1940 film to serve as gateway into media history

Every time I have shown the vocational education film Journalism, students in our mass media history course have chuckled at how things used to be back in 1940. The next time I show the film, they also will use the film to explore journalistic values, technology, labor relations, and several other topics.

The 10-minute film was created as part of a series aimed at high school students considering various careers. It focused primarily on newspaper journalism and offered a glimpse into a reporter’s work, some of the technologies used, differences between urban and community newspapers, and gender roles in the newsroom. Usually when I have shown the film I have prefaced its presentation with some remarks about journalism in the U.S. at the start of World War II and how journalistic values have changed or stayed constant.

Now, after reading several articles about using film to explore history, I am considering ways in which students could use Journalism as a starting point for learning how to do history.

Granted, Journalism is not a Hollywood-produced feature, the kind of film addressed by Paul B. Weinstein1 and others who have written on the use of movies in history courses. But because it is short, directly related to journalism, and from a period about which substantial data and documents are readily available, it could serve as the means to get students excited about exploring historical questions. Once we have tackled this film, we might turn to others, such as 1952’s Deadline – U.S.A. or the classic from 1941, Citizen Kane — although I fear students might not last through the almost two-hour movie.

Journalism provides undergraduates the opportunity to delve into the nature of the news business more than half a century ago. For example, students usually snort at the film’s claim that “Women find it difficult to compete with men in general reporting jobs.” Rather than simply accepting that that’s they way things were back then, we could examine just what the working conditions were for women in journalism and for reporters in general. This would get students to explore the Statistical Abstract of the United States and other resources that reveal details about labor in the 1940s. Using digitized primary sources available through our library’s access to Newspaper Archive, students could look at newspapers from the 1940s to see how they compare to today’s publications. Depending on the quality of optical character recognition in the digitized papers, students also could perform basic content analysis to discover what themes were prevalent in specific geographies or during specific periods in the 1940s.

Rather than just showing the film, Journalism will become a vehicle for exploring a range of historical topics and methods. Students’ interaction with the film also will change, moving them from observers to interpreters of the content.

1. Paul D. Weinstein, “Movies as the Gateway to History: The History and Film Project,” The History Teacher, 35:1 (November 2001), 27-48.