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Reading Between The Lines: Helping Students Recognize Bias in Historical Newspapers

As the historian and educator Sam Wineburg stated, “Historical thinking, in its deepest forms, is neither a natural process nor something that springs automatically from psychological development.” This statement reflects the nuanced and complex nature of historical inquiry and how it is different from the intuitive way we understand our immediate world.

“Historical thinking“ involves skills like sourcing, contextualization, corroboration, and using primary sources to draw evidence-based conclusions. Students learn to analyze historical documents, question their origins, evaluate their credibility, and understand their content in light of their time’s social, cultural, economic, and political contexts. They are encouraged to corroborate information across multiple sources, and to recognize that historical interpretations can change as new sources or perspectives come to light.

When educators facilitate the concept of “historical thinking,” they are not merely delivering content; they are shaping the way students engage with and understand the past. They provide the tools and frameworks that students need to make sense of historical sources, and they guide students in grappling with the complexity and uncertainty inherent in historical inquiry.

The goal is to help students appreciate that history is not a simple recounting of facts but a discipline that involves interpretation, argumentation, and evidence-based reasoning. History is about constructing narratives and explanations based on the best available evidence, understanding multiple perspectives, and being open to revising these narratives in light of new evidence or interpretations.

This process of deep engagement with historical sources, guided by skilled educators, can lead to a more profound understanding of history. Students can develop an appreciation for the diversity of human experience, the complexity of historical events, and the role of interpretation and argument in shaping our understanding of the past. In this way, Wineburg’s statement serves as a reminder of the challenging yet rewarding nature of historical thinking, and the crucial role of education in fostering this skill. By engaging in this process, students not only gain knowledge about the past, but also develop critical thinking skills that are valuable in many aspects of life.

When students learn to engage in historical thinking, as described by Wineburg, they also become equipped to recognize and analyze societal attitudes of the past, prompting reflections on how these attitudes have evolved over time and how they still might be present in today’s society. Some of this insight can be gleaned from the prejudices and assumptions embedded in these historical documents, especially old newspapers.

 

Bias refers to a disproportionate weight in favor of or against an idea or thing, usually in a way that’s considered to be unfair. Biases can be held by individuals, groups, or institutions and can manifest in many different ways. Bias in historical context is the partial or prejudiced reporting of events, often influenced by the cultural, social, political, or economic conditions of the time. Helping students recognize such biases is a crucial aspect of historical thinking. By analyzing newspapers within their historical context, students can understand how and why certain perspectives were emphasized over others. For instance, a newspaper during wartime might exhibit nationalistic bias, while newspapers in segregated societies might reflect racial or class biases.

 

Understanding bias in historical print also helps students to realize that history is not a simple recounting of facts but a discipline that involves interpretation and argumentation. They learn to see history as a narrative constructed from particular perspectives and to appreciate the role of evidence, argument, and interpretation in shaping these narratives. They recognize that the perspectives presented in these papers are influenced by the prevailing views, ideologies, and interests of their times. For instance, newspapers can exhibit bias in the selection of stories covered, the framing of these stories, the language used, and even in what is not reported. Bias in a newspaper can also be influenced by a range of factors, including:

  • Editorial Policy: The newspaper’s owners or editors may have particular political beliefs or ideologies that guide the paper’s reporting. This can lead to preferential coverage of certain topics or viewpoints.
  • Reporter Bias: Individual journalists can bring their own biases to their reporting, which can be shaped by their personal beliefs, experiences, and perspectives.
  • Audience Expectations: Newspapers are commercial entities that aim to attract readers. As such, they might cater to the perceived interests, beliefs, or biases of their target audience.
  • Source Bias: The sources that journalists use to gather information for their stories can also introduce bias. For example, relying heavily on government sources could lead to a pro-government bias in reporting.
  • Structural Bias: This refers to how the news industry itself operates. For example, the need for speed and deadlines can lead to an over-reliance on official sources who can provide quick and authoritative information, or the preference for dramatic, negative, or conflict-driven stories due to their perceived newsworthiness.

Recognizing this bias also involves acknowledging that no single source can provide a complete or objective account of historical events. It requires corroborating information across multiple sources and considering different perspectives. In other words, students need to develop a critical and questioning attitude toward historical sources.

 

The presence of bias doesn’t necessarily invalidate the information in a newspaper, but it does mean that readers should approach news stories critically, considering the potential biases that might influence the reporting.

In the context of information or news, bias can appear in the selection of events and stories that are reported and how they are covered. The perspective from which the events are viewed and reported, the choice of words and tone used in the report, and the inclusion (or exclusion) of certain facts or viewpoints all reflect bias.

Bias is often unconscious and can be a product of the individual’s personal experiences, stereotypes, cultural context, and various other factors. Recognizing and understanding bias is critical, particularly in media literacy and historical analysis, as it helps us to critically evaluate the information presented to us and to form more nuanced understandings of events and narratives.

For instance, imagine the America of the mid-19th century, a country starkly divided over the issue of slavery. Two newspapers from this time, “The Liberator” and “The Charleston Mercury,” offer distinctly contrasting narratives.

“The Liberator,” an abolitionist newspaper, unabashedly presented the gruesome realities of slavery. Its graphic accounts were designed to stir empathy, raise awareness, and rally support for the abolitionist cause. On the other hand, “The Charleston Mercury,” a pro-slavery publication, defended the institution as integral to the Southern economy and social fabric. It often portrayed enslaved people as content, and abolitionists as disruptive radicals. Guiding students through these opposing narratives allows them to see firsthand how bias and perspective can shape reporting.

