WHAT ABOUT USING NEWS SOURCES FOR CURRENT EVENTS?
This is absolutely okay! In this instance, they can often be used as a primary source. Granted, one must weigh bias. But let’s take a look at an example…
If the news is discussing how different states have different mask mandates or reporting on the active shooting that is happening, that is a current event. It is appropriate to use a news source in this instance (weighing bias, of course).
It is very important, however, to verify that these sources are ACTUALLY being used for current events… and not just presumed to be.
For example, if you find a lesson that is teaching on former President George W. Bush and weapons of mass destruction (a matter of debate in history, and a large part of historical conversation), what kind of source should one want to use? The answer is typically primary sources or validated secondary sources–the actual government documents, presidential claims (speeches), reports that compare/contrast the two sides (official reports from the declassified documents) and the like.
On the contrary, one should NOT want to use an opinion blog that was written by an opinion blogger years after the event, in 2015 (not a historian). If an opinion blogger wrote, How George Bush Discovered Weapons of Mass Destruction Years Ago, then this is not an appropriate source to use for educational material… especially not for such an important topic, and especially when it is not primary or secondary. This is merely an opinion blogger writing his “facts” of how he sees the past. That is not an accurate source for a history book re-telling history and teaching it to children. This is an individual with an opinion.
Now, if you believe news sources are only used for current events, you can do a simple check. Go into the lesson or part of the book you are referencing and see what it’s teaching. Is it teaching on a current event , or is it more like the scenario above where it is teaching about a historical event? These are just some of many questions to ask yourself.
Is the lesson teaching on the past Cold War? World War I? The ins and outs of the Persian Gulf War? The beginning of the Civil War? The timeline of the Earthquake in Nepal? Columbine? Or is it teaching on a truly current event? This is what can determine if a news source is appropriate for a reference. So if you want to, you can check such claims.
WHAT ABOUT USING NEWS SOURCES TO SHOW CONTRASTING OPINIONS?
This is also okay! Usually, you would use a liberal source and a conservative source to compare and contrast.
Also, if you want to discuss how a particular region feels about a baseball team or local restaurant’s menu, that can be okay!
However, someone may still want to check to see if such a news source is actually being used for that purpose. For example, look at the following paragraph:
A lot of people thought that President Kennedy was not fit to be a president because of suspicions with Marilyn Monroe. First, he did this. Then he did that. Then, his senior advisor told him “[Direct Quote here]” which he ignored and did XYZ instead. After all of this, the court system decided XYZ, and this was the ultimate outcome.
This is an example of a paragraph that is not utilized for opinion or showing contrasting views, but for historical events. The very first sentence shows an opinion about whether some people felt he’d still make a good president. However, the rest of the paragraph of events is filled with different facts: first he did this, then he did that... Those are sentences used to detail the events of what happened.
Compare with this kind of a paragraph:
A lot of people thought that President Kennedy was not fit to be a president because of suspicions with Marilyn Monroe. A few people said they thought he might have been doing XYZ. Others argued the point and said he wasn’t doing anything wrong. It caused a lot of debate in the White House!
One of these paragraphs is a true “opinion” paragraph (the latter), where the other (the one with the quote and other events listed) is not. The opinion paragraph can reference opinions from newspapers, but the other should not use a newspaper as its source.
So while it is certainly okay to use news sources as a compare/contrast to show varying opinions, you must ask yourself: “Is that how the news source was actually used? Or, was it not?” If you are interested, check for yourself how the news source was used, and then make your own determination.
WHAT ABOUT USING NEWS SOURCES FROM HISTORY OR TIMES IN THE PAST?
This is okay, too! In this instance they can be used as a primary source. For example, if a journalist was present during a prior tragic active shooting and filmed the heartbreaking aftermath or detailed it as it happened, the journalist is considered as if a first-hand witness. Or, for example, imagine a news reporter was reporting in the area at the time of the earthquake in Nepal, writing down what happened, as it happened. Or, if someone was present during a presidential speech and wrote it down, in the moment, word-for-word. The date of their news report matches the date of the event, and they are acting as a first-hand witness to it. This is okay to reference (bias can still be weighed, when needed). The same is true even if you go back to the 1600s and see the words that people were writing down as to what happened that week. It’s a good “timestamp in history.” This is different than a journalist today writing an article about “What happened in the 1600s” from his or her opinion of the facts.
Consider, though, that even in these instances there may be mistakes, so that can be addressed by curricula makers, book authors, and those writing research reports. Consider the Titanic news sources that initially reported that every passenger died, or that every passenger survived. These were written at the right time (as the tragedy happened) but obviously include inaccurate statements. So, educational resources need to cross-reference other sources and not merely claim, “All the Titanic passengers survived” based on a news report.
BUT AREN’T EVEN PRIMARY SOURCES WRONG A LOT OF TIMES?
YES! Primary sources are like people who were actually there and witnessed it (like eye-witnesses at a crime scene) or artifacts that were present at the time (such as old pottery that existed in that time period in history). Validated secondary sources are one step removed (imagine a detective studying a cold case or an expert in pottery who analyzes the finding). Now, primary sources can be wrong. Imagine the Titanic… the primary sources would be things like the survivors’ actual testimony. But didn’t the testimony conflict? It did, in many instances! Still, the survivors are the BEST sources to reference BECAUSE THEY WERE THERE… even if you have to reference the discrepancies from one person to the next. To use something else besides the primary source in this instance would be like using the survivors’ aunt’s friend’s brother’s grandma’s opinion on what the survivor said.
If you’re already starting with shaky data (conflicting testimony of the survivors), the LAST thing you want to do is use LESS than a primary source… by going to some distant relative for THEIR opinion, instead. That’s like using a news report or opinion blog as if fact. The perfect example of this was seen in how the news sources accused Bruce Ismay of certain things that were directly contradicted by those in testimony. You don’t want to use the news to tell you the truth–you want the primary source which would be those who witnessed his actions and heard his words during the sinking.
The survivors are one example of a primary source, but there are others, as well, including ship makers and more.
Primary doesn’t mean it’s going to be telling the whole truth. It means it’s the closest thing you have to what happened. And, a lot of primary sources ARE confirmed by other primary sources (which is very helpful!). On the contrary, news sources (or gossip) can come along and twist it all up. That’s why it’s important to first go to the primary source whenever possible. It’s not always possible, but if it is, it should certainly be used. If not, secondary sources should be sought after.
Imagine an official government document proclaims that those who are in the USA on travel visas are not allowed to vote in elections. Now, imagine that an entertainment source like YouTube or CNN (non-primary) inaccurately reported that the government document proclaimed AMERICANS are not allowed to vote in elections. WHOA! That’s very inaccurate! Now imagine that this news or entertainment source’s claim is repeated in a history curriculum (not stated as opinion, but as fact)! To repeat that in an educational curriculum would be so dangerous! The proper primary source should be the actual document–not YouTube or CNN.
This is why primary sources are so important. Reliable and valid secondary sources are also equally as important. More on this in a bit.
WHAT IS WRONG WITH ENCYCLOPEDIAS?
Nothing, when they are utilized appropriately! We will let others do the explaining for us. This is just a few of many examples, but you’ll find the same sentiment across reputable colleges and universities.
– University of Winnepeg
– The College of New Jersey
– The College of New Jersey (con’t)
– The College of New Jersey (con’t)