad with Nixon nearly 40 years earlier, I shouted a greeting to Biden. He came over and chatted with us for about five minutes, asking our three young sons all about their lives. Who knows, maybe someday one of them will want to write about presidents too.
Melissa Greene-Blye is an assistant professor in the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas. She worked for 20 years as an anchor and reporter covering local news in television markets big and small. A former chair of AJHA's Graduate Student Committee, Greene-Blye currently serves as co-chair of the Membership Committee. She has presented research at the AJHA annual conference as well as the Joint Journalism and Communication History Conference.
When and how did you first become involved in AJHA?
I first became involved with AJHA while still a graduate student at Tennessee. I had taken a historical methods course from Dr. Amber Roessner, and she encouraged me to submit that paper to the 2016 AJHA annual conference. To my surprise and delight, it was accepted and I have been attending and involved in AJHA ever since.
A central theme of my work is the importance of connecting the past with the present. Coverage of Native issues, individuals, and identity continues to fall prey to a legacy of misrepresentation established by long ago editors and reporters; if we can understand the historical roots of that misleading representation, we stand a much better chance of improving coverage of Native issues, individuals, and identity in today’s journalism. As for studying negotiations of Native identity, there are two key points: First, is understanding that Native nations and individuals did not always have access to their own press, so we often have to look into the silences in the historical record and be open-minded in using non-traditional sources of information in order to fully understand how Native nations were seeking to be heard and understood by the press of their day. Second, is understanding the purpose of the work Native news outlets were doing in a particular period. This requires a broader research perspective that goes beyond a mere textual analysis of the journalistic content produced by those outlets and which also includes an understanding of tribal culture and politics.
Your professional career was largely in broadcast news. What intersections are there between your professional experience and your historical research agenda?
That is a great question and one I am still coming to understand myself. I often joke that I am like the circus rider who is standing atop two moving horses while simultaneously keeping those horses moving forward together at a steady pace. Two new endeavors are allowing me to use my professional broadcast experience and multimedia teaching experience to educate the next generation of Native journalists: First, I am on the executive team that is launching a Native Media Storytelling Workshop for Indigenous high school students this summer hosted by the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications. Second, I am helping produce a news segment for a newly launched streaming news and information program titled Good Morning Indian Country. My KUJH student news team will be contributing content to this program which also allows me to teach those students about best practices when covering Indian Country.
How does your historical research influence your teaching?
I find that my historical research and grounding informs any course I teach in the field of journalism and mass communication because I believe it is essential to connect the past with the present in order to have a well-rounded perspective on what it means to be a media practitioner, whether your field is journalism or strategic communication. In this moment when we as a nation are grappling with questions around social justice and the meaning of authentic equality, understanding the role media has played historically and continues to play in the present moment around creating popular memory and shaping public discourse has never been more crucial. My historical perspective offers an opportunity to teach students how to seek out and include marginalized and underrepresented voices in their work in a way that is authentic and fully formed.
What can you tell us about any current research projects?
I am currently working on a project with Dr. Teri Finneman using Indigenous Standpoint Theory as a platform to examine how Native news outlets have covered Interior Secretary Deb Haaland from her nomination into the current moment with an eye toward comparing that coverage with Haaland’s representation in non-Native news outlets. Also in progress, a book chapter covering the history of the Native press, and lastly, a project examining how three key Native women who did not have their own press platform were able to use the established press to further their advocacy of issues around Native health, education, and political autonomy.
What are some of your hobbies and interests outside of academia?
Wait, am I allowed to have those as a pre-tenure faculty member? Kidding. Seriously though, I spend as much time as I can attending tribal events in Miami, Oklahoma so that I can continue growing my knowledge about our Myaamia culture, history, and language, an interest I love sharing with my daughter. I am also a voracious reader and almost always have one scholarly, one non-fiction, and one fiction book in progress. Beyond that, my dogs require a lot of attention and petting, demands I indulge unbegrudgingly on a daily basis.
Mike Sweeney (third from the right) with current and former Ohio University graduate students at the 2018 AJHA conference, where Sweeney received the National Award for Excellence in Teaching.
by Erika Pribanic-Smith, AJHA Executive Director and Interim Intelligencer Editor
Over the past 38 years, an Ohio University graduate seminar has been responsible for bringing dozens of students to AJHA—many of whom have become faculty members and brought their own students to the conference.
Pat Washburn developed the historical research class and taught it for the entire time that he was at Ohio University (1984-2012). He said he modeled the course after a seminar he took with David Nord as a doctoral student at Indiana University.
Washburn incorporated lessons he learned from reading papers presented at conferences and listening carefully to the critiques of the papers.
“After doing that for three years, I basically knew what errors to avoid,” Washburn said. “As a result, throughout my entire academic career, I only had one paper rejected at a meeting.”
