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Edy, Jill A.: Troubled Pasts: News and the Collective Memory of Social Unrest.

Edy, Jill A. Troubled Pasts: News and the Collective Memory of Social Unrest. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006. Pp. viii, 230. ISBN 1-59213-496-3 (hbk.) $69.50; 1-59213-497-1 (pb.) $22.95.

How do people come to remember the past, particularly the troubled past? We might individually recall events or people, but we also know the unreliability of our recall, the contradictory evidence of eye witnesses. Where do the stories that make their way into our local, national, or global consciousness come from? In this extended case study of social unrest in the United States, Jill Edy explores these and similar questions, particularly those that connect memory to the role of the press. Her questions include the basics of collective memory, but also how we collectively resolve controversies, how those resolutions occur, and how collective memory influences the recall of more recent events (pp. 5-6).

Edy chooses two events--the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles and the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago--chosen as far enough in the past that scholars do not have first-hand memories, well, most of us at least. Both events marked part of my own teenaged years and resist, for me, the dynamic of collective memory. But both also work quite well for an analysis of collective memory, since the process of Edy sketches takes on a very real life.

Edy uses the cases to show how collective memory grows; at each stage she situates her analysis in terms of the relevant scholarly understanding of journalism and reporting, integrating those theories into a larger picture, and just as often bringing in work from other disciplines, particularly history and psychology.

After introducing the problem--how societies remember and the uses of memory--and the methodology (content analysis), Edy presents her theory and findings in five steps. Chapter 1 reviews how journalists covered the stories, looking at what she calls real-time news. The records here are confused but fairly straight-forward. The Watts riots have more journalistic coherence, since the national and local papers tended to have reporters who worked with editors who in turn combined reports with official statements. This led to a somewhat coherent narrative. The Chicago convention protest stories have less coherence, since reporters ended up as participant observers who never quite got enough distance to make sense of what happened--in fact, Edy points out that at least three different events get rolled into the one story.

If this forms the first draft of history, then what comes next? For Edy, in Chapter 3, it's the competition to frame the story, often by public officials who have strong motives to use the past, either to redress a wrong or to advance some agenda, whether that be protecting their reputation or legacy or moving public policy. Here again, the news reports show how the real-time news gradually shifts, moved by players with enough clout or strength to re-make the story. In the Chicago case, that consisted of courtroom trials that attempted to assign blame; in the Los Angels story, a state commission re-read the events in terms of local poverty. In both cases, memory overlooked police actions.

Over time the stories lose their controversy and the process of collective memory takes over (Chapter 4). An analysis of news stories from 1980 to 1996 referring to those events of the 1960s shows a process of fragmentation and reduction, of the search for salience and a loss of context, of the impact of a changed social environment. The past, of course, is a product of the present. Edy concludes, "There is no evidence here of reporters (or anyone else) actively working to create collective memory. Yet collective memory is indeed a byproduct of these social processes ..." (p. 122).

Chapter 5 moves closer to the heart of the process, explaining how we build collective memory. It's a process of integration, telling a good story, and broadly accepting that narrative, even if it should lack accuracy. For example, despite its occurrence during the height of the Civil Rights movement, the Watts riot had little to do with that movement; in fact, many of the local black community did not welcome a visit of Martin Luther King. However, many years later, after King's assassination and the naming of a Los Angeles street and a new hospital in Watts for Dr. King, people accepted as fact that King had influenced the subsequent history of the area (p. 128). Chicago actually had an easier time of it, since in 1996 the Democratic Party Convention returned to Chicago, prompting a city--and nation-wide reframing of the events of 1968.

Finally, in Chapter 6, Edy concludes by examining how we use collective memory, how the past influences the present. These past events do provide tools for thinking about the present and the personal and policy choices before us. However, though she acknowledges it, one could argue more strongly that the present often has powerful motivation to use the past.

The overall argument of the book is a strong one and even people who have no particular interest in the events of 40 years ago will find Troubled Pasts a good guide to how the news industry shapes our memories. Edy provides a good theoretical model and a good guide to how we might best use the literature about reporting, remembering, framing, and motivation. Whether these models will hold up with the shift from news industries to citizen journalism remains to be seen. Sadly, as economic and technical forces transform daily journalism, journalism itself may become the contested terrain of its own troubled past.

The book has an index as well as 12 pages on references.

--Paul A. Soukup, S.J.

Santa Clara University
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Author:Soukup, Paul A.
Publication:Communication Research Trends
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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