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I am a mature student, just beginning the second year of my
PhD in Early Modern History, so I am currently preparing my first research
chapter for my upgrade from MPhil to PhD. My research focuses on accuracy and
the value of accuracy in seventeenth-century English news sources, with
particular reference to the period between 1649 and 1685. It was always work
that was going to have some resonance in the 21st century; “fake
news” is very definitely not a modern invention.
One of my main topics looks at the 1665 Great Plague and the
Fire of 1666. I am interested in whether both producers and consumers of news
approached accuracy any differently when dealing with natural disaster as
opposed to news about political, civil and military strife, of which there was
a good deal in the seventeenth century. When I decided, with my supervisor (Dr
Brodie Waddell), to make this my first research chapter, neither of us had any
idea that I would be working on it during a 21st century pandemic
and a national lockdown….. and that archive access might be a bit trickier
than normal. So many thanks are due to Brodie for advice on how to deal with
that and to all the archives and their staff that have re-opened in the past
At the start of lockdown in March 2020 I decided to keep a “Covid
journal” prompted by a number of academics I follow on twitter. I used to be a
journalist and I am trying to be a social and cultural historian, so I figured
that keeping a diary might give me some insight into those diary keepers,
commonplace book authors and letter writers whose news consumption habits I was
trying to understand.
Historians should be rightly cautious about making
comparisons between the past and the present, so I am very careful about
drawing direct comparisons.
However, despite the considerable advance in medical science
and news technology in the last three hundred and fifty years, the search for
reliable information and the debates about how to act on that information have
a familiar ring.
People in seventeenth century London tracked the weekly
Bills of Mortality, as we have all followed the graphs at the daily government
news conferences. The efficacy of shutting people up in their houses once a
case of plague was discovered was debated from the street to the medical
journals. News came at the seventeenth century citizen from a huge range of sources,
orally from neighbours, business partners, customers, from Authority – the
King, Parliament and the City Authorities, from newspapers, which as well as
editorial content, ran huge numbers of adverts for all sorts of plague cures
Those citizens of seventeenth century London, who remained
in the city, had to juggle a lot of conflicting information, with the need to
maintain daily life and work, and if I have learnt one thing in the last six
months it is to have considerable respect for how they managed to do that.
Legendary American journalist Bob Woodward
has a new book out, another deep dive into the inner workings of the White
House, including extensive interviews with President Donald J. Trump in which
he admits, on
tape, to having deliberately downplayed
the severity of the COVID-19 virus in early 2020. These interviews were
conducted between December 2019 and July 2020, but the revelation that Trump was
aware how deadly the virus is and deliberately sought to conceal this
information from the American public wasn’t published until recently, when CNN
obtained a copy of the book ahead of its 15 September release.
The revelations immediately led to
recriminations against Trump from all sides – politicians, journalists, members
of the public on social media – and, more surprisingly perhaps, against
Woodward. Fox News, for example, questioned
his decision to hold onto this information for so long if it was so important. So
why did Woodward choose to withhold those interviews until now? And was the
decision to do so inherently unethical? Some suggested that Woodward was
motivated solely by profit and the desire to sell more books on the strength of
the revelations, and others even alleged
that he has “blood on his hands”. In response, Woodward argued
that he could not verify the information at the time and wanted to investigate
further, and that Trump’s attitude to the virus was already public knowledge
and was not, therefore, immediately newsworthy on its own. Erik Wemple, the
Washington Post’s media critic, argued
that Woodward was following standard practice for writing a book and that his
sources would have had an “implicit understanding” that they would be
interviewed multiple times until he could “stitch together something
authoritative, in book form”. If he were to have published “daily dispatches”,
then it is unlikely that he would have kept getting those rare on-the-record
interviews with Trump. In Wemple’s eyes, the decision was not whether to
publish in March or September, it was whether to publish in September or not at
When analyzing decisions regarding news
selection, we often talk about news values, a theory developed by two Norwegian
researchers in the 1960s, which describes a set of criteria that form a
definition of newsworthiness. The more of these criteria are satisfied by an
event, the more likely it is to be reported on by the press. The results of
that Norwegian study have been reviewed and updated over the intervening years,
particularly in the context of the rise of digital media but rarely challenged
outright. And despite satisfying several key news values – surprise,
negativity, conflict, etc – the revelations in Woodward’s book went unreported
for seven months.
My research asks whether – especially given
that our current conception of news values did not predict and does not fully explain
the actions of a veteran news reporter – we can continue to use a
one-size-fits-all taxonomy, rethinking the concept of news values as one that
can be generalized across different formats in multiple markets, using American
broadcast news as an initial case study.
Galtung, J & Ruge, M.H., 1965. The
Structure of Foreign News: The Presentation of the Congo, Cuba and Cyprus
Crises in Four Norwegian Newspapers. Journal of Peace Research. Vol. 2,
No. 1. Pp. 64-91.
I’m now in my second year of the BBSRC LIDo PhD programme. The first year was composed of two 4-month rotation projects, the first of which was based at both Birkbeck and UCL and is now my full-time PhD project. Like many others, March 17th was my final pre-lockdown day working in the lab and I was one month in on my second rotation project based at Barts Cancer Institute. The rest of the summer was a blur with days spent teaching myself to use command-line interfaces to run bioinformatic tools in an attempt to produce any data whatsoever for my project that had then become wholly computational. I managed to complete a coding course covering MATLAB, R and Python which was a mandatory part of my first year and a useful skill to learn as a biologist. All that remained was to return back to my old lab and officially start my PhD.
My first day back in the lab was July 27th – 4 and a half months post-lockdown. I had fastidiously read all the ‘returning to work’ documentation and was prepared for Birkbeck to look quite different to how I remembered it. Sure enough, the corridors were filled with COVID-19 safety measures and a 2-metre rule had been implemented. Luckily, I was already trained in the microbiology techniques I would need for the first month of my PhD thanks to my rotation project last year. My PhD researches the pathogenesis of the Kaposi Sarcoma-associated Herpes Virus with a particular focus on a viral oncogene it produces called vFLIP. I am interested in cancer biology having done a master’s degree in it, and my interdisciplinary PhD combines structural biology and virology. Overall, the majority of my PhD is wet lab based.
Being supervised while adhering to social distancing rules vaguely resembles a Quickstep dance. The 2-metre rule was recently relaxed to 1-metre with masks on at all times, which made it significantly easier for my supervisor to teach me how to use structural biology equipment. Later this month I will be demonstrating these techniques to undergraduate summer camp students and supervising an undergraduate placement student – both firsts in my career. Apart from eating our lunches at desks spaced 2-metres apart, the daily work routine is becoming relatively normal. I do look forward to the day we can attend seminars and lectures in-person rather than online. However, I will say that the switch to online talks gave me the courage to try a new profession – teaching! Overall, I’m thankful that my transition from working at home to experimenting in the lab has been smooth. I hope my story encourages others who may have some anxiety about returning to work to not be afraid and to believe in themselves!