Lesson plan: Working with primary sources and historic newspapers

To access historic newspapers for content to compare with today’s newspapers, visit digital editions of historic North Carolina newspapers:

Choose one or more stories to study. Ask questions about any story or stories that appear in digital editions of N.C. newspapers:

  1. What is the event?
  2. Who is involved?
  3. When does the event take place?
  4. Where does the event take place?
  5. Why does the event take place?
  6. How does the writer describe the people taking part in the event(s), discussion(s) or debate(s)?
  7. In each story, what represents fact, interpretation or opinion?
  8. Does the writer offer facts and evidence to support any opinions he/she expresses?
  9. How does the writer view what’s happening? How do you know?
  10. What type of writing does the story represent (straight news, feature, editorial, column, advertisement, comic, obituary, etc.)?
  11. Would your current newspaper run the story? If your current newspaper ran the story, in which section of the newspaper would it likely appear? In today’s newspaper, would the story be identified as opinion or a column that reflects the writer’s viewpoint?
  12. Who wrote or provided the news story or stories? Are the story or stories reprinted from other newspapers?
  13. Do you think the writer aims to be fair and accurate or unbiased in his/her approach, or do you think the writer advocates openly for a person or issue
  14. How do you respond to the news in the story found in the historic newspaper?

Look for similar stories in today’s newspaper (election or otherwise). Answer the fourteen questions above about each story you find. In today’s newspapers, look for the section headings or FLAGS at the top of each page or section where you find the stories. Also, look for other ways that newspapers inform readers about the purpose served by each story (fact, interpretation, opinion).

  1. After considering the stories in your newspapers and the stories that appear in historic newspapers, describe how today’s newspapers differ from historic newspapers. Review codes of ethics for journalists that appear on newspapers’ sites and on sites that serve today’s professional journalists.
  2. Also, through research, find out why approaches to newspapering vary from newspaper to newspaper and changed over time.
  3. Use Venn diagrams or other graphic organizers to outline similarities and differences today’s newspaper and a historic newspaper that you study.

Other approaches to stories in historic newspapers

Choose and apply any of the following to stories selected from a historic newspaper. Have students:

  1. Correct any grammatical errors in headlines and text. Rewrite the text, using words and language common today.
  2. Choose key words and determine their meaning from context. Spot words that are new and/or unlikely to appear in today’s newspapers and their writing. Suggest similar words and phrases to replace key words in the story or stories.
  3. Answer questions, such as: What language does the newspaper use to demonstrate its support for a candidate or public official? Identify loaded words. (Example: A story in one 1912 edition refers to Williams Jennings Bryan as a “demi god.”)
  4. Answer questions and conduct research based on their answers: What background do you need to understand the stories? For example, Based on what you learn from editions of The Mebane Leader published on October 31 and November 7, 1912: What do the candidates for U.S. Senate stand for? (Simmons, Kitchin and Clark) Who is Bryan? What is the white supremacy movement referred to in the story? What is the focus of the Democrats’ 1912 Baltimore platform? What does the 3rd party, the Progressives, stand for, and who led it? What questions, not answered in the text, leave you wanting to know more?

Check out more lessons for working with historic newspapers.

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