In the following essay, we will briefly discuss the nature of an argument, the law of non-contradiction, and a selection of informal fallacies. We will also present a helpful cache of tough questions, which can be used when engaging various worldviews. Finally, we will look at how to discern the assumptions behind the information presented in the media. This survey is designed to provide you with an introduction to the art of critical thinking.
Why are so many people in today’s society swayed by mere emotionalism, or trapped by the most recent propaganda disseminated across our airwaves, television, or in the classroom? While there are several factors involved in answering this question, one primary reason is that people do not think critically.
What is an Argument?
Most people think an argument occurs when people get together, raise their voices, and call each other names. Properly speaking, this is not an argument, but an altercation. An argument, understood in a philosophical or logical context, is where we draw conclusions from various premises. There are several words that we use to indicate when we are presenting a premise and when we are presenting a conclusion. When indicating a premise, we use such words as: because, for, for this reason, as, if, based on the fact that, etc. When demonstrating a conclusion, we typically use: therefore, thus, consequently, hence, it follows that, etc. It’s good to keep these indicators in mind so that you can detect an argument.
It is common for arguments to be confused with assertions. Assertions are the expressions of opinions without supporting premises. For example, it is common to hear someone assert that there are contradictions in the Bible, but just saying so doesn’t make it so. When you hear assertions like this, the proper response is to ask questions, such as, “Can you give me some examples?” 1
The Law of Non-Contradiction
This law is the foundation for all logical thinking. It may be defined as follows: a statement (a proposition) cannot be true and not true at the same time and in the same respect. For example: It cannot be both raining and not raining at the same time and in the same respect.
Humans did not invent the laws of logic any more than they invented the laws of nature — such as the law of gravity. In fact, throughout the Bible, the law of non-contradiction is implied. Without this law, nothing could be interpreted as true or false. Right thinking imitates God’s thinking; and because God does not contradict himself (his Word cannot be broken — John 10:35; he cannot lie — Hebrews 6:18), Christians should seek to avoid contradiction. Without the law of non-contradiction we would never be able to detect a lie. 2
In fact, if someone wants to deny the law of non-contradiction, that person immediately runs back into it, because they would have to presuppose that it’s true in order to prove that it’s false. Imagine the following conversation:
“Hey, I don’t think the law of non-contradiction is really that important. In fact, I believe that we don’t need to follow it at all.”
“Really? So you think we need to follow the law of non-contradiction. You really believe it’s that important?”
“Didn’t you hear me? I said just the opposite from what you said I said.”
“If the law of non-contradiction really isn’t important, then we are both correct.”
When expressing a denial or affirmation of any claim, proposition, belief, or idea, one must presuppose the law of non-contradiction. It is fundamental to any kind of distinctions: right and wrong, good and bad, true and false. 3
A fallacy is simply a faulty argument. In the process of reasoning, there are two types of fallacies that occur: formal and informal. Formal fallacies deal with the actual form of the argument. When an argument is structured incorrectly it is fallacious. Even when an argument is formally correct, it may still be informally fallacious. The conclusion may not actually follow from the premises due to a faulty gathering of information, circular reasoning, or some other mistake. Informal fallacies are the more common of the two types of fallacies, and will be covered in this paper.
Below we provide a list of some common informal fallacies, a brief explanation of each, and an illustration or two. We have not provided an exhaustive catalogue because there seem to be an endless number of ways that people can make mistakes in their thinking, and we do not have the space to explain them all.
Fallacies of Ambiguity
Communication can be difficult. Difficulties arise from differing cultures, age groups, races, prejudices, and especially from differing worldviews. One of the most important ground rules for clear communication is clear definitions. We may be unnecessarily frustrated if others misunderstand what we say because they either don’t know what a word means, or we simply have not supplied clear definitions for the words we use.
Equivocation: The fallacy of equivocation occurs when we use different definitions for the same word, or when a word is taken in a different way than intended (a different definition). Many words have different meanings depending on their context. Consider the following examples:
“All men are created equal? If that were so, then there wouldn’t be so many rich people.”
“If all men are created equal, then why am I so short?”
The difficulty that arises in these examples is that the statement “all men are created equal” means that all men should be equally valued as human beings. It was never intended to mean that we are all clones of one another, or that we would have equal incomes.
