How Do Historians and Journalists Write History? A Response to the NYT on Haiti

Emily Joan Elliott's picture

Guest post from Feeding the Elephant: A Forum for Scholarly Communications.

Guest post by Courtney Pierre Joseph, assistant professor of history and African American studies at Lake Forest College; Matthew Miller, senior reporter at MLive; and Ryan Huey.

On May 20, 2022, Catherine Porter, Constant Méheut, Matt Apuzzo and Selam Gebrekidan of The New York Times published “The Ransom: A Look Under the Hood.” The article examined how Haiti became the only country in the world “where the descendants of enslaved people paid reparations to the descendants of their masters.” The authors also detailed Haiti’s history of paying those reparations from French colonization through the present day.

A debate emerged on Twitter among scholars after “The Ransom” was published. Some argued that The Times’ claim that it was the first to present the information to the public was too grandiose. Other scholars claimed that they had spoken to journalists from The Times, but neither they nor their work were referenced in the article, which does refer to some scholars by name. Other academics celebrated “The Ransom” for bringing the story of French and American exploitation of Haiti to millions of readers, many of whom are unfamiliar with Haiti’s history.

In this week’s post, we asked the participants to address the following question:

What does the debate that ensued among scholars after The New York Times published “The Ransom” tell us about how scholars and journalists share stories and information, including engagement with each other’s work and citational practices?"

A response from Courtney P. Joseph, K. & H. Montgomery Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies.

My dad says: “We will ALWAYS pay for 1804.” A Haitian immigrant to the United States, my dad regularly shares the incredible history of his homeland’s incredible feat in 1804, when Haitian people declared themselves free from the violent tyranny of French colonization and slavery. After a thirteen-year battle, Haiti declared itself the first free Black republic in the Western hemisphere. In that epic moment, the Haitians made enemies across the world. European powers and the newly founded United States saw Haiti as a dangerous abomination, and they coordinated to make Haiti pay for its crimes against White supremacy.  

“The Ransom” explores this payment, something many Haitian people and historians have known about for decades. In the piece, the authors examine how the French and US forced Haiti to pay billions of dollars in reparations, which led to Haiti becoming known as the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, instead of the place where the first successful slave revolt took place. Because I am a Haitian American and a historian of Haiti and its diaspora, many of my colleagues immediately forwarded me the article.

One noted that this project may have the same impact as the 1619 Project has had on public understanding of Black American history, which begs the question: why does it take journalists’ sharing information for it to have public impact, when historians have been discussing this topic for much longer?  

Haitian scholars responded to “The Ransom” with mixed feelings; most concerning was The Times reporters’ claim that this research had not been done before. Again, Haitian people and historians have known about this ransom and published on its impact on the island. While The Times acknowledged the backlash and released the reporters’ extensive bibliography, including the names of the historians they hired to work on the project, this publication shone a light on the gap in the ways scholars and journalists share information.  Better and more regular communication and collaboration between scholars and journalists is critical in order to give the public more access to the realities of history, especially as history education is being legislated. History is power, so mobilizing to tell the truth of it should be our ultimate goal. 

A response from senior reporter at MLive Matt Miller and Ryan Huey, who have worked together on historicizing events in journalistic writing.

The squall about whether The Times gave adequate credit to historians in its piece on Haiti’s historical debt stems at least in part from different assumptions about audience and citation. 

Some of the historians who complained about The Times’ framing of the story, including the paper’s apparently unique effort to calculate Haiti’s total debt payments over time, seemed to be looking for an acknowledgement that The Times’ reporters were in conversation with an existing body of research – an acknowledgement a historian would have given.

The Times’ reporters were treating it like a scoop, not denying there had been previous work but emphasizing their own additions. In publishing a separate piece on the sources they used in the investigation, they actually gave more acknowledgement of their intellectual debts than is typical for journalists. That’s not to say they couldn’t have done more. 

Criticisms aside, the coverage of Haiti’s debt is actually a fine example of the important work that’s possible when journalists and historians collaborate, though there’s clearly room for discussion about who gets acknowledged and how.

We are a historian and a journalist who have worked together to write popular history in a newspaper and confronted our very different assumptions over the course of dozens of rewrites. 

Here’s what we’ve learned. Journalists and historians are storytellers with different, but complementary skills.

Historians can navigate archives that many journalists simply don’t know about and have a sharper sense of how historical narratives are being rethought, often due to the interventions by previously excluded voices in the scholarship. Journalists are usually more practiced at framing and telling stories for a general audience and often have a better sense of the blow-by-blow of current events and public conversations.

At their best, collaborations between the two can add uncommon depth to news coverage while spreading the painstaking work of professional historians beyond small circles of fellow experts.

Both feel worthwhile in a moment when neither profession is held in its former esteem. Those of us tasked with parsing the hazy boundaries between fact and ideology need to share and collaborate more than ever.

But transparency is also key.

Historians cite sources not only to note how they know what they know, but also to establish their expertise for other experts and to mark their place in intellectual lineages and scholarly conversations.

Journalists’ citation practices engage with discrete facts more than broad narratives. In some instances, they’ll credit others who have reported significant elements of a story first. But the discourse prioritizes immediacy, and it’s unusual for journalists to frame their work as part of a longer debate. They should do so more often and more completely. Citing sources more thoroughly may never dissuade the media’s many doubters, but it’s an act of faith in readers and in the notion of a good-faith effort to present human events with fairness and nuance.

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