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How do historians user newspapers

Historians generally use newspapers for three purposes: learning facts about specific events; looking for long-term trends; and searching for details or the “texture” surrounding an event—a fact or story that illuminates or complicates a larger pattern. Newspapers are often the first kind of source historians of the past two centuries will turn to for gathering evidence, but historians rarely rely on newspaper evidence alone.


Learning Facts

Newspapers can be used to locate facts related to a specific event. Historians investigating a specific event sometimes use newspapers from the place and time in which the event occurred to uncover details and perhaps find firsthand descriptions. But when historians use newspapers in this way, they proceed with caution, as newspapers often include factual errors and always reflect a point of view. Newspaper reports are frequently incomplete, biased, and/or inaccurate.


For example, Argentinean newspapers covering the death of Eva Peron in 1952 explained it in many ways, none of them truthful, because the Peronist government and newspaper editors agreed that the phrase “ovarian cancer” was too sexual to be printed.


Furthermore, newspaper coverage assumes that readers share knowledge about the circumstances of the event that historians decades later may or may not know. In the case of Eva Peron’s death, for example, reporters and editors at the time did not have to explain who Evita was, give the location of the cemetery, or provide details about local funeral practices. Anyone who bought a Buenos Aires newspaper at the time already knew that.


These problems do not mean that historians should avoid using details from newspapers. Rather, historians researching a particular event usually examine newspaper coverage from several different papers, and look most carefully at coverage by newspapers closest to where the event took place. They also check the details they take from newspaper stories against other types of documents. In the case of Evita’s demise, they might examine maps of Buenos Aires, the coroner’s report, and her husband’s memoirs.


Looking for Long-Term Trends

Another strategy is mining newspapers for evidence of long-term trends. Here we often look at more than just the newspaper stories. Classified advertisements, for example, can tell us about changes in prices of apartment rentals over time, or about the titles or salary ranges for various kinds of jobs. Display advertising can tell us how many new movie theaters are opening in a town or what kinds of food people are looking for in the supermarkets. Even long-running advice columns can give us this kind of evidence, showing changes over time in what people considered to be problems and what newspaper writers considered to be solutions for those problems.


This strategy can include skimming through a large group of newspapers looking for something on a particular topic—political demonstrations, floods, or outbreaks of measles, for instance—over a period of months, years, or decades. A historian taking this approach may decide not to read every page of every newspaper in the period that interests her, but to look at a random selection, like the second day of every month for 30 years or only the months of August and November for a decade.


Using newspapers in this way requires some previous sense of historical context, since historians are reading in hopes of having “something jump out” at them. They must be able to quickly and efficiently recognize items that fit or contradict the pattern that concerns them. One good way for beginners to acquire such a background is to review a few textbooks dealing with the time and place they hope to study.


Search tools such as Lexis-Nexus and the headline index of the New York Times help a great deal with this second kind of research in newspapers. Unfortunately, indexing for the great majority of the world’s newspapers started in the 1990s, if they have any indices at all. Historians hoping to study earlier times and other parts of the world will still spend many hours looking through actual newspapers or scanning microfilm copies for some time to come.


Searching for Details

A third strategy is searching for the “texture” of an event. Details from other parts of the newspaper can help flesh out a newspaper story. Weather reports can tell us if it was raining on the day of the battle. Department-store advertising can suggest what people might have worn to vote on the day of the election. Movie reviews and television listings can tell us what stories people cared about in the month of an epidemic.


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