There is a special type of equivocation that can occur with relative terms like tall or short. These types of words must be understood in relation to something else. To claim that something or someone is tall assumes a relation to other people or things. The vagueness of these types of terms can only be clarified by context.
It should be noted that much of our humor rests in equivocations. In a humorous context, we call it a “play on words.” Also, sometimes an equivocation can be intentional and witty, such as when Ben Franklin declared, “We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” The word hang is intended to be understood quite differently in each usage.
When Christians are witnessing to people who are involved in pseudo-Christian religions (i.e. cults), they need to be very careful to define their words so as not to be misunderstood. For example, while Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses both use the name of Jesus Christ, they have completely different meanings. The Jehovah’s Witness believes that Jesus was the first created being and was, in fact, the Archangel Michael before he became the man Jesus. The Mormons, on the other hand, believe that Jesus is literally our older brother from a pre-existence. Jesus is believed to be the firstborn of the Father and one of many gods. Given these differences, we need to make sure that we dig deeper into the meanings of what people say and not stay at a superficial level of communication. 4
Fallacies of Relevance
This section will deal with fallacies that occur when something irrelevant to the question of truth is added to an argument in the attempt to persuade.
Appeal to Pity: This fallacy occurs when one tries to persuade by invoking the listener to feel sorry for the individual or group for whom one is arguing. Many times, pity is an appropriate reaction, but it is not always a valid means of persuasion.
For example, sometimes abortion advocates will argue that if you make poor women carry their babies to term, they may not be cared for properly, or that if you outlaw abortion, then women will have to return to the “back alley butchers” to get abortions. While these arguments may be emotionally persuasive, they are not relevant to the issue at hand. One is never justified in killing a child just because life becomes harder for the mother.
Ad Hominem: Ad hominem means “argument to the person.” This fallacy is committed when, instead of dealing with what a person is arguing, someone attacks his or her character. This is fallacious because a person’s character typically has no bearing on the truth or falsehood of his or her claims. Here are some examples:
“You are wrong because you are an intolerant, closed-minded, right-wing fundamentalist.”
“You can’t trust anything he says. He is a liberal pagan atheist and has no basis for morality.”
Appeal to Ignorance: This fallacy can occur in two ways. 1) To argue that something is true because it hasn’t been proven to be false; or 2) to argue that something is false because it hasn’t been proven to be true. Just because there is no proof against your position does not prove your position true. Likewise, just because a position has not been proven does not mean that it is false. Here are a couple examples:
“You cannot prove God does not exist, therefore God exists.”
“You cannot prove God does exist, therefore God does not exist.”
Red Herring: A herring is a fish that can be used to distract and confuse bloodhounds on the scent of game. Similarly, this fallacy is the introduction of an irrelevant side issue into an argument which ultimately distracts and confuses the case being presented. Often positive (or even negative) reasons offered for a conclusion have nothing to do with conclusion. Here are a couple of examples:
“Of course she’s a good doctor. She drives a great car and is really funny.”
“You believe abortion is murder, yet you are in support of capital punishment?”
Fallacies of Presumption
Fallacies of presumption are those fallacies where someone holds to an unjustified conclusion. This is usually caused by overlooking, denying, evading, or distorting the facts.
Hasty Generalization: When you wish to make an argument for a certain position, you need to gather information for support. In doing this, you must be very careful to gather sufficient evidence to support your conclusion. The fallacy of hasty generalization is committed when a person gathers too little information to support the conclusion being argued.
Just because one or two taxi drivers are rude and obnoxious does not mean that you can generalize that all (or even most) taxi drivers behave this way. All that can legitimately be drawn from such a sampling is that the particular taxi drivers you have encountered were rude and obnoxious. In the same way, just because a person may encounter a couple of Christian TV evangelists who have questionable character does not mean one can conclude that all Christians have questionable character.
These examples get at the heart of the most common way this fallacy is manifest: prejudices. Our prejudices are typically built on a very small sampling, and then are generalized and applied to an entire group (or sub-group) of people or things.
Sweeping Generalization: The fallacy of sweeping generalization is committed when one takes a general rule and applies it absolutely to all instances, not recognizing that there are exceptions. The generalization might be a very fair one, but the application in particular, uncommon, or unique instances may not be valid.
For example, exercise is generally a good thing. Yet what if you have a heart condition? One could say, “Aerobics is the best way to exercise, and Jenny really needs exercise for her heart condition.” The problem is that while aerobics might be “the best way to exercise,” it would obviously not be the right way for Jenny. Instead of it helping her, it might kill her. Here are a couple more examples:
“I haven’t met a single moral atheist. Therefore, no atheists are moral.”
