Reading and Evaluating Sources
“Fake news!” “Media Bias!”
We hear charges like these often, mostly in reference to the types of popular sources that we can find on the internet, on TV, on the radio, or in print.
We should not be tempted to write off all popular news sources as somehow “bad”; we should, however, be willing to evaluate any news source’s authority and credibility before choosing to include it in any academic assignment.
How to evaluate newspaper and magazine sources? Do some research on the author and the publication, and use your critical reading skills in examining the article’s strength.
Do a background check on the author of the material.
- Does the author support a particular political or religious view that could be affecting his or her objectivity in the piece?
- Is the author supported by any special-interest groups (i.e. the American Library Association or Keep America Safe)?
Authority and Expertise of Author
Who is the author? A highly educated expert on that topic who is choosing to publish an article for a popular, mainstream audience? A journalist who specializes in the topic? A journalist whose specialty is unclear? A citizen who is weighing in?
Is the author writing from personal experience, or is he/she synthesizing and offering commentary on others’ experiences?
Each of these different levels of expertise will confer a different level of authority on the topic.
Be careful that you are not using an article that is actually a middle school student essay published in a school newspaper!
Certain newspapers or magazines are subject to corporate owners’ political ideologies or biases. Just as you can do some background research on an individual author, do some research on the publication that hosts the article you would like to use.
Does it lean liberal or conservative? Is it religious or secular? If you cannot easily answer these questions by reading the source, don’t be afraid to do seek those answers through further research.
Assess the Quality of the Argument, if the article is persuasive
Identify the author’s main claim. Pay attention to what the author uses to support his or her claim – do you find relevant evidence or just emotional examples? Do you find statistics used consistently and fairly, with an explanation of where they came from? Do you see logical fallacies in the author’s argument? Does the author consider opposing viewpoints– if so, how thoroughly?
Assess the Quality of the Explanation, if the article is explanatory
Identify the author’s thesis. Pay attention to how balanced the author’s explanation is – does he or she present all sides equally so as to avoid clear judgement? Does the author effectively summarize sources used? (Please note that magazine and newspaper writing style does not require the types of in-text citations that we use in our papers).