Teaching Essay: An Embattled Terrain

Women, African Americans, Native Americans, and Immigrants at the Margins in U.S. Newspaper Stories, 1820-1860

Donald L. Shaw, Thomas C. Terry, and Erin K. Coyle

Historian Barbara Welter imagined a Cult of True Womanhood[i] in the 19th Century that idealized women as pure, pious, submissive, and domestic. She arrived at her conclusions through an exhaustive analysis of magazine and book coverage from 1820-1860. That study served as a foundation for our examination of women, plus African Americans, immigrants, and Native Americans through a content analysis of newspapers, divided regionally along the political and regional fault lines of the impending Civil War, over the same time period. Generally, magazines and books appealed to a people with a higher socio-economic status than newspapers at that time. Newspapers—driven by the Penny Press, increasing speed in typesetting and presses, rising literacy, and professionalizing of reporters amidst a quickening tide of secession, abolition, and the Great Awakening—appealed to a wider swathe of Americans. As our article used content analysis to examine the presence of traditionally marginalized groups in newspapers, students could apply similar methods to learn about portrayals of minorities and women in other sources and time periods.

Method and analysis

Our article followed a long tradition of researching newspapers. Historians have long acknowledged the value of newspapers in documenting events, something Lucy M. Salmon did most prominently in 1923.[ii] James Ford Rhodes stressed newspapers’ importance in historical research in 1966.[iii] In the same year, political scientist Richard Merritt sampled colonial newspapers to see if he could detect the emergence of an American community in the years before the Revolution.[iv] Historian and social scientist Donald L. Shaw then pioneered the use of newspaper content analysis as a powerful primary source for communication scholars. “The content of . . . newspapers reflects the day-to-day judgments of the press at one level and the intrinsic values of a social system and culture at other levels,” Shaw wrote in two articles detailing his methods and methodology.[v]

We assembled a sample of newspapers, nearly all on microfilm, for the 1820 through 1860 period, a total of 41 years. In all, 3,275 stories were analyzed. The allocation of states (or territories) of the period into sections was based on how states would align in the Civil War. The aim was to obtain daily newspapers from state capitals or major cities, but certain concessions had to be made due to newspaper availability. The study included 38 daily newspapers and 29 non-daily newspapers during an aggregated 246 “newspaper years” (41 years, 1820 through 1860, multiplied by six regions). On average, each newspaper fell into the article’s final sample four times over the 41-year period. A random date was selected for each month—except July 1, which was utilized for all the years sampled.

Of the 3,275 newspaper stories sampled, 571 mentioned women, African Americans, Native Americans, and immigrants. This accounted for 17 percent of all stories, so while these groups were demonstrably at the margins of public life, as covered by newspapers, they were by no means invisible or inconsequential. Of these four groups, most coverage concerned women. Next most mentioned were African Americans, Native Americans, and immigrants. The 571 stories about these minorities were divided into three categories: core, participating, and peripheral. Core meant the story was based on actions of the group mentioned and the story would not have been published without such actions. If women organized a Fourth of July parade, for example, they were classified as core, but if an article about a parade explained women appeared in the parade, the story would be classified as participating. On the other hand, if a story mentioned women in the background of a general public event, the story was classified as periphery. To see if there were unique trends in the antebellum period, the stories were assigned to the 1820-1840 period or 1841-1860 period. Qualitative analysis, using careful reading of stories, was used to augment the quantitative skeleton of the analysis.


Newspaper stories were our units of analysis. We accessed some newspapers on microfilm from libraries and state historical associations through interlibrary loan. Digital images of other newspapers, such as the New York Times, were accessed online. Students working remotely also may access digital images of newspapers via databases such as Newspapers.com, ProQuest, or Historical Newspapers. The value of engaging with original sources is of enormous value to students of all majors who later may need to research topics when working. Whether as public relations or advertising practitioners, reporters, or podcasters, familiarity breeds comfort.

Using our methods in courses and assignments

The methodological approach used in our article could be used to facilitate teaching in media history, multiculturalism, gender studies, or even ethics. Students could be assigned to evaluate how media coverage of marginalized groups has changed and why. Requiring students to review and analyze primary sources, even for short reflection papers, may provide opportunities for them to consider how news has changed over time while developing research and analysis skills.

Man reading a newspaper with headline, “Presidential Proclamation, Slavery.” Henry Louis Stephens, artist, January 1863. (Library of Congress)

Students could be assigned to analyze magazines, broadcast and cable news, entertainment, film, or photographs to determine whether women and minorities appear as peripheral, participating, or core to stories, video, or images. Students then could reflect on whether minorities and women appeared more frequently as peripheral, participating, or core in different sources, time periods, and regions. Having teams of students evaluate portrayals of women and minorities in different media sources during similar time periods could lead to rich class discussion about similarities and differences across media. Students could be assigned to write papers on those similarities and differences and what those similarities and differences reflect about culture, social standards, and industry standards.

Encouraging students to consider who media portray as peripheral, participating, or core to stories also encourages them to recognize bias in media, culture, society, and themselves. They could be assigned to discuss how selections of whom to feature as peripheral, participating, or core to stories may convey value judgments and limit audiences’ understanding of greater communities. News organizations, including the Louisville Courier, have turned to independent researchers’ content analyses to study reflections of racial bias in news and opinion columns. Over time, students’ studies could chart bias against previously marginalized communities to uncover systemic biases as they develop, mature, and even disappear, an approach that may be applied to study portrayals of marginalized members of society in non-media sources as well.