“All Christians hate homosexuals. At least, all the ones I know do.”
Begging the Question: This fallacy occurs when one simply assumes what he or she is trying to prove. This situation can be demonstrated in the following conversation between two thieves who just stole three bars of gold:
Thief A: “So how are we going to divide the gold?”
Thief B: “I should get two bars and you can have one.”
Thief A: “Why should you get two bars?”
Thief B: “Because I am the leader.”
Thief A: “How did you get to be the leader?”
Thief B: “Because I have two bars.”
Faulty Dilemma: This fallacy occurs when a person states that there are only a certain number of options, and you must choose between them, when in fact there are more options available.
In John 9:2–3 the disciples posed a faulty dilemma when, concerning a man who had been blind from birth, they asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
This is an either/or type of question. Instead of answering the question with one of the suggested responses, Jesus denies both and supplies a third. Jesus said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”
Complex Question: One common attempt by unbelievers to stump believers is to ask the age-old question: “Can God create a rock so big that he can’t lift it?” If you answer yes, then God’s omnipotence (all-powerfulness) is denied due to the fact that he can’t lift the rock. If you answer no, however, then God’s omnipotence is denied because he can’t create such a rock. Neither of these answers is satisfying to a Bible-believing Christian. How does one reason out of this dilemma?
This example can be classified as the fallacy of a complex question, or loaded question. What if I asked you, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” If you answer yes, that implies that you have been beating her. If you answer no, then you are still beating her. The problem lies in the question; it is one of those that is simply not fair to ask. You would have to respond that you have never beaten your wife, and that the question presupposes that you have. You can’t answer with a simple yes or a no.
Now back to God and the big rock. You cannot answer this question with a simple yes or no. What you have to do is show that the question is not fair. (It might be good to provide the question about beating one’s wife as an illustration of this.) You see, by definition, since God is omnipotent (and that is what the Bible teaches), he could create the largest rock possible. Also, because God is omnipotent, he could lift the largest possible rock. The problem with the question is that it is faulty; the question was loaded. You cannot set the creative expression of an omnipotent being against the abilities of an omnipotent being. That would be just as illogical as asking whether or not God could create a square circle or if God could count higher than infinity. It is not within the realm of reality to speak of such illusions, and they do not in any way illustrate any limitation in God’s power and abilities.
False Analogy: An analogy is said to be fallacious or false if it compares two objects that are actually relevantly dissimilar or if the points of comparison are used to draw a conclusion that simply does not follow. 5 Consider the following example:
“You Christians claim to have miracles to support your religion, but so do other religious traditions, such as Mormonism. Thus there is no reason to believe that Christianity is true.”
The two objects being compared are Christians and Mormons. Their status as religions and their claim that miracles occur and support their validity are the points of commonalities. However, the conclusion that Christianity is false because another religion claims miracles does not follow. For example, it is possible that miracles occur within both religions traditions. It is also possible that either Christianity or Mormonism have lied or believed falsely regarding the miracles claimed by their religion.
False Cause: This fallacy is committed when a person believes that just because one thing followed another there must be a causal connection.
In many ancient cultures, people believed that the gods caused all sickness. These cultures would therefore attempt to placate the wrath of their gods by means of various sacrifices. At times, the sickness would go away after the sacrifices. Because of this, their beliefs were reinforced. They believed that the gods had been placated, and the sickness was removed because of the sacrifice. Mere chronological sequence does not prove causation.
Straw Man: The straw man fallacy occurs when a person misrepresents another’s view so as to easily discredit it. This can happen intentionally or unintentionally. The image this fallacy conjures up is that of a person building a straw man simply to knock it over.
One might say, “You say that the New Testament teaches that we are not under law, and that we are saved by grace through faith alone. Therefore, what you teach is that we can sin all we want after we are saved.” This is a straw man according to Paul in Romans 6:15ff. The person making such an argument simplified the New Testament’s stance on the law, sin, and salvation in order to easily defeat a teaching they either didn’t understand or with which they didn’t agree.
Appeal to Majority: We see this fallacy when we appeal to a group of people to prove that something is true or false, right or wrong. Many times Americans fall into this trap. For example, some people think that certain sexual practices are justified because over 50% of the American public believes that they are permissible. We cannot determine right and wrong by majority vote.
