International School History - Skills - Sourcework - The usefulness of historical sources

News Sources
Very common on exam papers, news sources usually appear as contemporary accounts from newspapers produced at the time of the event featured. Students are often keen to point that these primary, often eyewitness accounts provide an accurate 'first-hand 'account. The reality is rather more complicated.
Strengths   Limitations
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 source.

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 history as 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

The first five minutes of the CNN broadcast after the 9-11 attacks produced
a lot of speculative inaccuracies.
'From Hero to Zero' - Newspaper coverage of Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler is very different to his reputation in popular history.



About I Contact Richard Jones-Nerzic