Using Newspapers as Primary Sources
When historians study the past they utilize primary sources, materials written during the time period or by participants, to reconstruct the events that took place. However, in studying history, they are also limited by the sources available. This is why historians often engage in what Sherry Katz calls “researching around their topics” by exploring other materials. In addition to a variety of primary sources historians also use secondary sources, materials written by scholars about the period, to increase their knowledge of the greater context.
In the case of Oregon woman suffrage, newspapers are one of the few surviving kinds of records documenting the 1912 campaign in Oregon. Archives possess very few journals, meeting minutes, or other primary source records of the campaign. This means that newspaper articles are the key to understanding what took place in Oregon’s final campaign for votes for women. However, as with all texts documenting the historical record, newspapers must be analyzed critically to create the clearest picture of the time period. Several key considerations, or tests, exist for using newspapers as primary sources.
The first thing to consider when using a newspaper as a primary source is the broader context for the selected articles. One must first look at the newspaper itself. For example, during the woman suffrage campaign in 1912, articles appeared in a variety of news sources including the Oregonian, the Oregon Journal, the Portland Evening Telegram, and the Pacific Grange Bulletin. While the intent of most newspapers at the time was to inform, these sources differed in their political and social agendas. For example, the Oregonian and the Portland Evening Telegram supported the Republican Party while the Oregon Journal supported the Democratic Party.
In addition to the overall agenda of the newspapers, historians need to consider the intended audience. They must also consider the authors’ and editors’ purpose and the choices they made about how to write and what to include in each newspaper article. The articles did more than inform the reader about current events. Articles were also propaganda. They could be event summaries, editorials, and even advertisements. Author bias, when the author is known, must also be considered. For example, an author could have been a political figure writing about a topic with which she or he disagreed.
When analyzing newspaper articles it is also important to understand the importance of where the article itself appeared in the newspaper. For example, the article could be considered front page news or perhaps considered less important—being listed on a social events page. This could also suggest a gendered view of “news.”
While the historical analysis of newspaper articles presents many challenges, it is important to note that newspapers serve a valuable purpose in building our understanding of a particular time period in history. Newspapers preserve time in a unique way as they include information about key people, places, and events. They can assist historians in documenting what was going on and they often served as the primary way to spread information to the general public.
Across different Oregon newspapers in 1912 readers could find articles and editorials presenting many perspectives on woman suffrage. Because newspapers were a main source of information about current events and political topics, people would rely on this information, in part, to make decisions about key issues. Newspapers are also the only way that researchers and archivists know about the existence of certain groups involved. For example, without newspapers we would not know about the Colored Women’s Equal Suffrage League because no other primary sources about the group appear to be available. Many of the newspaper articles about the 1912 woman suffrage campaign also include the names of participants, events, leaders, organizations involved, and how they worked together to achieve their goal of gaining woman suffrage in Oregon. In many cases this information is not contained in any other source.
While newspapers are valuable as sources, issues arise when people rely on them alone to reconstruct history. History is generally written based on new perspectives and interpretations of sources already in existence. Using newspapers alone can lead one to be misinformed about the time period being researched. Newspaper articles may include errors and discrepancies due to misreported events, unreliable sources, or political slants and biases. For example, during the 1912 Oregon woman suffrage campaign, articles about Abigail Scott Duniway’s birthday party have conflicting dates and times.
Surviving copies of newspapers can have legibility problems due to poor preservation and maintenance. Some newspapers, including the Oregonian, the Oregon Journal, and the Portland Evening Telegram were microfilmed for preservation. In this process legibility can be compromised. For example, the article “State Suffragists Prepare for Fight” has large sections blacked out. This leaves one with an incomplete story. Transcription and digitization can help with this problem, but it is a continuing challenge.
Even with these challenges newspapers are a valuable resource for understanding the time period in which they were written. In the case of Oregon woman suffrage, they provide us with nearly all the information about the 1912 campaign. Regardless of the issues that come with analyzing newspaper articles, their information regarding key people, places, and events is invaluable to gaining a new perspective on an often overlooked and relatively unknown time period in Oregon’s history. These documents serve as the foundation for understanding the history of woman suffrage in Oregon and the 1912 campaign that achieved it.
Katz, Sherry J. “Excavating Radical Women in Progressive-Era California” in Contesting Archives: Finding Women in the Archives eds. Nupur Chardhuri, Sherry J. Katz, and Mary Elizabeth Perry. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010.
Rampolla, Mary Lynn. A Pocket Guide to Writing in History, 6th ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009.
About The Author
Jennifer M. Newby and Sarah B. Hardy are senior history students at Western Oregon University who will be graduating in June 2011. They participated in Professor Kimberly Jensen’s Oregon Woman Suffrage course in Winter 2011 at WOU. In that class they facilitated a discussion about using newspapers as primary sources with class members that formed the basis for this essay. Both Jennifer and Sarah are pursuing future careers in the museum and archival fields.