In the past, many people believed that the Earth was flat. But just because they believed this, does it mean that the Earth was indeed flat? Does majority vote make things true or right today? Just because a great number of Americans think that abortion is acceptable, does that make it so?
In the end, we cannot determine right/wrong or true/false by majority vote. Such a thing can be decided only by legitimate reasons and evidence.
Appeal to Tradition: This fallacy occurs when one appeals either to what is old, or to what is new in the attempt to establish the truth.
Someone may appeal to what is traditional. “We have always done it this way, it must be right.” However, there may be a better way. More often today, we hear an appeal to the modern. “We moderns don’t believe in the existence of God. That was for ages past when people believed in mythology.” Merely because something is old or new does not make it right or true.
ASKING QUESTIONS 6
Francis Scott Key, the man who penned the words of the Star-Spangled Banner, was also a great Christian apologist. He once wrote, “I do not believe there are any new objections to be raised to the truth of Christianity. Men may argue ingeniously against our faith, but what can they say in defense of their own?”
Mr. Key understood a profound, yet little known principle of defending the Christian faith: the best defense is a good offense. Both sides of an issue should be able to defend their position. We need to practice making our opponents 7 stand up for what they believe, and the best way to make them defend their position is by asking strategic questions.
The strategy of asking questions is a powerful one, but it must be done with the correct demeanor. We must always question the ideas presented, although we should be careful not to challenge the authority of the professor.
In addition, we must keep in mind that if we ask questions of others, they will likely ask questions of us. That means that while we want to challenge other people to defend their beliefs, they will challenge us as well. We need to know why we believe what we believe.
By asking questions we engage in worldview apologetics. We are able to go beyond someone’s appearance or behavior in order reveal and engage their worldview.
How you ask questions — the attitude revealed in your style of inquiry — will reveal whether you want to persuade someone of the truth or just win arguments. We hope that you will desire the former so that you can graciously demonstrate Christian living to unbelievers.
Asking questions is an excellent strategy for three reasons. First, it is low risk. If your opponent becomes angry or defensive at your questions, then you can simply stop asking questions, or change the subject.
Second, asking questions helps you to understand your opponent’s train of thought — where they began their thinking, how their thinking progressed, and the exact conclusion for which they are trying to argue. In other words, asking questions helps you to understand them. And understanding is a primary step in seeking to persuade people of the truth.
Third, asking questions can help someone to have a better understanding of where they stand on an issue. In other words, instead of giving them an explanation, you can cause them to think through their position more clearly.
What sort of questions should we be asking? Start with questions that strike at the heart of your opponent’s worldview. Such questions force them to back up and defend their assumptions. Along this line, we suggest a series of tough questions.
Question 1: What do you mean by that?
Always begin by asking your opponents to define their terms. If they say something like, “There is no such thing as a traditional family left in the United States today,” then ask, “What do you mean by traditional family?” If they say “God cannot exist because there is too much evil,” then ask, “What do you mean by evil?” 8
Question 2: How did you come to that conclusion?
This question is especially helpful in coming to understand how people think. You can find out where their thoughts began, how they progressed, and how they arrived at their conclusion. Along the way, you can ask further questions about any of their points of reasoning.
Question 3: How do you know that to be true?
Here we are seeking an understanding of why they believe what they believe. Ask them to supply some good support for what they are claiming to be true.
Question 4: Why do you believe that you are right?
We should be ready to ask, “Why do you believe as you do?” This question forces one’s opponent to admit when they are simply assuming their beliefs and when they have actually reasoned through their beliefs. It also helps to reveal any evidence they might offer for their arguments. Christians should, in turn, always be ready to give rudimentary reasons for their beliefs on any given subject.
Question 5: Where do you get your information?
Students should be trained to ask, “Where do you get the information to prove that what you are saying is true?” This question can help distinguish between mere hearsay and documented data.
Question 6: What happens if you are wrong?
