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ORAL HISTORY: what are differences and similarities with journalism?

Updated on December 17, 2012

There can be a lot of different definitions of oral history and it is very imprecise term. L. Abrams in his book “Oral History Theory” explains that oral historian asks people questions to discover four things: what happened, how they felt about it, how they recall it, and what wider public memory they draw upon. He emphasizes that memory and the process of remembering are central to oral history. Donald A. Ritchie (“Doing Oral History”) also has a similar attitude to it because he considers memory as a core of oral history, from which meaning can be extracted and preserved. “Oral history collects memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews”, writes Donald A. Ritchie.

What is oral history?

Oral history is the collection and study of historical information about individuals, families, important events, or everyday life using audiotapes, videotapes, or transcriptions of plannedinterviews. These interviews are conducted with people who participated in or observed past events and whose memories and perceptions of these are to be preserved as an aural record for future generations (Article on oral history from the Columbia Encyclopedia)

Looking from the point of usage, we can separate four main parts of oral history: formal, which rehearse accounts of the past presented by culturally sanctioned tradition-bearers; informal, used for conversations about “the old days” among family members, neighbors, or coworkers; used for printed compilations of stories told about past times and present experiences and the last part is when oral history is used for recorded interviews with individuals deemed to have an important story to tell.

It was a Professor of psychology David Boder of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago who was travelling to Europe to record long interviews with “displaced person”. He was using the first device capable to capture hours of audio – a wire recorder. So, his interviews were probably the first recorded oral histories.

Allan Nevins of Columbia University first recognized the great value of oral history. When he was a young journalist in New York City, he had been learned that for many famous people the only available summary of their contributions to society was in their obituaries. This fact, for Nevins, seemed a big loss to the historical sources. Whereas the tape recorder was already invented, Nevins saw an opportunity to fill this loss and in 1948 he founded the first Oral History Research Office at Columbia University in New York. He wanted to encourage his colleagues in academic life and journalism to join him in this new field. (Hoyle, Norman, 1972)

Oral history shows facts that are not visible

Talking about the main differences between oral history and journalism, it is necessary to say that in oral history meaning is very important thing. When journalism or other written sources talk about the events or apparent facts, oral history talks about the meaning of the event and show facts which are not visible or sometimes even deleted from written sources. That’s why oral sources are necessary for a history of non-hegemonic classes. There is a frequent thing when ruling classes have a control over journalism and poor people are left behind. Often editors of some kind of newspaper or magazine say to journalists what should be written in their article, according to political or other reasons. Making the interview of oral history, you cannot say your informant what he should tell.

Oral sources are subjective but stable and credible

One more difference is that oral history gives us a unique insight in the subjectivity of the speaker, while the most seeking aim for journalists is objectivity. This is one of the main thing, why some historians are skeptical about oral history. Donald A. Ritchie said that “subjective“ suggests a partial and a partisan point of view, less reliable for its subject to alteration over time. This is true because oral history does not tell what people did, but what they wanted to do, what they believed they were doing or what they now think they did. However, R. van Voren in his lecture said that subjectivity, which is extremely avoided by journalists, is even more important as pure facts: what people believed happened is as much as fact of what really happened. I agree with the facts that people can forget some things or events but I think that people always remember the emotion and how they were feeling at that time. So, oral sources are subjective, but credible enough.

Also, important aspect, talking about differences between oral and written history, is stability. When you are making an interview about events in the past, you can get information based on the current set of values of the narrator. This information may be different than those at that time of the event. For example political opinions or family circumstances have changed. Written sources are always stable. Moreover, oral history is never the same twice because informants can remember new things or new viewpoints can come out. In the written history dominate accuracy and completeness.

Oral history - is a shared project

The last very important thing in oral history is partnership because documents of oral sources are always the result of a relationship between the narrator ant the interviewer. So, it must be a shared project when oral historian encourages a person to open up, lets him talk a lot without interrupting and listens him carefully. I have some practice in oral history and I know what does it mean to spend hours listening to the old woman about her battles against Soviet regimes and censors, how she hid books from the police and so on. She was a woman, who tried to save literature of our country. She talks to me very openly, directly and emotionally, so I didn’t get bored, conversely, my interview became an impassioned conversation across the generations. I tried to listen carefully and, eventually, I got a lot of interesting, new and needful information. Also, as R. van Voren said in his lecture, the researcher should ‘accept’ the narrator and gives priority to what he/she wants to tell, not what the researcher wants to hear because narrator often ‘adapts’ the story to the researcher, or to what he/she thinks the researcher is and what he/she wants to hear. There must be two-way communication, what is not necessary in journalism.

Similarities between oral history and journalism

One more aspect is that while journalism is often sensationalism or manufactured controversy, the real purpose of oral history should be to illuminate what is real, what is real existential truth. I think that oral historian should have an interest about how most of the people live (not only about famous persons) to see what’s really going among human beings and to look at every situation deeper by using analytical mind.

Talking about similarities between oral history and journalism, I think that reliability is the most intense similarity. Donald A. Ritchie wrote that oral history is as reliable or unreliable as other research sources. No single piece of data of any sort should be trusted completely, and all sources need to be tested against other evidence. So, we cannot state that journalism or other written sources are more reliable than oral sources.

Oral history and journalism has certain value

Finally, I would like to say that oral history interviews and journalism interviews might be similar in the material they record but journalism is perhaps less comprehensive than a deep oral history. It can be because of newspapers or magazines editors, who think in terms of column inches rather than about story preservation and if journalists, who do the interviewing know this, they don't think of the big work. Conclusively, though most people throughout history have learned about the past through the spoken word, I think that both oral history and journalism has a certain value.


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    • profile image

      Aldo Piwang 2 years ago

      I have learnt a lot. Please keep it up, cheers!!!!!!


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