American history is referenced in news features, profiles and analysis pieces, giving meaning to current events, discoveries and individuals. A University of Missouri researcher recently completed a study on the use of historical references by journalists in the 19th century, a time when the United States had little or no published history records. The study revealed that 19th century American journalism was significantly influential in shaping the nation’s early history.
Betty Winfield, Curators’ professor of Journalism at MU, based the study on 2,000 magazine and newspaper headlines from various publications throughout the 19th century. Organizing titles into particular groups and tracking patterns, Winfield found an increase in historical references from the beginning of the century to 1900, when historians first began recording the nation’s past. Winfield said journalists created a particular national story by referencing certain people and events, which emerged as collective memory.
“Magazine and newspaper journalists played a crucial role in publicizing national history before there were professional historians,” Winfield said. “Magazine circulation was increasing, production was easy and distribution was free to the public. Journalists began writing longer news stories and, by connecting events of the present to the past, they created meaning and placed the news in context for their readers.”
To understand patterns and themes and illustrate how journalists progressively used history, Winfield said it was necessary to examine journalism’s public role throughout the 19th century. The study found historical references were primarily used for context and placement; other themes included nostalgia, values and analogies.
“We found that selective bits of history were used by journalists,” Winfield said. “Stories were aimed toward a certain Anglo-Saxon, white male nation. Usually women, African Americans, Native Americans and immigrants were not portrayed. This selective media proved very influential on the nation’s culture.”
Other studies have focused on specific events or shorter time periods, and no previous study has examined historical references in news accounts during the 19th century, according to Winfield.
“Nineteenth century journalism reiterated a particular American story, not only to those who had been here awhile, but also to new immigrants. These reports shaped the definition of America and gave the United States a national identity,” she said.
The study, “The Continuous Past: Historical Referents in Nineteenth-Century American Journalism,” was published in Journalism and Communication Monographs. Janice Hume, associate professor at the University of Georgia and Winfield’s former doctoral student at MU, co-authored the study.