Nobody likes to think about the consequences if what they believe is wrong. Yet there have been some outstanding examples of people who were willing to do just that. One such person was Blaise Pascal, a brilliant mathematician, known for his famous wager. It goes something like this: “If I become a Christian and live my life in the service of mankind, and then die only to find out that Christianity is not true, I will have lost nothing. But if I do not become a Christian and live my life selfishly, and then die only to discover that Christianity is true, I will have lost everything.” Pascal’s wager is a direct way of asking, “What do I have to lose if I am wrong?” 9
Question 7: Can you give me two sources that disagree with you and explain why they disagree? 10
College professors often hold to one position very strongly against all others. In class, they may assert, either implicitly or explicitly, that what they believe to be true is the objective truth. Therefore, they may give little or no merit to any disagreements, or they may even ridicule their opponents. The astute Christian student will ask such professors to explain clearly the opposing viewpoints, along with good documentation, and then explain why they disagree. In this way, you can see if your professors have weighed different sides of the issues and made informed decisions. The professor has two options: give the merits of the opposing side (thus demonstrating to the class that his is not the only way to think about the issue), or, admit that he has not studied the opposing viewpoints, and has thus made an uninformed decision without weighing all the available information.
Question 8: Why is this significant?
Many professors will fail, unless challenged by students, to provide the connection between their worldview and the point they are making. For example, if they claim “people are basically good, not sinful, by nature,” you might ask why this point is significant. This might prompt them to explain that this justifies another view, maybe a socialistic view of the world, or elimination of the need for a savior.
Question 9: How do I know you are telling me the truth? 11
If the opponent has any hidden agenda, it will surface at this point. We should not trust someone simply because he has a Ph.D. after his name. People are fallible, and we all make mistakes. Remember, the Bereans were nobler because they checked the Apostle Paul against the Old Testament (Acts 17:11). A poor professor will respond simply by listing his or her qualifications. A good professor will say “Don’t take my word for it. Go check it out for yourself.”
Question 10: Can you give me an alternate explanation for this phenomenon?
This is a good way to move a discussion back onto logical ground. Many individuals will emotionally assert things like, “His budget cuts are responsible for all of the economic ills in this nation.” This is an absurd generalization, something that will become evident when asking this question.
ANALYZING MEDIA REPORTS
People need to recognize that most of their information about the world comes to them through the media. Yet, the media isn’t some massive channel that simply dumps unbiased facts into our laps. As we have seen, everyone has a worldview: the actors in a news story, the experts who comment on it, the reporters of the story, even the editors/executives who decide which story to cover. Each of their worldviews has an impact on the information that eventually reaches you.
At times, the influence of a particular worldview may be subtle. However, it wouldn’t take very long to discover that many of them don’t just have a job; they have a mission. Their mission is to make a difference in the world through what they do. In fact, for many people, this is not an unusual goal. Students needs to be aware that we all approach information and life with a bias. It is simply unavoidable.
In the vast majority of cases, the editors and reporters are making an effort to be balanced. Yet what does balanced mean? It means reporting both sides of the issue with no indication that either side of the story has more merit. Is that true? As Christians, we believe that some things are right and other things are wrong.
As one learns to analyze media reports, he or she should apply the rules on logical thinking that are presented in this section. They should also keep the following factors in mind:
1. What is reported?
It is easy to think that by reading your daily newspaper and watching the evening news you have received a thorough representation of anything relevant in your community. Students should realize that each media outlet has a limited amount of space and ability to deal with everything that is important. Think of a media outlet as a spotlight on a dark night. The spotlight will illuminate things that you would never see otherwise, but there is no way it can shine on everything at once.
Recognize also that each individual news form has restrictions and limitations. In order to make a story acceptable for television, it must have pictures. This may seem inconsequential until you realize that there are some things — like the arrival of a new bear at the local zoo — which are reported because they make great pictures and can be reported in two minutes. Yet perhaps the same day the bear arrived, the city council made a change in the zoning laws that will affect your school. City council meetings make horrible pictures, and zoning laws don’t fit well into concise sound bites. Which story is truly important?
What makes an event newsworthy? Most events that are truly life-changing are not considered newsworthy: marriages, deaths, and births. Rarely do these events appear on the front page. Conversely, many events that make the front page are life changing for only a few people, or intriguing for the moment.
2. Which sides are presented?
Is a response from each side presented? Does the news story even indicate that someone might think differently? For instance, in an article in the Chicago Tribune, “Life Gets Earlier Date of Origin,” 12 an Australian scientist is reported as having found that life evolved much earlier than was previously thought — going from chemical soup to living cells in just 500 million years, rather than 1 1/2 billion years. The article is well written, and acknowledges disagreement within the scientific community. However, it does not acknowledge that anyone might disagree with evolution altogether.
