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Roundtable – Historians in/and the Media



The final CHA round-table considers how historians go public with their research and expertise in the media. Answering media questions or writing op-eds is not always easy in these politically charged times, what have we learned in doing so? To what extent is media work part of our changing practice as historians? What advice can we offer other public-facing historians?

Mathieu Arsenault, Blake Brown, Frank Clarke, Rebecca Lazarenko, Valérie Lapointe-Gagnon.
Chair: Marcel Martel

The recording of the roundtable is available on the CHA YouTube channel.

On March 2, 2023, the Canadian Historical Association held its final roundtable in its 2022-2023 series of online workshops and roundtables, Historians and the Media. Chaired by Marcel Martel (York University), this bilingual session brought together a diverse contingent of panelists: Mathieu Arsenault (Université de Montréal), Blake Brown (Saint Mary’s), Frank Clarke (York University), Rebecca Lazarenko (York University) and Valérie Lapointe-Gagnon (University of Alberta). In an era where misinformation is front and centre, the panelists’ reflections made it easier to navigate a world that is as important as it is challenging.

The panelists began by recounting their experiences with the media to offer advice on how to approach the role of historians in this context. It is crucial, they argued, to remain comfortable with the subject of an interview and to avoid speculation. Contrary to preconceived notions outside historical circles, specialization does not guarantee universal knowledge of the entire period in question. Likewise, an interview cannot be conducted without preparation, hence the importance of properly assessing the time required for the interview. Developing a relationship of trust with certain journalists also makes the process more enjoyable, ensures that what is said is not distorted, and facilitates participation in the media world. You also need to know your audience well: challenges differ between radio, television, and newspaper interviews. Some are conducive for getting deep into ideas, while others require key messages to be conveyed to a large audience. It is essential to keep your message simple, even if it means repeating your key messages a few times.

Being a historian is a demanding job, and media participation is not always valued by one’s employer or home institution. Therefore, regardless of the reasons, it is acceptable to decline an interview request, especially in a context where they are repeated several times a week. For example, if the subject matter is not within our expertise, or if we do not have enough time, it is legitimate not to follow up. Whether we are students, teachers, or professionals, we have a hierarchy of priorities that must be taken into account. In the words of one panelist, the media-time and history-time do not sit well together: it is not in the nature of our discipline to provide instant analyses for the issues of the day. While it is perfectly acceptable and understandable to decline an interview, journalists often appreciate being referred to another resource that fits their topic of interest. Sometimes it is the fear of being misrepresented that justifies a refusal. Participation in the media is thus a challenging process for historians, from which it is quite reasonable to act according to our constraints and preferences. It is still sometimes difficult to say no: how can we do that? A simple answer explaining briefly and politely our reasons will suffice – it will not be the first time that the journalist has been told no. If you have developed a cordial relationship with the journalists, or you have complex reasons for refusal, it is also possible to go into more detail, or even to call them to explain yourself in person.

Our panelists have often gained their experience in the media through good experiences: participating in the public debate is an excellent way to share our expertise with a wider audience and to contextualize or highlight issues that are important to us. It is also a great way to develop your communication skills. Participation in a public debate can even lead to new research questions, because of the links that are created between our expertise and current events. However, frustrations and even unpleasant experiences are to be expected. In some cases, a planned interview that required extensive preparation will not be conducted because it has been overshadowed by another more pressing news story. Another feature of the media is the lack of control we have once the interview is conducted – sometimes this leads to an outcome we are not entirely satisfied with. Sadly, we must also expect to receive less than complimentary, even hostile, emails from individuals who disagree with our positions. All the panelists stressed the importance of building a shell in the face of such criticism. Some delete them, others immediately move them to a separate file when they are received. It is essential not to let these remarks get to you and to remember that we do not participate in the media to be liked by everyone.

A challenging, but sometimes unpleasant, relationship with the media is common. By all accounts, however, when we respect our boundaries and comfort zones, it can be a productive, beneficial relationship. The presence of historians in the media is not slowing down, and this roundtable illustrated healthy and concrete ways to approach this dimension of the discipline.

Transcript – 2 March