Analyzing Primary Sources: Learning from Newspapers

Analyzing Newspaper Articles

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) strike a balance between the reading of literature and informational texts and promote the use of a wide range of text types: “Through reading a diverse array of classic and contemporary literature as well as challenging informational texts in a range of subjects, students are expected to build knowledge, gain insights, explore possibilities, and broaden their perspective.” [English Language Arts Standards: Key Design Considerations]

Some items in newspapers, such as eye-witness accounts and editorials, are considered primary sources. While most newspaper articles do not fall into either category and, thus, may not technically be considered primary sources, they are very useful to help understand historical events. According to the Center for History and New Media, George Mason University, “Historians generally use newspapers for three purposes: learning facts about specific events; looking for long-term trends; and searching for details or the “texture” surrounding an event—a fact or story that illuminates or complicates a larger pattern.”

The Library of Congress is host to the Chronicling America Historical Newspaper collection, a project sponsored jointly with the National Endowment for the Humanities. The collection features thousands of digitized newspapers from numerous states covering the years between 1789-1925. Additionally, the Library hosts digitized copies of the complete seventy-one-week run (February 8, 1918, to June 13, 1919) of The Stars and Stripes, a U.S. Army publication ordered by General John J. Pershing.

To help students analyze historic newspaper articles, you can have them use the Library’s primary source analysis tool and the list of guiding questions provided below.

OBSERVE: Identify and note details

  • Who published the article and who was the audience for this newspaper? (All newspapers in the Chronicling America Historical Newspaper collection feature an about section that contains background information).
  • What type of article is this (eye-witness account, straight news article, feature article, editorial, column, reader contribution)?
  • On what page and section does the article appear? What are the topics of other articles found on the same page or section?
  • Is place relevant to this article? How?
  • Are one or more dates listed in the article? Was this article written at or around the same time period that the text relates to?
  • What information is highlighted by the headline and other text callouts, if present?
  • Are there any photos or illustrations? What additional information or explanation do they provide?
  • What does the text describe, explain, or provide an opinion on?

REFLECT: Generate and test hypotheses

  • What is the main idea of the article? List several facts or arguments that support the main idea of the article.
  • Is this article a news story or an opinion piece? Is the article trying to inform or persuade? How do you know?
  • Are there details that reference other people or events of the time period? What was happening during this time period?
  • Why do you think this text was made? What might have been the author’s or publisher’s purpose? What evidence supports your theory?
  • Who do you think was the audience for this article? What evidence supports your conclusion?
  • If there was information about the author included, does that information suggest certain biases that person might have had? What do you think those biases were?
  • Examine the the words and phrases the author uses. Does the author’s language support a particular perspective? Are different viewpoints presented?
  • Why do you think the author chose to include these specific details of description or explanation? What information or perspectives might have been left out of the article?
  • What source or sources does the author quote or refer to in the article? Do you think these sources are reliable? Why or why not? What evidence supports your conclusion?
  • Does this article show clear bias? If so, towards what or whom? What evidence supports your conclusion?
  • What do you think the author might have wanted the audience to think or feel? Does the arrangement or presentation of words, illustrations, or both affect how the audience might think or feel? How?
  • What do you feel after reading this article?
  • If someone wrote this text today, what would be different/the same?
  • What did you learn from examining this article? Does any new information you learned contradict or support your prior knowledge about the topic of this article?

QUESTION: What didn’t you learn that you would like to know about? What questions does this text raise? What do you wonder about . . .

  • Who?
  • What?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Why?
  • How?

What sources might you consult to learn more?

Please feel free to download and distribute the Newspaper Article Analysis Guiding Questions document and the primary source analysis tool (but please keep the formats, including logos, intact).

Close Reading

More PSN Resources

Teaching with the Library blog posts

Resources outside the Library

Center for History and New Media, George Mason University

The Learning Network – Teaching and Learning With The New York Times

Learn NC, UNC School of Education

Guiding questions for other primary source types