There are many reasons for this type of omission. Sometimes it is deliberate. At other times, a reporter may not be aware that another viewpoint exists or know a credible contact to represent a position. Also, there may not be time to consider another opinion due to deadlines.
Another reason for omitting a position on an issue is based on worldviews. How we think will affect what we believe to be credible, or even possible. For example, we know that the world is round, but some people still believe it to be flat. If you were going to write an article examining a change in a major ocean current and its effect on weather, would you contact the Flat Earth Society for comment?
In the same way, a reporter who firmly believes that the material world is all that exists may do a human-interest piece on a miraculous recovery from cancer. Although they might mention the chance that there might be a supernatural element involved, a natural cause of recovery will be sought and favored. The reporter knows that there is no way God could have healed the patient, so this possibility is as absurd as the idea of a flat Earth.
3. What is the tone of the report?
Does the tone of the writing or speaking carry meaning in itself? Does the tone match the issue being reported? Consider the following example from an article concerning the ethical discussions raised by the movie Indecent Proposal (where a billionaire offers another man 1 million dollars for one night with his wife). The reporter spoke with a woman who is shocked by the number of women who would agree to take the money and sleep with the man. The reporter is writing in the first person.
“I was really shocked,” she said. “I think these people are telling the truth. Kidding is one thing, but this was a serious discussion. I love my husband. This would never even be cause for five minutes of deliberation. I would never do it. I can’t believe they would.”
She talks as if this is going to go on record as the final rip in modern morality.
“And what do you think?” she wanted to know.
The woman is 53 years old, the grandmother of three. And by her own admission, she is 35 pounds overweight.
I told her I could see how this would be a great moral challenge. But I thought she had the strength to get through it.
“I think you can go back to worrying about Somalia, the economy and whether Donald will marry Marla,” I said. “I just don’t think this is going to come up.”
“That’s not the point,” she said.
“Yes, it is,” I replied. 13
4. What underlying assumptions does the news story hold?
Students should become skilled in seeking underlying assumptions held in the report of a story.
The Twin Cities Star Tribune ran an article entitled, “If every kid cared, the world would change,” 14 describing the impact of a few sixth graders concerned about the environment. The piece is inspiring, but the assumption is that it is permissible to do whatever is necessary to make your point (the children disobeyed school officials in holding a protest, and were suspended from school). This disobedience was presented in a positive light.
5. Who are the sources and how are they characterized?
Does an article on environmentalism only quote extremist groups, or do they use more moderate sources? If the article quotes Christians, which groups or spokespersons are quoted? Are these the best sources? Why were these sources used? Consider also how the sources are characterized or described. Are they seen in a positive or negative light? The following quote is from an Associated Press article reporting on several Italian towns that banned bikinis on city streets.
ROME (AP) — . . . Limits on topless bathing or skimpy suits on city streets are not new. But this time the prudery illuminates attitudes about a political force that has arrived like an awkward adolescent shouldering his way onto the school bus.
The prudish officials belong to the Northern League, a regionally based anti-corruption party backed by small businessmen and the middle class, with upright morals to match.
The bans reflect the culture clash between the League and its rivals from traditional parties, particularly on the left, which regard the League as part of a conservative backlash. 15
6. How are words used to describe people or organizations?
- To describe the incident: Was someone taken to jail or thrown into jail?
- To describe the people involved: A local church or a fundamentalist religious group? 16
- To describe a position: Is someone pro-life or anti-abortion?
- To convey emotion: One article described citations by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. The organization cited the Federal Communications Commission for censorship for ” . . . trying to gag controversial radio personality Howard Stern . . . ” 17 Censorship and gag are emotional words, and convey meaning.
- To give positive or negative connotations: “Focus on the Family, the Christian media conglomerate, should be upfront about its ‘extreme and un-American’ political agenda, a national civil liberties watchdog group said Wednesday.” 18 Think of the words with generally positive connotations: civil liberties and watchdog. Negative connotations come from the words agenda and conglomerate.
To simply describe a thing: A fascinating example of this comes from an article titled “Drs. try to save brain-dead mom’s fetus.” The baby is referred to as a fetus throughout the article, except when a hospital spokesman is quoted as saying, “The odds are very slim, but the baby’s heart is beating.” 19
Or, consider Colorado’s Amendment Two, which would prevent laws giving gays protected civil rights status such as those that protect minority groups. Contrast that description with, “the amendment would ban laws that prevent discrimination against homosexuals,” 20 as it was described by the Associated Press.
