Yesterday’s News: A Window onto the Past when it was Present
How can we find out what happened in the past? One obvious answer is often ignored: check yesterday’s news. Looking at an old news bulletin or an issue of a newspaper will make you travel back in time. Not only the news articles, but also the slogans, adverts, colours, clothes and even the language provide new insights. Surely this is as good a window into the past as any other; in fact, it is a unique view into the past when it was still considered the ‘present’. And with Youtube, Online archives and the digitisation of hundreds of newspapers worldwide, it is getting easier than ever. You can travel back from wherever you are and at any given moment.
Yet considerable scepticism persists with regards to using different types of media as a historical source. As John Nerone explains in a piece on ‘Approaches to Media History’, such analyses are rather niche in cultural history. This partly has to do with the fact that mass communication is a recent phenomenon. But it also has to do, according to Nerone, with the conservatism of historians who a) privilege the archival document (unpublished and unearthed) and b) emphasise fact over discourse. The media in this sense is not sufficiently ‘real’. It is always already interpreted or mediated as embodied by the term itself. It is only narrative.
Following the ‘discursive turn’, this view is rather surprising. Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Juergen Habermas and many other key thinkers of the twentieth century highlight the importance of the media not as a mere reflection of what is happening in the world, but as a vector for ideology, a motor for change and a social actor. For example, when one speaks of the impact of 9/11, it is never a matter of the event itself but also of its mediatic representations, which amplified the event and gave it a connotation: e.g. ‘the clash of civilisations’. According to Michael Schudson, a Professor of Journalism at Columbia University, the media is the embodiment of ‘public knowledge’. It is therefore key to understanding society. And this is particularly true in a democracy.
Insights from philosophers, political scientists, sociologists and media specialists are interesting for historians. Historians ought to be aware, for example, of the interaction of the media with politics, agenda setting, its amplification of events and relation to profit. It is also important to be aware of the position of different media – the different voices they represent and the different degrees of impact. However what is most interesting for the historian, is less whether the information is balanced and democratic, than the access to the past ‘community of readers’ – namely the answer to the question ‘What did people know?’
In this respect, media sources are both a blessing and a curse. Mass circulation newspapers, for example, are publicly available and widely distributed. It is a huge amount of information: if a paper has been published once a day, with 12 pages, for 10 years and you set out to read every issue to look for, say, articles on illegal immigration… well, you can do the maths. The sheer volume makes it possible to analyse large numbers of articles; systematise the data; traces patterns, changes and repetitions accurately. But it can also simply drown you in information, make it hard to see ‘the wood from the trees’, as the old adage has it. Key questions are: Was every day equally significant? What about the interaction of different events/articles? What about the position of the pieces, their length, their headlines?
Moreover, the answer to the question, ‘What could contemporaries see/watch/hear?’ is not the answer to the question, ‘What did people know?’. For historical research, therefore, reception also deserves close consideration. Newspapers, newsreels are transient items and texts and this determines their impact and reach. To illustrate this, one may, for instance, think of Hitler and National Socialism. It is well known that anti-Semitic statements were present in the rhetoric from the start. Yet no one believed this would lead to genocide. Why were so many Germans deaf to these arguments? What does this tell us about the nature of society in this period? What does it tell us about the character of the media? Do newspapers give insight into a ‘community of readers’ or rather, into a ‘community of journalists’ and their imagined audiences? This relates to discussions of the ‘public sphere’ as a whole.
If a historian wants to provide a critical account of yesterday’s news, these are some of the questions that need to be asked. The sources need a context and a backdrop. The question is not, ‘What information was available on this topic at a particular time?’ But, ‘What did people do with the information?’ How does it relate to what we know now, in hindsight, about policies and policymakers, behaviours and choices that followed? If people read the news, what was the consequence? And if indeed people were unaware, why were they resistant to hearing about an event? From this perspective and with these safeguards, this enables the media to say something other sources cannot.