To help his graduate students learn how to do--and write--historical research successfully, Washburn required them to read three historical papers that had been given at conferences for every class meeting. He carefully chose papers that had flaws so the class could discuss them and learn what not to do.
Washburn also required his students to conduct their own historical research using primary and secondary sources. At the end of the course, students would get one of their peers’ papers by blind draw to critique. Ultimately, all but 10 percent of the course grade was based on the research paper and peer critique.
“The success of the class was shown by the fact that from 1985 to 2012, 91 papers from the class were given at academic meetings (mostly AEJMC and AJHA), and 24 became journal articles,” Washburn said. “I was proud of those numbers.”
A former student of Washburn’s, Mike Sweeney picked up the course in 2012 and continued the success Washburn had. Sweeney's driving philosophy was that historiography is easy and fun. Convincing students of this meant ensuring their success in the class, he said.
Sweeney reduced the weight of the research paper to 60 percent of the course grade so he would not “‘freak out’ students by having the final paper count overmuch.” Furthermore, it was important to Sweeney that students receive feedback early in the course, particularly on Chicago Style. Therefore, a five-page paper worth 100 points (10 percent of the final grade) was due about three weeks into the term. This gave students the opportunity to see how Sweeney marked papers.
The assignment involved looking for examples of the inverted pyramid in primary documents: news stories from 1865, 1875, 1885, and 1895 that students could view in hard copy at libraries or electronically using resources such as newspapers.com. Sweeney chose that time frame because the start of the inverted pyramid generally is said to be the wire story of the telegram Secretary of War Edwin Stanton sent to the commanding general in New York City regarding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. By giving students this assignment, rather than immediately cutting them loose to research anything in any period, Sweeney helped students learn the importance of selecting a research timeline and a rationale for that timeline.
Like Washburn, Sweeney felt it was important to give students an understanding of what historiography is. They would learn this from reading how to do it, reading professional examples of it (including Sweeney’s own work), and getting feedback on their own research from him and their classmates. He adopted Washburn’s assignment of critiquing a peer’s research paper selected by blind draw, and he added a short paper critiquing an anonymous research paper that Sweeney selected.
Ultimately, Sweeney aimed to ensure that students produced a publishable, high-quality academic research paper about a mass communication history topic. Sweeney specifically wanted students to produce a paper that they could present at AJHA or AEJMC, which he relayed to them at the outset of the course. His goal in getting students published was to show them how easy it is to keep on publishing because teaching is, as he told them, a “good gig.”
Sweeney said his students “blew out the field” in terms of published papers. In one year, he noted, seven grad students from the program at Ohio presented a paper or research in progress at the AJHA conference.
AJHA President Aimee Edmondson now is the lone historian in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism after the retirements of Washburn and Sweeney as well as fellow AJHA members Joe Bernt, Ellen Gerl, and Marilyn Greenwald. Edmondson will be teaching the historical methods course, which is open both to master’s and doctoral students.
She said she would maintain the focus on students producing publishable research papers. Her updates would include incorporating more of how historians use theory. Edmondson aims to “break down the silos” by showing how scholars use other disciplines to study history, including critical cultural studies, social history, environmental communication, law, political science, and African American studies.
Edmondson routinely teaches the undergrad history course. The primary difference is that the undergraduate class involves lecturing to students on history topics whereas the graduate class involves students learning history through the process of learning how to do history.
Furthermore, the undergraduate course is about six times larger than the graduate seminar. The smaller size of the seminar allows for individual coaching.
"There's a lot of working with students one-on-one to help them come up with a topic and then how to best approach it," Edmondson said.
When and how did you first become involved in AJHA?
I also remember being pleasantly surprised when I was handed a check to offset my travel expenses. I hope our organization can continue supporting the next generation of scholars. Every penny counts!
You've been heavily involved in the Symposium for the 19th Century, Press, the Civil War, and Free Expression. What draws you to that era of history?
How does your historical scholarship influence your teaching of modern topics like digital storytelling and social media?
What do you feel is the importance of media literacy to the study of media history?
That is a great question and one that I continue to ask. The recent challenge to the democratic process by way of mob violence at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, is the wake up call we all needed to make media literacy a more urgent matter. An understanding of media history can help empower citizens to know when politicians are abusing their elected positions for personal gain. It's trite, but apt, to say if we don't know our past we're doomed to repeat it. As an organization, I'd like to consider how AHJA members can serve the communities where they work and live. For example, I am speaking on a panel to the League of Women Voters of Duluth in January 2022 about media literacy. I'm also excited to be working on this with AJHA President Aimee Edmondson, who is making media literacy a priority of her presidency this year. We hope to come up with some actionable steps for our members to do in their communities on this topic.
What can you tell us about what you've been working on during your sabbatical?
