The Problem With Evocative Reporting: Why We Need Historical Journalism More Than Ever

by Ashleigh Bugg

Illustration by Herman Jönsson

It’s a common phrase in journalism: “If it bleeds, it leads.” News stories based on evocative reporting are not only rampant, they’re award-winning. Sensational documentaries detailing the lives of drug lords or emaciated images of children—these stories win Pulitzers and push copy. However, journalists must be aware of the temptation of telling surface-level narratives.  

Evocative reporting can be frustrating for historians who seek to provide nuanced views of the past to the public. It can also be a challenge for media professionals who must supply audiences with short soundbites in a limited amount of time. Despite these issues, the fields of journalism and history can—and should—inform and complement each other.

Historical journalism lends itself best to complex topics like the global refugee crisis, which encompasses the hopes and fears of over 79 million forcibly displaced individuals. If we want to understand the trials and aspirations of refugees, we must investigate their histories.

Issues With Contemporary Reporting

Media discourse surrounding international conflict is often predisposed to information given by aid organizations, writes Ibrahim Seaga Shaw, Chairman of the Right to Access Information Commission in Sierra Leone. Evocative storytelling can be effective for relief organizations that rely heavily on charitable donations, but only focusing on conflict-based reporting can have adverse effects. 

Evocative reporting can reinforce harmful stereotypes that trivialize the experiences of refugees and strip them of their agency. Refugees and other displaced persons are often depicted as helpless victims or dangerous criminals, depending on an outlet’s political leanings. These portrayals “contribute not only to misinforming the public but to distracting their attention from the real political issues, knowledge of which may be used to prevent or tackle the crises,” Shaw argues.

Photo by Alisdare Hickson

Media coverage of the most neglected displacement disasters has waned as novel issues take the global spotlight. However, as IRIN has pointed out, “refugee crises last long after international interest declines.” News outlets move on to other issues rather than uncovering the deeper context behind events. This type of reporting may lead to quick clicks or page views but does little to isolate the various factors catalyzing violence in order to identify, stop, and avert future conflict.

The Role of Historical Journalism

The catastrophe in Syria has been labeled one of the greatest humanitarian emergencies faced by our generation. Analysts offered multiple explanations for what caused the Syrian Civil War: Assad was a tyrant; the Arab Spring launched a wave of grassroots protests; religious extremism weakened the bonds of community until the country turned to open warfare. But before that, a massive drought in the Fertile Crescent led to the collapse of Syrian agriculture, laying a foundation of economic and social turmoil in the region. The drought, scientists estimate, was brought about by climate change, and the catastrophe has been called a “climate war.” With over 6.2 million people displaced internally, Syria’s problem seems insurmountable; but understanding its true roots can help us find potential solutions, such as tackling untenable agricultural and environmental policies.

While the Syrian crisis has received significant international coverage, the global refugee issue is more complex and also consists of underreported disasters that rarely make the media spotlight. Historical journalism offers explanations for these underrepresented issues by examining their origins.

Consider the situation in Yemen, which UNICEF has called “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world,” and is now further inflamed by the COVID-19 pandemic. What has received far less media attention is the plight of refugees from Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea who have settled there. Ethiopians and Eritreans have historically traveled through and sought refuge in Yemen, but they have faced detention, extortion, and abuse when arriving in recent years. Refugees from the Horn of Africa receive little funding from aid organizations, and many are forced to flee for a second time as the situation in Yemen worsens. 

But why are people from Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia fleeing in the first place? Why has Yemen been in desolation for the last five years? The Horn of Africa has been wracked by ethnic and civil conflict for centuries—most recently manifested in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, where thousands have been killed and tens of thousands forced to shelter in neighboring Sudan. In Yemen, British, Ottoman, Egyptian, and Saudi forces have clashed over control of the region for the past 200 years. Deeper issues of national and ethnic identity, devastating famine, and imperialism come into play. When we examine these questions through a historical lens, we gain necessary context while shining a light on stories we wouldn’t have otherwise known. 

Historical journalism also digs deeper than exploring specific conflicts; even the history of the language used to discuss them matters as well. We can pay attention to the political motives and semantic choices surrounding the terms “Holocaust” or “ethnic cleansing,” for example. The international community is notoriously slow to call crises “genocides,” fearing that labeling conflicts as such would necessitate swift action. 

A similar phenomenon may be occurring today in Ethiopia. The U.N. special adviser on genocide prevention warns that the situation in Tigray is worsening, while a spokesperson for the Ethiopian government calls claims of genocide a “delusion” used to divert international attention by a “criminal clique.” Meanwhile, thousands have died, communication has been blocked, and aid workers and journalists are unable to enter the country. Understanding how genocides have been labeled in the past—and why—better informs how we deal with them in the present. 

Moving Forward While Looking To the Past

Historical journalism is useful for covering conflict because it facilitates understanding—diving deeper than evocative reporting to connect the dots and complicate the stories we thought we knew. Although evocative reporting has its place, media professionals must avoid overly dramatic representations that can simplify or even exacerbate the problem. People should not be presented in ways that cost them dignity, and context must be considered. 

Photo by UNHCR/Sara Hoibak

Historical journalism can help bring underreported crises to light, as well as investigate why they began in the first place. For the historical journalist, it’s not enough to merely report that a bomb took out a government building. We want to know who made the bomb, who’s buying and selling it, who bombed that building 20 years ago, who was operating in that country 100 years ago…the list goes on. 

To tell more nuanced stories, historical perspective is paramount. We must learn from the past to build better futures.

Ashleigh Bugg is a writer, editor, and linguist currently living in Texas. She is particularly interested in migration issues, the revitalization of endangered languages, and making travel equitable for all. You can find her work and say hello at Travel Bugg.

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