This is a self-guided tutorial on using newspapers and magazines as primary sources for historical research. The tutorial comprises a short introduction, followed by a series of exercises. In this regard, the tutorial follows the approach described by Aristotle in book two of his Nicomachean Ethics: what we have to learn to do, we learn by doing.1
As history students, you use primary sources to document, as accurately as possible, past events or phenomena. Depending on your research question, newspapers and magazines might form part of the source base for your topic. Newspapers and magazines are not always primary sources, nor are they always the best sources for establishing what happened in the past. When they are appropriate primary sources, however, it's important that you avoid jumping to unwarranted conclusions, or making false assumptions, about a source's reliability. This tutorial will help you avoid making those mistakes by teaching you how to look at newspapers and magazines critically and analytically.
You are probably already familiar with newspapers and magazines, but the purpose of this tutorial is to help you distance yourself from whatever assumptions you make about them. You will learn how to describe the different parts of newspapers and magazines. (Imagine trying to describe a baseball game without knowing the names of the different positions, or their purposes.) You will learn how to talk about newspapers precisely, using the correct terminology for their different parts, and learning how those different parts can help you evaluate them as primary sources.
The tutorial comprises a series of activities that guide you through the process of examining newspaper and magazine articles, and evaluating them for reliability, accuracy, currency, and bias. After you complete this tutorial, you should be able to look at a magazine or newspaper article, describe its different parts precisely, understand what information those parts are meant to convey to the reader, and, most importantly, make an informed judgment as to how accurately it documents the historical event or phenomenon you are researching.
Finally, the exercises will give you a chance to see both the advantages and disadvantages of working with digitized surrogates for print-based historical artifacts. All of the articles in these exercises were originally issued in print, and are presented here in digitized versions.
1. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Sarah Broadie and Christopher Rowe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002),111.