Such a teaching approach can be further augmented with a focus on recognizing and understanding biases. Encourage students to dig deeper than the overt narrative. Challenge them to identify the underlying biases and perspectives that influenced the reporting. “What factors may have influenced the portrayal of events?” “Whose voices are being amplified, and whose are being silenced?”

For instance, a newspaper article covering a workers’ strike may be predominantly centered around the economic impact on the city and the inconveniences faced by the public, with little to no coverage of the striking workers’ grievances. Prompting students to question why the workers’ perspective is missing encourages them to seek alternative sources that can provide a more balanced view of the event.

A person studying and doing research using the Community History Archives Platform that was developed by Advantage Archives.

Immersing students in historical newspapers is not just about understanding history; it’s about language acquisition and understanding the nuances of journalistic style during that period. Articles from the 19th century might be far more descriptive and opinion-laden, a reflection of the less rigorous journalistic standards of that time compared to today’s objectivity-oriented approach. For instance, an 1850’s article on the Gold Rush might be laden with flowery language and hyperbole, designed to evoke emotions and intrigue rather than present balanced facts. This immersive exposure to period-specific language can enhance students’ understanding of language evolution and enrich their vocabulary.

Historical newspapers were more than just a source of news; they played an instrumental role within their communities. They served as platforms for advertising, public discourse, and political debates. For instance, analyzing the advertisements in a 1920s newspaper can give students insights into consumer behavior, prevalent health beliefs, and economic conditions of that era. An advertisement for a ‘miracle cure-all’ elixir, for example, could serve as a springboard for discussions about medical practices and health beliefs of the time.

Cultural context is another crucial element in interpreting historical narratives. The societal norms, political environment, and local dynamics greatly influenced the content and tone of newspapers. An article from 1920 Alabama on women’s suffrage may convey a far different sentiment than one from New York City. Asking students to consider these differences and investigate the reasons behind them can lead to insightful discussions on regional variations in attitudes toward societal changes.

Recognizing bias in newspapers requires students to engage in active reading and critical thinking. Here are several steps students can take:

  • Understand the Context: Knowing the historical period in which the newspaper was published can provide insight into the prevalent biases of that time. This involves understanding the political, social, and cultural landscape, including major events, societal norms, and dominant ideologies.
  • Consider the Source: Understanding who published the newspaper and who wrote the article can reveal potential biases. For instance, a newspaper owned by a corporation might lean towards promoting business-friendly policies, while an article written by a labor activist may highlight workers’ rights.
  • Analyze the Language: The choice of words, tone, and framing of issues can signal bias. For example, emotionally charged language, exaggerated descriptions, or derogatory terms can indicate a lack of neutrality. Similarly, how an issue is framed – whether it’s portrayed as a problem or not, who is blamed, what solutions are proposed – can reflect the newspaper’s bias.
  • Identify Omissions: What the newspaper chooses not to report can be as telling as what it does report. If certain events, perspectives, or voices are consistently left out, this could indicate a bias.
    Compare Multiple Sources: Comparing how different newspapers report the same event can highlight differing biases. If one newspaper portrays an event as positive and another as negative, students can infer that each is presenting the event through a different lens of bias.
  • Question the Perspective: Who does the story benefit? Whose voice is heard, and whose is missing? Encouraging students to ask such questions can help them understand that every story is told from a particular point of view, and this perspective can influence how the facts are presented.

By applying these steps, students can better understand how bias operates in newspapers and learn to approach such sources with an informed, critical perspective.

“Historical Thinkers” understand that old newspapers are far more than relics of the past; they’re time capsules, capturing the societal norms, attitudes, and cultural context of their era, that carry those inherent biases. Resources like the Community History Archive provide a wealth of these primary sources, freely accessible to educators. This extensive collection offers much more than mere facts; it affords students the opportunity to connect with history on a personal level, to interact with the narratives that shape our collective past.

By comparing and contrasting different historical documents, students can observe how perspectives and biases can shape the portrayal of events. This not only enriches their historical understanding but also equips them with the critical literacy skills necessary for discerning the quality and credibility of information in their daily lives.

Analyzing these historical newspapers fosters not just an understanding of the past, but also a cultivation of critical thinking skills. It encourages students to challenge narratives, recognize bias, and seek diverse perspectives. It’s a journey that equips students with valuable skills that go beyond the history classroom. They learn to question, to analyze, and to understand, becoming active participants in the unraveling and interpretation of our shared history. With these tools in hand, they can engage with the past in a profound and meaningful way.

Primary sources can serve as valuable tools for introducing and exploring complex concepts such as bias and perspective, but newspapers, as reflections of their era, also contain references to contemporary events, popular culture, and influential figures. Without understanding these references, students may miss the significance and subtleties embedded in the articles.

In the next installment in this series, we will explore the reasons why historical context is crucial for fully comprehending the implications of such references. I will also touch on the subject of dialects, regionalisms, and variations in vocabulary and syntax and how they can further complicate the interpretation of old newspapers.

By embracing these challenges and providing students with the necessary tools and resources, educators can enrich students’ exploration of history. Fostering awareness of linguistic evolution, cultural shifts, and societal norms enhances students’ understanding of historical narratives. By deciphering cryptic colloquialisms, analyzing biases, and questioning whose voices are represented, students engage in critical thinking and develop a deeper appreciation for language, culture, and history.

Overcoming the barriers posed by language changes, media bias, dialects, typography, and spelling in old newspapers requires awareness, contextual understanding, and effective strategies. By embracing these challenges, educators can enrich students’ exploration of history, foster critical thinking skills, and provide a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the past. Through engagement with primary sources, students become active participants in historical inquiry, empowering them to analyze information, question biases, and develop essential skills applicable across disciplines.

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