Even punctuation can be used to convey meaning. In the following examples, a prayer rally is presented as something a bit odd, if not downright unsavory.
- Abortion clinics brace for Operation Rescue
- Saturday ‘prayer rally’ set for Robbinsdale
- Operation Rescue officials confirmed Wednesday that their national director, the Rev. Keith Tucci, will be in the Twin Cities this weekend and will lead a “prayer rally” in front of a Robbinsdale abortion clinic on Saturday. 21
7. How are actions described?
What are the outcomes or results of the event being reported? Are these accurate? Consider an article entitled, “Teaching multicultural history instills pride, sense of place, educators find.” 22 The results of implementing presenting a multicultural curriculum are presented as overwhelmingly positive. However, the writer does not examine the results of this curriculum on the students’ standardized test scores. The program has raised self-esteem, but is that the only crucial criteria for evaluation?
8. What statistics are used?
Statistics can prove just about anything — and they can be misleading. A prime example is the accepted statistic that homosexuals comprise 10% of the population. 23 Recent studies indicate that 2-3% is more appropriate, 24 yet the 10% figure continues to be used.
9. What is left out of the news story?
This can include background sources, supporting materials or studies, and opposing viewpoints. Sometimes this omission is deliberate. However, in many cases it is simply irresponsible reporting. For example, consider the following news brief that was sent on the United Press International newswire:
(TRENTON, N.J.) — Some 15 million people could be getting parched if there is more global warming without an increase in rainfall. The U.S. Geological Survey says the Delaware River Basin which feeds Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York could be facing a serious drought if the overall temperature rises by just four degrees. That would cause stream flow to drop 27 percent and allow saltwater to back up in the Delaware into freshwater aquifers. 25
That is the entire story! Almost every possible detail was left out — why the U.S. Geological Survey said what it did, any supporting statistics or studies, or support for the controversial idea of global warming in general. This example also begins with the faulty assumption that global warming is already occurring, and points out the inherent difficulties in reporting news. This news clip was intended for a radio broadcast which leaves very little time for in-depth information. Also, notice all the conditional words, could, if, etc . . .
10. Where is the reader or listener led into faulty reasoning?
Consider the following example from United Press International:
MALDEN, Mass. (UPI) — The state Board of Education Tuesday approved a policy that encourages local school officials to implement programs to protect gay students from harassment and educate faculty members about gay issues.
The policy believed to be first [sic] of its kind in the nation, was approved as part of an overall strategy intended to curb an increasing level of violence in schools, which in recent months has included the fatal shootings of a student and a librarian.
The board, however, stopped short of recommending a gay studies curriculum to be offered in the public schools. 26
Unless the reader is thinking critically, he might assume the shootings cited in paragraph 2 were gay related — not so. The reader is led to assume that with increasing violence, gays will need protection.
One of the difficulties with analyzing media reports is that the more you think critically, the more critical you become. It will become much harder to simply absorb the news. There are some positive actions you and your class can take to promote a more balanced approach to the news in your area. One key action is to make sure your local media outlets have access to credible sources. Gary Bauer, of the Family Research Council, is quoted often in secular media simply because he is one of the few people they know to contact for the “conservative Christian” viewpoint.
One of the best ways to do this is to distribute a media guide to all your local news sources. Find spokespeople on a variety of topics: women’s issues, the family, religion, education (private schools, Christian education, home school), abortion, etc. Make sure your spokespeople are reasonable and articulate — choose carefully. Be sure to include teens from your school who are willing to be interviewed. List the topics and spokespersons — including addresses; day and evening phone numbers; and a short biography to lend credibility.
Send the media guide with a cover letter to all newspapers, and radio and television stations in your area. They may or may not use it, but it will be kept on file. A reporter always appreciates a source who can be reached when a deadline is looming, and is willing to speak up in a manner that is easily quotable.
Also, begin to think of good stories for your local media. Some of the community service projects your class is doing could make a great “warm fuzzy” story. Let them know.
If your local newspaper or television station doesn’t have a “teen council” composed of students from area high schools — find a couple of interested students who would be willing to make the suggestion and serve on the council. Council members could serve as a sounding board on community issues affecting youth, be reporters, and take turns writing a weekly or daily “teen editorial.”