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Historians often read a newspaper story and, because so much detail is missing, are left wondering what really happened. Because newspapers are almost always in business to make money, there is a tension between the amount of space allocated to news and the amount allocated to paid advertising. One result of this tension is an emphasis on brevity and compact writing. In modern journalistic practice, the most important facts appear in the first paragraph of a news story. The rest of the factual material is arranged in a general hierarchy of importance. This way, when editors have to shorten a story to make it fit on the page, they can simply trim paragraphs from the bottom of the story until it fits in the space available. If the story is written properly, the reader should not feel the loss of those final two or three paragraphs.

 

While this approach to writing makes it easier for the person arranging copy on the page, it also means that information is inevitably left out of a story. Reporters often lament how much of the information they gather in their reporting never makes it into print—and historians lament just as often about information that seems to be missing from the stories they read. Understanding why the information you might want is missing is important. Was it removed because the story was simply too long? Or was it removed (or never included) because it conflicted with the political stance of the newspaper or was deemed too controversial or titillating for the paper’s readers?

 

Finding the answer to these questions requires some additional research, often in other newspapers of the day. Are there other papers with a different political slant and if so, do they cover the same story differently? Is the news you are interested in reported in different ways—in magazines, in government reports, or in memoirs? If so, how are the same events or issues described differently? It is important to use multiple sources if it seems to you that something is missing from the story you are reading.

 

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