I am revisiting a research area that I've put aside that looks at public health, journalism, and visual culture. By the time I return to the classroom in Fall 2022 I hope to have a book contract in hand. Wish me luck!
I've also taken advantage of this time to do some skill-building. I had the opportunity to take a documentary film workshop from an international award-winning documentarian in Duluth last fall. It was a terrific experience, and I look forward to bringing what I learned back to the classroom as well as in community-engaged research projects.
I do my best to embrace the outdoors. I love a brisk walk or a long bike ride and hope to start running again after recovering from an injury. Living where I do, I also take advantage of the snow and cold. I like to snowshoe and cross country ski a few times a season. I began knitting a few years ago and that continues to be a source of solace. Live music is also a passion of mine; the pandemic has made that a bit of a challenge, but I attend shows when it feels safe.
The August 1994 Intelligencer included preview columns and
the full program for the Roanoke conference. Click here to view the full PDF.
by Erika Pribanic-Smith, Executive Director and Interim Intelligencer Editor
Last month, AJHA President Aimee Edmondson shared her AJHA “origin story” and urged other members to share theirs. Comments in the AJHA Facebook group revealed that several members first attended at the 13th annual conference, best remembered for disco dancing at the conference hotel and a tour bus that broke down outside a dive bar.
The late Sam Riley led the planning for the conference, which took place Oct. 6-8, 1994, at the Airport Marriott in Roanoke, Virginia. His August 1994 Intelligencer column previewing the conference emphasized two main speakers and a field trip.
Keynote speakers were Donald Ritchie, associate Senate librarian, who spoke on the history of the Washington press corps, and Eric Newton, founding managing editor of the now-defunct Newseum, which was under construction in Arlington, Va., at the time of the conference.
The annual historic tour took visitors on a one-hour drive to Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson’s getaway home, and a return trip via the Blue Ridge Parkway. In his Intelligencer preview, Riley wrote, “By early October, nature should have cooperated by turning the mountain leaves all sorts of pretty colors.”
John Coward, who was on the planning committee for the Roanoke conference, recalled that most tour-goers never had heard of Jefferson’s Forest, Va., home.
“I remember that the buildings and grounds were modest compared to Monticello, but the tour was informative about Jefferson’s life as a farmer and agricultural innovator,” Coward said.
Though the planners had promised that those on the tour would be back to the hotel by 6 p.m., one of the buses took an unexpected detour.
“The bus limped into a roadside restaurant or bar, and we decamped to some tables outside to tip a glass or two,” Coward said.
Karen Russell and David Davies were newcomers to AJHA that year. Russell remembered piling into the bar with some locals that Friday afternoon, “and the staff wasn't very pleased, especially when we all picked up and left again.”
Davies said the group was at the restaurant/bar for an hour or two while waiting for a ride back to Roanoke.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is my kind of conference,’” Davies said. “The conversations at the bar allowed for even more back-and-forth than usual at an AJHA conference.”
Coward remembered talking at length with Shirley Biagi, Elizabeth Burt, and several other members during the long wait. “We arrived back at the hotel late, but nobody seemed to mind,” Coward said.
The Thursday evening reception also offered an opportunity for attendees to chat. Riley noted in the Intelligencer that the Roanoke Times & World News, then touted as Virginia’s largest paper west of Richmond, was hosting the reception.
“The newspaper building had a rooftop plaza/garden that offered a view of downtown and the weather was pleasant, so that was an unexpected treat,” Coward said.
Jim McPherson, who also was attending his first AJHA conference that year, remembered spending a lot of time talking to the late Wally Eberhard at that reception. McPherson also recalled that he and another grad student stayed in a cheap motel a ways away from the conference hotel and rented a car.
“It turned out that the conference hotel wasn't close to anything, so I got to drive around some of the long-time members,” he said.
Another first-timer at Roanoke, Janice Hume explained that AJHA wouldn't book a hotel that cost more than $70 a night in those days, “which meant strange places and sometimes sketchy hotels.”
Coward said the hotel was isolated along a major highway, so there were no restaurants, shopping, or attractions to walk to. “That meant that we were all pretty much captives at the hotel, which worked out okay since it was a fairly new property and the food was good,” he said.
One evening, the hotel bar was the site for a spontaneous disco dance. Hume and Russell reminisced about dancing with Davies, Fred Blevens, and Caryl Cooper.
“It was hilarious,” Hume said. “And in case the young people don't know, it was WELL past the disco era.”
Bars and dancing aside, the Roanoke conference featured plenty of serious business. In her president’s column leading up to the conference, Carol Sue Humphrey noted that the membership would be voting on several proposed amendments to the AJHA Constitution and Bylaws. One set called for the creation of the Awards and Convention Sites committees, both of which had been operating as ad-hoc committees for a while.
