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“The First Draft of History”: How the Process of News Construction has Influenced our Understanding of the Civil and Gay Rights Movements of the 1960s

Walmsley, Mark Joseph (2015) “The First Draft of History”: How the Process of News Construction has Influenced our Understanding of the Civil and Gay Rights Movements of the 1960s. PhD thesis, University of Leeds.

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Produced on a regular basis and dealing with a wide range of events, newspaper data represents a treasure trove of information for researchers interested in the lives of previous generations. Unfortunately, however, the extent to which media data is used in historical research has not been matched by a similar engagement with media history and theory. Indeed, whether relying on media data for analysis or simply the ‘hard facts’, scholars often accept this record without asking the right questions about how it was constructed and why. In contrast, this thesis questions the relationship between the mainstream press in the United States and social activists in a range of organisations and movements. Focused on groups within the civil and gay rights movements of the 1960s, this study not only highlights how the mainstream media has misrepresented activism, but also locates the genesis of these distortions in the process of news production. Importantly, and unlike many revisionist works that present activists as the passive victims of a powerful mainstream media, this thesis builds on theory from within sociology and communication science to demonstrate the symbiotic nature of this process. Indeed, while their efforts were not always successful, this study shows how activists purposefully and consciously adapted their actions and public communications to better fit the daily habits and professional practices of journalists and editors. Often pursuing short term gains, this process of adaptation could repress more open and representative dialogue, producing long term consequences that have influenced movement historiographies. By utilising data from the archives of Newsweek and the New York Times – as well as the private papers, memoirs, and oral interviews of other journalists and editors – this thesis demonstrates the importance of viewing newsworkers as individuals, rather than faceless servants of monolithic institutions. Indeed, each news outlet had its own unique atmosphere, with its own set of rules that set the parameters of its coverage; highlighting the need to resist claims that certain publications are necessarily more ‘representative’ or ‘objective’ than others. Importantly, then, this study demonstrates the need for historians to critically engage with the subjectivity of the media data they use and approach sources in a way that honestly recognises their limitations.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: Media History; SNCC; Mattachine Society; Civil Rights; Homophile Movement; Gay Rights;
Academic Units: The University of Leeds > Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures (Leeds) > School of History (Leeds)
Depositing User: Mr Mark Walmsley
Date Deposited: 09 Feb 2016 11:39
Last Modified: 09 Feb 2016 11:39
URI: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/id/eprint/11812

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