August 31, 2006

Validity of Newspapers as Primary Source Material

On Sunday, August 27, 2006, in the Spectrum issue of the Tribune, published from Chandigarh, India, a review by Gobind Thukral on the book titled Myth and Reality of the Sikh Militancy in Punjab by Dr. Joginder Singh has appeared.

I have not read the book under review but the review by Gobind Thukral contains some such observations on the use of the newspaper as the source for writing history of a particular period, which invite attention. The statements are relevant for understanding the role of the newspapers as the source material and on that as primary source.

I am taking out those statements out of context and place them in the following order.

"newspapers mirror society and play their role according to their respective ideological positions. This role could be constructive or destructive and here perceptions of scholars and readers would vary. If one could question the objectivity and motive of newspapers, one could always question the assessment of the scholars."

While using the newspapers as the primary source, in case of the book under review, where the author has used only the newspapers and even confined only to two specific newspaper being published from one place which is also a place of another newspapers like Punjab Kesari, Hind Samachar, Vir Partap etc, the caution given by Gobind Thukral is very important.

The next two statements selected are also very important. They are as follows:
"The interpretation and projection by the media then (the period for which the author of book had used two specific newspapers) by and large suffered from myopia, lack of information and self-interest. While complete objectivity may not be possible, only a section of the media tried to achieve that."

The second statement is :
It is also normal that a large section of the media—newspapers, magazines, radio, television and now the Internet—try to project the part as a whole. Worst, the mass media is no longer purveyor of the complete reality and public sphere journalism in most cases has been replaced by crass commercialism. Objectivity and free press are now more of myths."

And finally, Thukral concludes:
"Were these newspapers busy cooking stories and leading some campaigns or were these simply caught in a pincer between the militants and the state (both acting as tools of terror), which denied them the breathing space to report fairly and accurately? What happened to the other newspapers, big and small, during that period, when militants would come calling and dictated everything at gunpoint, can be ignored at the loss of arriving at fair and credible assessment. The media mediates between the reality and us, as the mediation more and more replaces reality for us. What happens when the media fabricates even a small part of the reality?"

I have not read the book. I can not comment on the central theme of the review. I had talked to a senior professor about the nature of the review. His views were diametrically opposite to the impression which I had developed after reading the review. Hence, I am now confining to that aspect of the review only which is related to the methodology of research in history. No doubt, I have omitted some of the comments of the reviewer on the author’s preference for particular selection as well his arguments to justify his selection as well as the omission of some aspects which could have been considered while using the selective newspapers.

It is not that Professor Joginder Singh is the first person to adopt this methodology for describing a particular period in history for a particular community, a separatist movement and a particular place. The topic, which he has chosen, was taken up by other scholars also and from different countries. They had used other sources also. One of the book which comes to mind is one written by H. Deol for the same period with the similar topic.

There had been many instances which could be mentioned when the scholars went to archives or Raddeewalas (scrap dealers), collected old copies of a particular type of publication, employed compilers and then developed their thesis on the basis of such sources.

One book which also comes to mind is "Social history of India" by K. K. Dutta. In that book, in order to describe the social character of people, the effect of changing times on the society, K. K. Dutta has extensively used the letters to the editors and the editorials of the newspapers in order to describe the change. The book is about the social history of India in nineteenth century.

Similarly some incidences also come to mind wherein the newspaper had played major role to define and decide a particular direction of the events. One event which had come to my mind while reading the review for the first time was the Emm Telegram which was manipulated by Bismarck. It is also an important study to describe that how far the newsprint media was instrumental in becoming the cause of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Similarly, the American Spanish War 1899 is also studied wherein the role of newspapers is taken in determining the start of war. Similarly, there are numerous conspiracy theories which are product of news media. One of the best examples is Watergate Scandal of America.

Anyhow, Thukral’s comments on using newspapers as the primary source for putting up some thesis is definitely of great importance for those who use newspapers and also other available sources in form of Video and Audio records with T. V. Channels as well as the digital forms on internet. It will not be out of place to mention that it will be worthwhile to see that how the reporting on Iraq on internet can be used to describe the event say after fifty years or after five years when America would have closed its operation in Middle East.

It is not any kind of disrespect or negative remark. I desire to mention one thing here. It may be taken with open mind.

There are four professors in Punjab with the same name. They are Joginder Singh Garewal, Joginder Singh Dhanki, Joginder Singh Dhillon and Joginder Singh. All of them have been talking of Modern India and especially about Punjab. All of them have contributed to the subject in a substantial manner. However, if you read them without knowing them, you may develop an impression that they have common ideology of promoting a particular view of Sikh history. They may vary on one or two aspects of interpretation but soon you start feeling that somewhere their objectivity comes under strain while evaluating the sources or picking up the sources to use or taking up of the topic for verification and research.

1 comment:

  1. brucezhong6:26 PM

    i think that it's lack of validity for pupil to learn as source materials . a pupil couldn't identify the information from newspaper critically. the information in the news will confuse their thinking


Contact Form


Email *

Message *