Another set of amendments created AJHA’s vice-president positions: one to oversee the committees and a second to put together the annual conference program. “Having spent the last 10 months trying to juggle all the current responsibilities of AJHA president, I find this proposal an inviting one that I believe is truly needed,” Humphrey wrote.
In her column, Humphrey praised the efforts of Riley, Coward, the late David Spencer, and Alf Pratte to plan the Roanoke conference. “All of their hard work is clearly paying off in a meeting that promises to be full of good scholarship,” she wrote.
Among the ten panels discussions on the program was one that Riley organized on the Research Society for American Periodicals, featuring that organization’s president and the editor of its academic journal. The program also included 42 research papers and 24 research-in-progress presentations.
Russell presented her paper about public relations, the community, and newspaper coverage of a 1946 steel strike on a paper session about news as propaganda, alongside Burt and Kitty Endres. Davies’s paper was on Presidents Madison and Monroe in the party press, Hume’s was on the women of Godey’s Lady’s Book, and McPherson’s was on newspapers’ use of editorials to define their First Amendment functions.
Karla Gower presented her first AJHA paper in Roanoke as well: “Women in the News: A Look at the Presentation of American Women in News Magazines from 1945-1963.” Gower said her MA advisor was busy with board business, so Spencer took her under his wing and introduced her to people.
Among the people she met was Jim Startt, whom she sat next to at a lunch. Gower experienced what many students attending their first AJHA have felt: the wonder of talking with the very scholars whose work they have read in class.
“I kept thinking, ‘How do I know his name?’ Once I realized (David) Sloan and Startt were the authors of our text, I was awestruck,” Gower said.
All of the first-timers said that they felt right at home among the people in AJHA, and that was why they kept coming back year after year.
Were you at the Roanoke convention? Comment your memories below.
Rich Shumate is an assistant professor in the journalism sequence at Western Kentucky University’s School of Media. Winner of the 2019 Margaret Blanchard Dissertation Prize and 2021 Rising Scholar Award, Shumate is AJHA's web editor and co-coordinator of the Joint Journalism and Communication History Conference as well as a member of the Board of Directors and Blanchard Prize Committee.
When and how did you become involved in AJHA?
I first heard about AJHA from Sonny Rhodes, when I was his research assistant in my master’s program at Arkansas-Little Rock. After I moved to Florida to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Florida, I attended my first convention in St. Petersburg, where I had a bit of an epiphany that “these are my people.” I actually drove home from that convention through the tail end of a hurricane.
You've recently received the Rising Scholar Award for your research on "Style, Spin, and Strategy: The Kennedy Press Conferences." What led you to that topic?
I ran across a website that had been put together by a Kennedy buff that had audio and transcripts of all of the news conferences, so I investigated because I knew the research material would be accessible. The Kennedy news conferences are discussed in every biography of Kennedy and every book about the administration as a seminal development in political communication that changed the way presidents communicate. Yet, once I looked into this, I discovered that no one had published an in-depth scholarly study of them. So I thought this was a great opportunity to extend scholarly knowledge. Another interesting facet of this is that even though these news conferences were considered to be a ground-breaking innovation, no president since Kennedy has done this, which is also something I would like to explore.
How does this research tie into your overall research agenda, including your recent book (stemming from your AJHA award-winning dissertation)?
My research focuses on the news media’s coverage of American politics and how that coverage impacts audiences and political discourse. My book, Barry Goldwater, Distrust in Media, and Conservative Identity: The Perception of Liberal Bias in the News, explores why conservatives came to believe that the news media have a liberal bias, focusing on the early 1960s when conservatives coalesced as a social movement during the Barry Goldwater campaign. I posit a social identity explanation for the phenomenon – that conservatives embrace the belief that the news media have a liberal bias to reinforce their social identity as conservatives. The book was based on my doctoral dissertation that won the Blanchard award in 2019. Given all the research I’ve done about political coverage in the early 1960s, I thought the Kennedy book would be a great fit.
How does your news and editorial background--including your Chicken Fried Politics site--inform your historical research?
One of the reasons that I got interested in liberal bias as a topic is that I know, as a journalist, that the news media do not set out to produce biased content, which raises the question of why conservatives feel that way, which is what I set out to explain in my book. My years covering politics certainly give me a great background to analyze political coverage. My website ChickenFriedPolitics.com covers Southern politics, and Southern conservatives played a significant role in the development of conservatism nationally. So it all goes together.
How does your historical research inform your teaching?
In addition to direct application in teaching media history courses, it also informs media studies/media literacy classes that I teach. The perception of bias and the conservative “fake news” paradigm are topics I cover in those classes, and my research allows me to put a unique perspective on my teaching.
What are some of your hobbies or interests outside of academia?
I am an obsessive college football fan, particularly my beloved Arkansas Razorbacks. When football season is over, I take long drives in the country to fill the void. I also enjoy opera. (That’s kind of a weird combination, right?)
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