Helping Students Read Between the Lines: Identifying Bias and Attitude in Newspapers for the Presidential Election of 1912

Political cartoon and article from the 1912 presidential election

Political cartoon and article from the 1912 presidential election

This guest post is by Deborah Thomas, program manager for the National Digital Newspaper Program at the Library of Congress.

In the November/December 2015 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article focused on analyzing newspapers from the presidential election of 1912, an unusual contest at an unusual time. In the United States, changes in society, economics and global interests were strongly reflected in the nation’s political landscape and particularly the 1912 election. Using historical newspapers as primary sources, students can be encouraged to evaluate how the press presented candidates and how that may have influenced voters.

With three major candidates, rather than the traditional two, the 1912 election became a varied debate between special interests, government oversight, and the value of individuals in society.

  • William H. Taft, the conservative incumbent representing the Republican Party, was seen as protecting corporate interests and the status quo;
  • Theodore Roosevelt, former President, charismatic adventurer and larger-than-life personality representing the splinter Republican-based Progressives (known as the “Bull Moose Party”), advocated strong government controls and reforms; and
  • Woodrow Wilson, a scholarly professor turned politician representing the Democratic Party, supported workers’ rights and government for the good of the people.

While each candidate spoke out for himself in speeches and public statements, newspapers and their editors played a significant role in shaping public attitude toward each candidate, often through political cartoons, descriptive language, and even page layout. The articles and cartoons pictured each contain bias, positive and negative, towards candidates. Challenge students to identify the elements of bias and determine the perspective of the particular newspaper and how it might influence voters.

If you’ve used these sources or others to discuss how bias and perspective are represented by the press in politics, to what extent did they help students evaluate information sources and understand editorial influence?

All of the primary sources featured in the article, and more, can be found in the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers database (//chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/ ). Free and open, Chronicling America now provides access to more than 10 million pages of historic newspapers published from 1836-1922 and continues to grow. These newspapers are made available as part of the ongoing National Digital Newspaper Program (//www.loc.gov/ndnp/), a joint activity of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress.

One Comment

  1. Cheryl Best
    November 19, 2015 at 6:46 am

    Thank you for this wonderful resource and article. It certainly speaks to now!
    It is a hard concept to teach in 5th grade, but so important for students of all ages to understand.

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