As the world has learnt to read over the last 200
years or so, a written media has developed to keep people informed.
The technical innovations which led to the development of cinema and
later television provides and endless supply of evidence of how news
was reported at the time.
The obvious value of news sources is to illustrate how people viewed
historical events before these events became historical. If one of
the main purposes of history is to understand the people of the past
on their terms rather than ours – avoiding what the English
historian E P Thompson called the ‘enormous condescension of
posterity’ – then newspapers that are full of attitudes and opinions
that did not benefit from posterior hindsight, are a very useful
Newspaper journalists, editors and readers never know what is going
to happen tomorrow. Consequently news sources allow us to view
historical events through the eyes of contemporaries. Events as they
unfold for contemporaries are often confused and contradictory and
in the absence of a wider historical context lack any meaning or
significance. When Zhou Enlai was asked in the 1970s about the
significance of the 1789 French Revolution he famously replied ‘it
is too soon to tell’. This ‘fog of war’ problem reminds us how
difficult it was for contemporary decision makers to make the right
historical decisions in the chaos of the present.
Read the souvenir edition newspapers of 1st October 1938 or the
newsreels that played in the cinemas on that day and you will read
of the universal acclamation of Neville Chamberlain as the man who
has brought 'peace with honour'. (see below)
Newspapers are often subject to censorship and control by
governments or dominant socio-economic classes. The ‘news’ stories
can therefore offer excellent evidence of how the powerful seek to
manipulate the views of the public.
Finally, news reporters are often amongst the most important
eyewitnesses to important events. News reporters like historians are
often concerned to find the truth, but in contrast journalists work
with the very recent past – current affairs. With the study of
recent history the lines between journalism and history can get
blurred, especially when historians take on journalistic
assignments. And very occasionally journalists can actually make
Woodward and Bernstein did in uncovering the Watergate
scandal for the Washington post.
News sources are rarely simply factual and objective.
Think for example of why what is ‘headline’ news varies from country
to country. Journalistic writing and reporting is often opinionated
and seeking to influence its audience. Political and socio-cultural
prejudices, national biases and editorial position can often mean
that reporting is slanted seeking to generate favourable responses
from the audience.
News reports often lack access to vital information and are often
speculative. The first reports of the 9/11 attacks in the USA
suggested that a plane had flown into the WTC tower by accident.
Journalism cannot be as thoroughly researched or as emotionally
detached as good history should be.
President Truman (above) was not defeated in the Presidential
election of 1948