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The Powers of the Press: Newspapers as Primary Sources - 10 credits (HST815)

At face value, newspapers are one of the most obvious sources for writing the history of the modern era, especially of social and cultural history topics. Yet they are also among the most challenging and frustrating of archival sources. The use of newspapers as a primary source has occasioned much debate. Some historians distrust this source of evidence because of its perceived unreliability, bias and ephemeral and fragmented nature. The time consuming nature of newspaper research and technical difficulties in reading and understanding them have also militated against extensive use of them as sources. However, other scholars regard them as indispensable media for acquiring data on developments, groups and events that have left no other record. More recently, scholars have stressed the importance of value of reading newspapers not just as a storehouse of historical evidence but as texts that construct meaning and offer insights into a range of historical mentalities. Recent influential theoretical perspectives and concepts in this respect include Benedict Anderson’s ‘Imagined Communities’ interpretation of the development of nationalism as a result of the growth of print capitalism; Jurgen Habermas’s theory of the ‘public sphere’; and the understanding of newspapers as a site of ‘encounters’ between editors and readers. This course is designed to explore these perspectives from an epistemological perspective, and to evaluate both the potential and the pitfalls of using newspaper derived evidence in historical research. It is also designed to equip students with approaches and techniques, including elementary content analysis, as well as practical advice, to enable students to engage critically with newspaper evidence and to incorporate it in their own research.