Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

News and Rumour

While I was on holiday last week on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset, I noticed that the Guardian newspaper journalist Andrew Sparrow had been named Political Journalist of the Year for his political blog on the paper’s website. During big political moments – last year’s UK general election, government cuts announcements, and the Arab Spring – Sparrow and his Guardian colleagues post minute by minute updates of the latest speech in the House of Commons, the latest significant Tweets, and above all the latest rumours sweeping Westminster, Washington or Cairo.

News blogs like this, for all their technological wizardry and global connectedness, seem to me to be, paradoxically, taking us back towards an early modern way of thinking about the news. Among historians of Renaissance Europe, the question of how ‘news’ was spread and reported has been an increasingly popular one. My undergraduates always enjoy reading A. Fox’s article on rumour, news and popular political opinion in Elizabeth England (History Journal, 1997), and one of the Faculty’s doctoral students is currently writing a thesis on how news from Transylvania was transmitted and reported in 17C German newspapers. The striking thing about early modern news, if you look e.g. at the 16C diaries of the Florentine apothecary Lucca Landucci, or the Venetian notable Marino Sanudo, is how unverified, indirect and untrustworthy much of it was – somebody has received a letter from their cousin in Dubrovnik saying the Turks are coming, people in the city are saying that the pope is gravely ill, a merchant from Poland says the king is divorcing his queen…

Sparrow’s news blogs (addictively good read though they are) remind me a lot of Landucci, Sanudo et al in the extent to which they treat rumour as the basic fabric of news – so-and-so in Westminster has heard that Nick Clegg has been offered this, it’s being said in Tahrir Square that Mubarak will do this… I think we’ve come to expect the ‘news’, on national television or newspapers to consist of a cool, authoritative digest of events, to provide a coherent and verifiable narrative. News blogs, instead, like Landucci and Sanudo’s diaries, report a lot of rumour and leave it to the reader to decide what sounds plausible. Like early modern Europeans, those who read news blogs are learning to think of news as a grapeshot blast of gossip, half-fact and fact, without any clear narrative to hold it together. And that seems rather postmodern.


  1. One can actually go even farther with the blogs/tweets/etc by mining the data and doing very quick cross-checking to help try to tease out which ones might go beyond mere rumors. The time structure can reveal quite a bit.

  2. I was thinking along the same lines recently, as I was browsing the Media Studies section of the SSL. The shape of the 'new' media with a multitude of voices reporting, many of which are nonprofessional, seems very familiar.