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Looking at the past in its present tense

Old newspapers are not always the go-to for historians, but journalists insist on the value of seeing the past from when it was “happening now”.

Gene Atanacio (AB-HIM, ‘05) had no idea what to do for his undergraduate thesis when he was going through old issues of The LaSallian. “At first, I just wanted to look [at] the story of La Salle through the pages of the school papers at the time,” he shares. 

It was when he got to the copies from the 1960s that the gears started turning. “The 1960s was the decade of counterculture and the onset of the First Quarter Storm,” he details, and the publication then was continuously covering the student activism of Lasallian students. Using clippings from these issues and research on the context of the reports, he formed his thesis titled Student activism in De La Salle College, S.Y. 1968-S.Y. 1972

Newspapers have always been regarded as work that chronicled current events, so it would only seem natural to think that historians used this resource extensively to write about the stories of things that were. Eric Francis Aguirre (AB-HIM, ‘09) wrote his thesis Student activism in De La Salle University as printed in “The Lasallian” 1972-2006 the same way, using reports from The LaSallian from the declaration of Martial Law to 2006. 

But historians did not always trust journalists.

Through the excerpts, sources

Historians of the 20th century were skeptical of using newspapers as primary sources. Newspapers, after all, are often produced under limited time, limited information, and limited scope. 

In Jerry Knudson’s Late to the Feast: Newspapers as Historical Resources, he explains that newspapers are a big business, and the owners’ beliefs and interests can reflect on what is being published, possibly intervening directly in the process.

It was only in the late 1930s when American historians used newspapers as their primary sources for their studies, with the emergence of works such as Marcus Wilkerson’s Public Opinion and the Spanish–American War in 1932 and Joseph Wisan’s The Cuban Crisis as Reflected in the New York Press 1934. Although some continued to do so later on into the 1980s, Adrian Bingham, head of department and professor of Modern British History at The University of Sheffield, notes that historians today are still reluctant to use newspapers as primary sources as they may be “hastily produced, partisan, and uncritical.” Given the factors  considered when publishing news articles—editors, social discourses, and politicians, among others—Bingham assesses that news is a way of “framing reality” while journalists “are not neutral recorders of the external world.”

Atanacio reiterates this sentiment, even drawing the line between a journalist and a historian because of how the former “can afford to be biased.”

Neutral history?

This is not to say, however, that newspapers or any journalistic material are useless in narrating history. More than looking through newspapers as sources to reconstruct past events, newspapers offer historians new vantage points to verify information as they publish information on court proceedings, births, deaths, and even marriage, among others. Moreover, newspapers remain an essential resource to contextualize history and explain the zeitgeist of past happenings. 

The discourse on bias brings back an age-old conversation on the inherent biases in journalism. In a previous story by The LaSallian, Danilo Arao, a professor at the Department of Journalism at the University of the Philippines Diliman, maintained that “neutrality is a myth.” He explained that journalism innately opposes wrongdoings because of its “critical and adversarial nature” that enables reporters to speak truth to power when needed.

Dr. Jose Victor Torres, a Full Professor from the DLSU Department of History, points out the key difference between history and journalism. “[The] historian has…the luxury of time [to do research]. [The] media doesn’t have that unless you want a long-running story.” 

But even history, by its nature, brings some biases into its stories. Torres says, “The fact that you choose a certain subject, that you have to choose a certain way to present a certain subject, makes history now not neutral.” He elaborates that, in the end, some bias shows in the analysis of the historian—perhaps even in the way they choose which information to cite. 

“Critical thinking creates the bias,” he declares.

On the same side, in different timelines

Former Washington Post President Philip Graham is credited for being the first to say that “journalism is the first draft of history,” which would describe how Atanacio, Aguirre, and Janine Martinez (AB-HIM, ‘15) chose to find chronicles of their interests.

“I do remember when I was at the DLSU library, looking through the first issue of The LaSallian, [I] saw that there was an article about the formation of a theater arts organization. I was so excited because I was reading about the founding of DLSU Harlequin Theatre Guild—[which] at the time I was the company manager of—and it was not from someone who was retelling it but from someone who was there,” Martinez shares. She wrote her undergraduate thesis on the evolution of theater arts in the University using the library’s archives of campus publications. 

“I [did] not only use news articles as my source when I wrote my thesis. I made sure that I would have sufficient documents, write-ups, articles, and interviews [so] that I [could] piece together a study on the evolution of theater arts in DLSU,” explains Martinez, who admits that she cross-checked inaccuracies in the documents she reviewed with what the campus news reported. 

Journalist Regine Cabato agrees, describing journalism as a “snapshot in time”, with journalists witnessing historical events as they happen. “It’s important to get these things down, because these are policies, cultural upheavals. I think that would definitely be influencing our way of life, our way of thinking, in the years to come,” Cabato reflects. 

In the end, the differences between historians and journalists may only be their titles. As Bingham expresses, “Ultimately, both are trying to record and understand human societies.”

Now, disinformation floods knowledge ecosystems. Cabato believes that both history and journalism are on the same side because of the rampant rise of disinformation and should be working together to amplify the truth: “We should be concentrating on helping each other out, amplifying each other’s works and narratives, because definitely in an age where the truth is being endangered, denied, distorted, and revised, we have to band together.”

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