Evaluating, or Analyzing, Sources

last revised 2/4/08

You shouldn't just read and use a source as if it's giving you the God's Honest Truth.  If you are writing for a complex or scholarly audience, and if you are yourself thinking complexly, you must evaluate your sources and include some of those evaluations in your writing (always site sources and always comment on sources).  In a nutshell, a good evaluation, or analysis, will break a source down into a number of parts using certain lenses or ideological/theoretical points-of-view, and then synthesize the meaning of these parts into a larger idea or critique or interpretation (of course the metaphor of lenses implies you can take them off or put them on at will, but that isn't necessarily the case).

Of course I also want you thinking about things with Rhetorical lenses--think of the source's PAGS (purpose, audience, genre, style; you can go back to some of my rhetorical analysis questions at http://research.uvsc.edu/mortensen/1010/assignments/readingrhetorically.html ).

You can use the lenses of logic which involve fallacies (part of logic) to evaluate your sources (see Prentice Hall p. 37-38, or try the more extensive list at the fallacy files, http://www.fallacyfiles.org/ ).  Of course you must combine this with PAGS--is your source using fallacies with a specific purpose in mind (to entertain, enrage)?  Or is it truly being sloppy in it's logic?

Purpose?  
Audience?  
Genre?  
Style/Language?  

Sometimes you may have to begin by merely understanding what the sources is saying, so attempting to do an "accurate" or fair summary can be a good place to start.

In the Allyn & Bacon Guide to Writing (603-05), it tell us to look at four areas when thinking about sources:

Scholarly Evaluation Grid 
(though you should always think about PAGS; not all writing is supposed to be scholarly)

Angle of Vision Degree of Advocacy Reliability Credibility
underlying beliefs or values, assumptions; author affiliations (background or connections); warrants or lenses (identity and ideology lists) extent to which the author takes a persuasive stance; do they seem "objective" or less biased sounding?  or do they sound very biased?  this has close ties to Credibility accuracy of factual data based primarily on external validation--how accurately is the author using outside sources or facts?  how much distortion is there of these outside sources?  how credible are the outside sources themselves? internal; can the reader trust the writer's honesty and goodwill (ethos)?  what's the tonal spin, and how much of it is there?  this has close ties to Degree of Advocacy
  • tone/diction that shows beliefs
  • selection or omission of details that shows beliefs
  • overt statements about beliefs
  • figurative language that points toward a certain belief system
  • genre of source 
  • politics of author/publisher (see the list below)
  • author affiliations that show their beliefs a.k.a a background check (google the author's name...they might be a religious studies Ph.D, or a member of the KKK!! or the ACLU!!!  If you don't know about the groups an author might belong to, google those too!)
  • tone/diction can help you see how opinionated they author might be (ranting/pathos vs. quiet logos)
  • what kind of sources does she cite?  Scholarly?  Informal/Web?  extremely biased, non-credible, or unreliable?  
  • the amount of Political spin (see the political grid below)?
  • are there a lot of one-sided fallacies?
  • Lee also likes to try a deconstruction of hasty or overgeneralized or oversimplified binaries (ideologies)...
  • are "the outside facts" the author uses distorted in any way (and why might they be?  what's the agenda in distorting sources?; see the Hannity example or the Moore example)?  Or are sources used way out of context (and why)?  
  • are there key facts that are widely disputed, and does the source acknowledge this dispute or ignore it?
  • are the outside sources credible and reliable themselves?
  • Obviously you might have to do a lot of google checks and research to answer these questions more fully (look up quotes or sources or facts being used to see if there is a a lot of distortion or only a little ...
  • tone (observed in diction; also keep in mind sarcasm, satire, and irony, often harder to read; ranting/pathos vs. quiet logos)?
  • reasonableness?
  • fairness?
  • respect of other views?
  • sometimes googling the author can help you find other writers or thinkers critiquing or praising their fairness
  • BUT KEEP IN MIND PAGS--not all purposes or genres are meant to be fair--always try to evaluate texts in their contexts

You can also think about your source in terms of political bias by comparing it to any of the following publications/media and/or commentators (according to the Allyn & Bacon Guide to Writing; keep in mind that with newspapers and magazines, you might only be able to see it's slant in the op ed pieces):

Political Category Grid (based on the Allyn & Bacon Guide)

FAR LEFT LEFT LIBERAL LEFT CENTER RIGHT CENTER RIGHT CONSERVATIVE FAR RIGHT

media sources

People's World;
The Guardian
The Nation;
Mother Jones;
The Progressive;
Utne Reader
Village Voice;
LA Times;
NY Times;
Atlantic Monthly;
Newsweek;
Harper's;
PBS;
NPR
Time;
Washington Post;
New Republic;
CBS;
NBC;
ABC
U.S. News and World Report;
Reader's Digest;
The Wall Street Journal;
American Spectator;
National Review
New American;
Plain Truth;
Washington Times

commentators

Alexander Cockburn;
Edward Said;
Noam Chomsky;

Al Franken?
Tom Tomorrow?
Louis Farrakhan?
Michael Moore?

Gore Vidal;
Barbara Ehrenreich;
Jesse Jackson;
Molly Ivins;
Ralph Nader;

Pat Bagley?
Michael Kinsley;
Anthony Lewis;
Bill Moyers;
Ted Koppel (ABC);
Ellen Goodman;
Mark Shields;
Jonathan Alter;
Anna Quindlen

Steve Benson?

David Broder (Washington Post);
William Saffire (NYTimes)
David Brooks (NY Times)

George Will (Washinton Post);
Charles Krauthammer;
John Leo;
William F. Buckley;
Milton Friedman;
Thomas Sowell;
Paul Gigot

Wayne Stayskal?

Ann Coulter
Rush Limbaugh
;
Pat Buchanan;
Pat Robertson;
Paul Harvey;

Phyllis Schlafly
?
Sean Hannity?

...And where do you fit in this list?