Students could study institutional reflections of bias by performing content analyses of textbooks, transcripts of court proceedings, or crime incident reports to study how those sources portray marginalized members of society. Many records contain stories that may shed light on who is portrayed as participating in, core to, or peripheral to a specific event or time. Such studies could encourage students to evaluate scholarship and research from other fields, such as education, law, and sociology. Students may follow up on findings from their content analyses to learn about applications of research from other fields and sharpen their reporting skills through interviews of experts.

Students also could hone their interviewing skills by recording oral histories related to specific sources and time periods. For instance, after performing a content analysis of textbook representations of marginalized groups, students could ask textbook authors whether they perceived members of marginalized communities as being portrayed as peripheral, participating, or core to stories. Students also could ask why members of marginalized communities were portrayed as they were. Those interviews could encourage students to address institutional, professional, and cultural factors that influenced how authors told specific stories at a specific time. Students, similarly, should be reminded to consider what factors influence how they tell stories.

Articles to study

Content analysis is a flexible method, especially when augmented by qualitative analysis that situates the results in a particular cultural or historical context. While our essay appears in a publication devoted to a subfield – that of journalism history – the value and usefulness of content analysis extends far beyond media studies. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin remarked, “The past is not simply the past, but a prism through which the subject filters his own changing self-image.”[vi]

Content analysis procedures have typically classified topics (objects) and attributes through general key words. The grammar of agenda setting can be displayed at a more granular level, something content analysis can reveal. The terms can be simple and focused, yielding unambiguous results. Historical agenda setting studies benefit from the use of content analysis, yet there are relatively few of these.

Very few historical agenda setting studies have been written, largely because an underpinning of the method is opinion polling, unavailable before the mid-1930s. S. Kittrell Rushing, for example, took a quantitative approach to agenda setting during the 1860-1861 secession crisis preceding the Civil War, examining antebellum newspapers in East Tennessee.[vii] Jean Folkerts studied the agenda setting actions of William Allen White, publisher of the Emporia (KS) Gazette.[viii] Shaw, Thomas Terry, Caitlin Hourigan, and Milad Minooie, variously, looked at Independence Day celebrations and a nation under stress from 1820-1860 and the Lost Cause in the half-century or so after the Civil War.[ix] The field remains open for imaginative research.

Featured image: Group of escaped slaves at Cumberland Landing, Virginia, during the Peninsular Campaign. Photographed by James F. Gibson, May 14, 1862. Library of Congress

About the authors: Donald L. Shaw, Ph.D. (Kenan Professor Emeritus at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Thomas C. Terry, Ph.D. (Professor, Utah State University, Logan) and Erin K. Coyle, Ph.D. (Associate Professor, Temple University, Philadelphia) are the authors of “An Embattled Terrain: Women, African-Americans, Native Americans, and Immigrants at the Margins in U.S. Newspaper Stories, 1820-1860” in the March 2021 issue of Journalism History. (Credit for Dr. Shaw’s photo: Milad Minooie, Ph.D.)


[i] Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” American Quarterly, 18:2 (1966), 151-174.

[ii] Lucy M. Salmon, The Newspaper and the Historian (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923).

[iii] James Ford Rhodes, History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 (New York: MacMillan, 1966).

[iv] Richard L. Merritt, Symbols of American Community 1735-1775 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966).

[v] Donald L. Shaw, “At the Crossroads: Change and Continuity in American Press News,” Journalism History, 8:2 (Summer 1981), 38-50, 39; and Donald L. Shaw, “Some Notes on Methodology: Change and Continuity in American Press News 1820-1860,” Journalism History, 8 (Summer 1981), 51-53, 76.

[vi] Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006).

[vii] S. Kittrell Rushing, “Agenda-Setting in Antebellum East Tennessee,” in The Civil War and the Press, David B. Sachsman, S. Kittrell Rushing, and Debra Reddin van Tuyll, eds., with Ryan P. Burkholder (New Brunswick, NJ and London: Transaction Publishers, 2000), 147, 149.

[viii] Jean Lange Folkerts, “William Allen White’s Anti-Populist Rhetoric As An Agenda-Setting Technique,” Journalism Quarterly, 60:1 (Spring 1983), 28–34, 28.

[ix] Thomas C. Terry, Donald L. Shaw, and Caitlin Hourigan, “Celebrating Forefathers . . . Or Picnicking with Firecrackers? A Content Analysis Study of American Newspaper Celebrations of the July 4th Independence Day, 1820-1860,” Media History Monographs, 16:1 (2013-2014); Thomas C. Terry, Donald L. Shaw, and Milad Minooie, “Newspapers, Agenda Setting, and a Nation Under Stress,” The Antebellum Press: Setting the Stage for Civil War, David Sachsman, ed. (New York and London: Routledge Press, 2019), 14-22; Thomas C. Terry and Donald L. Shaw, “Rebel Yells and Idle Vaporings: The Lost Cause Rises and Dissipates in the Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Constitution, and New York Times, 1860-1914, After the War: the Press in a Changing America, 1865-1900, David Sachsman, ed. (New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2017), 3-19; and Thomas C. Terry and Donald L. Shaw, “Rest Under the Shade of the Trees: The Lost Cause through Obituaries of Union and Confederate Generals, 1863-1916,” Southeastern Review of Journalism History, 13:1 (Spring 2018), 1-15.

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