COMM 436/636: Issues, History of the Mass Media
Instructor: Ross Collins

Writing your historical term paper

II. Writing Historical Research
In writing mass media history (and all history), a writer needs to consider three aspects:

Without these three, there's no real history being written. For instance, without facts you might write a novel. Fiction is interesting and readable, but it's not history. That's sometimes confusing to people who really believe the "docu-drama" format in movies, assuming they can make up their mind about something that happened in the past after seeing, say, "Dances With Wolves" or "Amadeus." You may get a flavor of the times, but beyond that, truth and fiction mingle.

As well, without interpretation you have, at the least, a timetable of events. At most you have what much genealogy is today: a description of who did what and when, but no explanation of how it relates to a larger world. Interpretation answers the "so what" question of history: so your grandfather worked as a typesetter in the 1920s. What does it mean to the development of American newspapers in society?

The narrative is the story you tell. It ought to be well-written and compelling, and not clumsy and dusty. In history, perhaps more than in any other discipline except English, how you present your material is as important as what you present. All the more so as we study mass media history here. Communication study emphasizes quality in written and spoken communication.

The evidence
In weaving together your story (that's what hiSTORY is), you need to consider the quality of evidence behind your facts and interpretation. Evidence comes in two varieties:

Primary evidence is best. It consists of material produced during the time you're studying, and by the organization or person you are studying. Included are periodicals from the period (for instance, a 1925 newspaper on a 1925 subject), brochures, bulletins, newsletters, organizational minutes, directories, diaries, letters, notes, tape recordings, video recordings, drawings, photographs, and oral history. Normally these are the kind of things you find in an archive, such as NDSU's Institute for Regional Studies, housed in an old K-Mart building on 19th avenue north, just north of the FargoDome. (Director: John Bye).

Secondary sources are books and articles published later on, about this time period. Normally the authors consulted primary and secondary sources to write their article or book, so your referring to them means you are getting the information second (or third or fourth) hand.

Secondary sources are not as good for your own research, but they are essential for background on your topic. For instance, if you are doing research on how women were portrayed in regional newspapers between 1920 and 1950, you would begin by seeing what other authors have written on women as portrayed in the media.

Your secondary research helps you refine your own topic and research question, and forms the introduction to your own work. For instance, before going into your own research in the example above, you spend a little time "setting the scene": talking about the topic in general, why you became interested in it, and what others have written about it. That research also helps you think of places for primary sources, how accessible they are, and whether you can reasonably acquire them in the time you have. If there's a problem, the answer usually is to refine your topic based on time you have and available primary sources.

Collecting a bibliography
As you do this background reading, pillage the footnotes. This means look at the footnotes, endnotes and bibliography for more sources specifically pertaining to your topic. It's not particularly useful except at the very beginning to make your list of sources based on what's available in our library. Likely there are a lot more sources, and better ones, available elsewhere, either Tri-College or through interlibrary loan. It only takes a few days to get what might be a lot more interesting source. Note: you don't have to consult every source you list! Narrow it down to just those that appear most pertinent.

After you make your personal bibliographical list, you're probably ready to really refine your topic into something you can write about. Let's call this your research question. It should be something you can answer by using primary sources. I've passed out many possibilities as a class handout, and I'd prefer you choose from that list.

For example, your original topic idea might be the media and space exploration. You begin by looking in a few encyclopedias and general media textbooks. From there, you could find some helpful bibliographical entries. Add to them from the library's on-line catalog, but don't spend piles of time in front of the computer. You're better off looking at footnotes; why do your own work when you can rely on someone else's?

How to read secondary sources
Ration your time: your topic for a term paper ought to be narrow enough that you don't have to wade through hundreds of sources, and read whole books. Skim; read chapters that most directly pertain to your topic. Take notes. Don't photocopy whole articles and microfiches--you won't have time to go back through it all. Some researchers think notecards filed under topic work best, and nowadays if you have a notebook computer all kinds of research organization programs can help make it easier for you.

After looking at about 10 of these secondary sources, you're ready to rely on primary sources. Your topic choice will dictate what they are, but you may have to actually do some foraging in an archives to see what's there. Don't hesitate to ask for help&emdash;staff love to show how much they know about their archives. If your topic requires oral history, that is, interviews, you must come to the person prepared with a list of questions directly pertaining to your topic. This helps direct an otherwise sometimes aimless interview, and helps jog memories. You may choose to tape record interviews, and that's not a bad thing for accuracy, but also take notes. If you've ever tried going through an hour and a half of tape looking for that one important statement you can't quite remember, you realize the importance of notes as well as tapes.

As for broadcast primary sources, they are tough to find locally, unless you have a special relationship with a station (and even then--broadcast people usually don't keep stuff for researchers). The state archives in Bismarck has some tapes--for help, inquire at NDSU's Institute for Regional Studies. Nationally, the Vanderbilt University archives have lots of news programs on tape, but I'm not sure how accessible they are here. Check their home page on the Web.

Research question options
When relying on primary sources for media history in our class, normally your question will involve one of these options:

* a comparison of two or more media outlets concerning a certain topic, and a certain time period. You need to decide how you're going to compare the topics, why you're going to choose certain media. For instance, if you're going to compare the portrayal of women in local media in 1950 and again in 1970 and again today, what will be your criteria? Stereotypical views in print or photos? Will you look at advertising too? Will placement be a factor? Will you check word choices for stereotypical views? Will you count word or picture choices of a certain type in publications from different time periods? Your background reading will help you to answer these specific questions to guide your research.

* An analysis of the media as it was during a certain time. For instance, local radio in the 1950s, or how minorities were treated as professional reporters in 1960s newspapers. Oral history is particularly useful here.

* An analysis of a certain event as portrayed in several media outlets, such as the impact of Edward R. Murrow's attacks on Joseph McCarthy in regional media, or the end of World War I as reflected in the local dailies. It's important to choose a broad enough topic here to answer the "so what" question, but narrow enough to be doable in a reasonable amount of time.

* An analysis of publicity or published material during a certain time, or how it evolved, whether it be on-campus material, or other material. Collections of brochures and pamphlets can be found in the archives, though they may not be so complete. Private companies also sometimes keep collections.

* Biography of a well-known local media person. Oral history, of course, and perhaps that person's papers are available, either from the family or in archives. It's sad that so much of this material is thrown away.

The gist of this means that you can't simply do a generic project for this class, and call it good history. Generic means "Watergate and the American Press," or "Newspaper Coverage of the Vietnam War," or "Yellow Journalism in America." This is the kind of term paper you'd write in high school. For us it's too general, and offers little opportunity to use primary sources. Those topics might form your background reading, but the topic you finally choose could be something like, "How local print media covered Vietnam, 1961-75."

What is plagiarism?

Return to class resources.

Copyright 2004 by Ross F. Collins <>