Lessons my research has taught me: there’s nothing new about fake news

In this Expert Corner, professor of history Mélanie Méthot shares her experience of how our perceptions can become skewed by media, even when we make an effort to research.

Mélanie Méthot - 28 December 2020

Since the beginning of my career as an historian I have used newspapers as historical sources.  Oh, the hours I have spent in front of the microfilm machine reading every issue of Montréal and Winnipeg daily papers from 1880 to 1910 in the hopes of finding either what journalists wrote about social reformers, or what they themselves said! This was before the massive digitization of newspapers, so one could not “word search” and instead had to read column after column of tiny script to find needles in haystacks. I still remember the feeling of joy when I stumbled across the names of one of the six reformers I had decided to study. At that time, I did not really question the provenance of the information, always too elated to have found something.

It is while examining newspapers that I fell upon the research project which has dominated my career ever since. In the space of a few months, one of the newspapers covered three different cases of bigamy. Since no other scholars had studied the criminal offence of when a person “being married, goes through a form of marriage with another person”, I decided I would become a bigamy scholar. I was hoping that by looking at the “extraordinary” (bigamy prosecutions) I would be better able to understand the “ordinary” (marriage expectations). What were the courts, the church, society and individuals’ attitudes towards the matrimonial institution?

My corpus includes laws, prison records, court dockets, case files and newspaper accounts. The excitement I felt when I discovered in newspapers a mention of a social reformer, I experienced tenfold when I came across a suspected bigamist. Often the actual case files, if there were any (many have disappeared in Canada), were very slim and I could not glean much information. Newspapers provided much needed details about the offender, his or her victims and the circumstances of the offence. Again, only too happy to include new details on the particulars of a case, I rarely questioned the veracity of a “fact”. For instance, three Montréal newspapers reported in 1870 on the bigamy of a young Philomène Dery—the Montreal Star’s anti-Catholic stance surfaced when the reporter blamed a “Romish clergyman of lodging the information.”  His language betrayed his take on the accused who he portrayed more as a victim than a criminal. Since I had not located a case file for Mrs Dery, I was grateful to add to my data on informants. It was only years later that a colleague found the case file—the one who lodged the complaint was in fact Dery’s illegitimate husband. 

The new information reminded me that I needed to be more critical towards my sources. I had to keep the joy I felt each time I found new evidence in check with the need to assess the provenance of the information. The proliferation of information sources has made the need to verify the validity of information even more obvious. The Australian government has invested massively in making historical newspapers available online. As a result, the corpus for my research on bigamy in Australia not only counts thousands of fat case files which include all sorts of interesting details, but over a hundred thousand newspaper articles! Some bigamists attract the attention of many newspapers. Analyzing each one reveals how the details vary from one newspaper to the other. In an article on bigamy prosecution in Victoria (Australia) on the press and the case file, I show how some reporters emphasize certain features of a case to the detriment of others. Journalists cater to their personal bias, or even take artistic license, adding or changing details for dramatic effect. In the case of an accused barmaid, three newspapers printed the illegitimate husband “was in a frantic state when he discovered that his wife had a husband living,” while another paper reported the opposite: “He was not much hurt by what had happened. He laid the information because he conceived it to be his duty as constable to do.” Comparing newspaper data with legal and genealogical records, I conclude that if scrutinizing different types of sources allows the researcher to add layers to our understanding, it also demonstrates how one needs to remain ever vigilant about newspaper reports and even with “official” records.

I would be remiss not to mention one last lesson about “facts” and objectivity.  I have been working on the story behind one 1880 bigamy case from Québec for many years. What started as an academic article evolved into a monograph (nearly completed!) as I gradually discovered new sources. Throughout the process, I caught myself rooting for one of the protagonists and loathing the other. Discussing the case with so much passion with anyone ready to listen, I realized that although detached from the events, I had taken a side. It meant that my reading of new sources suffered from my predisposition. It is only when I acknowledged my own bias that I was able to look at the evidence with different eyes and see how the other parties could have felt.

Analyzing the material we see and read on a daily basis is even more important than ever. And not just while we’re doing historical research, either. It’s something that we encourage in our students at Augustana towards the ultimate goal of a better understanding of the world in which we live. When we readily agree with what we read, we must ask even more questions and reflect on why we find the view so amenable.

This piece originally appeared in the CIRCLE 2020 Alumni Magazine.