Oral history in journalism - is it on the increase?

Gerry Lanosga Discussion

Dear JHistory Colleagues - The following post comes from Dr. Alexander Freund, professor of history and co-director of the Oral History Centre at the University of Winnipeg. Feel free to reply to the list or contact Dr. Freund directly (contact information below).


There has been a long relationship between journalism and oral history, best exemplified in Studs Terkel's work. In the past, journalists interviewed eyewitnesses and often presented excerpts of interviews to explore a specific historical or social topic, such as the Great Depression, war, work, poverty, immigration. Over the past decade or so, however, journalists have used the term "oral history" much more often and to describe a wide range of presentations of their research. In particular, though, a new journalistic genre of oral history seems to have emerged that covers a specific event through the apparently unedited voices of several eye witnesses. Reporting about popular culture seems to be particularly taken by this new genre.

Here are some examples of this kind of oral history:
"The first-ever oral history of Christmas in the Stars: Star Wars Christmas Album": http://music.cbc.ca/#!/blogs/2014/12/The-first-ever-oral-history-of-Christmas-in-the-Stars-Star-Wars-Christmas-Album
The Definitive Oral History Of The Wikipedia Photo For “Grinding”: http://www.buzzfeed.com/katienotopoulos/the-definitive-oral-history-of-the-wikipedia-photo-for-grind
With Friends Like These http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2012/05/friends-oral-history-top-of-the-rock

Whether academic oral historians would consider these presentations of interviews excerpts as oral history or not is not my concern. Rather, it seems to me that the term "oral history" has become a popular term among journalists to describe their work. Can you help me understand the emergence of this new infatuation with "oral history" (the term more so than the genre) among journalists?

Is this surge in "oral histories" of popular culture phenomena (but also other phenomena and events) related to the popularity of fictional oral histories (_Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey_ (2007), a novel by Chuck Palahniuk; _World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War_ (2006), a novel by Max Brooks)?

Has oral history become a popular, even "selling" label as a result of large-scale projects such as Spielberg's Shoah Foundation or StoryCorps (and the dissemination of StoryCorps stories via NPR)?

At what point did journalists and media outlets began to see "oral history" as a label that was a) widely understood by their audiences and b) attractive to readers?

Perhaps, though, I am mistaken and I am only perceiving a surge in journalistic uses of "oral history" because Internet searches have made it easier to come across journalistic forms of oral history nowadays than even ten years ago.

I have been viewing this rising popularity of journalistic oral history from the sidelines, as an oral historian. It would be great to get some insights from colleagues who study the history and culture of journalism.

Dr. Alexander Freund
Chair in German-Canadian Studies
Professor of History
Co-director, Oral History Centre
The University of Winnipeg
515 Portage Avenue
Winnipeg, MB
Canada R3B 2E9
Tel: (204) 786-9009
Email: alexanderfreund9@gmail.com