Module 4: The Production of Information

Introduction

The complex information ecosystem–in which public and private sources battle for control of policy, in which marketers and publishers compete for the public’s attention, in which popular press magazines crowd the grocery store checkout line and peer-reviewed sources are locked away in databases, and in which electronic sources are updated and disseminated instantly across vast global networks—is extremely challenging to navigate.  This module looks at problems inherent in different sources of information. Neither government nor free-market sources can claim to be completely unbiased, and it is worth the effort to think about the advantages and disadvantages of both.

Information and the State

The Soviet Model of Government Censorship

Governments can control information in several ways, and an information literate individual will understand this as an implicit feature of the state. Some governments, such as the former Soviet Union, controlled information through a total, censorial lock down. Other countries manage information through other methods, including by the creation of culture or by favoring public funding for some avenues of research but not others. The end result is that people are limited in their information choices, though certainly some methods of control are more all-encompassing and insidious than others.

The former Soviet Union provides an excellent study of government censorship. Theirs was a huge, monolithic government capable of controlling virtually all information their citizens were exposed to. Everything was run though official channels to make sure it corroborated the state’s version of reality. So total was the state’s control of information that even when people knew that the story was fabricated or framed, they knew better than to talk about it with anyone but their closest friends and family members. Their misfortune provides a useful example of one extreme of government censorship.

As King (1997) documented, there was a well-known tendency in Stalin’s Russia to erase from public records those who had fallen out of favor, and even after his reign, as Wertsch (2006)  explained, citizens in Russia and the Baltic region understood that there were “blank spots” in the public sphere that were not to be discussed:

In some cases these were literal blank spots, as in photos where people’s images had been painstakingly airbrushed out of existence; in other instances, the notion was more figurative, having to do with what could—and could not—be discussed in a public setting (58).

The example used in Wertsch is 1939’s Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which was a non-aggression agreement between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The two countries agreed not to fight one another and to divide the countries between them into “spheres of influence.” Germany would exert influence over some countries, among them Poland and Romania, and Russia would influence the others, specifically Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia (61). Though the citizens of these countries obviously knew something had happened, and must have assumed that the Molotov-Ribbentop Pact had something to do with it, they also knew better than to ask questions about it. Thus, one morning when they woke to find that during the night they had been annexed into the USSR, they went about their days as if it had always been that way.

The interesting thing about this–and the wonderful case study the collapsed Soviet Union provides us–is how this information was handled in textbooks at the time and in subsequent years. Wertsch pointed out three different versions of the history as it appeared in textbooks at different times. In the first version of the history, written in the 1970s, there was no mention of the Pact, which would make sense, since in the official version of Russian history, it didn’t exist. Instead, the non-aggression treaty was noted as a strategically good decision and the subsequent annexation of countries is discussed in a completely unrelated context, using language that advanced the Socialist agenda (61).

Later, during the Glasnost years of the 1980s, the history started to change a bit. A textbook in use at the time showed the transition between one version of history and another. Note how ambiguously worded the passage was, so as to avoid laying responsibility on anyone:

As a result of complex processes of international and internal development, Soviet power was established anew in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia….However, in the new regions entering the USSR, breaches of the law characteristic for those years of the abuse of power were tolerated along with democratic revolutionary transformations. All of this made the situation more complicated in these regions, It had a negative effect on people’s psychological state and at the same time on the military preparedness of the USSR (62).

 

Interestingly, this version of history was implicitly critical of the Soviet Union, but it still danced around telling its readers what exactly happened. There was  no mention of the Pact, no mention of who entered into the agreement, and no mention of what exactly happened besides “complex processes of international and internal development.” Wertsch stated that the “obvious awkwardness” of the account was the product of a couple of competing impulses. On one hand, they had to acknowledge that something happened. But on the other hand, there was not a clear idea as of yet what the new version of truth was going to be (63). One can imagine that people, after years of living under complete state control, were wary that anything they said could come back to haunt them.

By 1998, a 9th grade history book contained a new narrative. By that time, it was safe enough to actually tell people about the secret plans in the pact, as well as to talk about the machinations behind the scenes. The pact was rationalized as a difficult decision that had to be made. In the textbook one can find language such as:

Stalin was confronted with a difficult choice: either reject Hitler’s proposal, thereby agreeing to have German forces move to the borders of the USSR in case Poland was defeated in a war with Germany, or conclude an agreement with Germany that would provide the possibility for pushing borders back from its west and avoid war for some time (64).

 

Wertsch suggested that the history was framed in this way to avoid a sense of national shame. It was neither a questionable decision nor a bad decision, so much as it was a hard decision which external forces had dictated. Some may recognize that this marks a shift from the hard censorship of state to a softer censorship of culture, where the truth is admitted but not dwelled upon, where an ugly historical truth is kept at the margins of the public sphere.

Some Westerners assume that the level of state control exerted in the former USSR could not happen now. But there are nations, such as China or North Korea, which are as iron-fisted with information today as the USSR was then. One reason for Westerners’ sanguine outlook on censorship is the advance of technology. People assume that with so much information flowing around the world total control would no longer be possible.

MacKinnon (2012) pointed to an Apple ad that aired during the Super Bowl in 1984. An Orwellian face is projected on a big screen and dictates propaganda to a subservient audience. Suddenly a woman ran down the aisle and hurled a sledgehammer at the face, shattering it, and presumably freeing the people (3). The explicit message was that Apple’s technology was going to set people free. In the heart of the Reagan years, the implicit message was that capitalism would free people from the tyranny of socialist governments. Yet, MacKinnon also pointed out that now, in a time of great freedom for the pursuit of free market and corporate goals, when the new normal is for world governments to consult with multinational corporations “in order to create financial, trade, and foreign policy objectives” (11), before Apple was allowed to expand its market into China, they were required to agree to China’s terms of censorship (115). And, of course, they did.

Toffler (1995) pinned the collapse of the Soviet Union on their misplaced value on labor instead of information and intellectual capital (62). Though they understood the utility of suppressing information in order to maintain an unassailable narrative for a cowed citizenry, they did not understand that knowledge workers conversant if not fluent with information would provide a great economic boost to freer countries in the years to come (63).

The Soviet and Chinese models of information control are as extreme as they are well-known. Social critic and linguist Noam Chomsky famously opined that there are two kinds of censorship, the kind in authoritarian regimes and the kind in supposedly free countries. Of the two he asserted that the censorship in free countries is more insidious because people living in authoritarian regimes know to go around the official sources to find the truth while supposedly free people do not bother because they live under the illusion that they are free. Two means of this control are that government can encourage the building of culture in which certain narratives and values are shared among its citizens and that it may also choose to fund or de-fund certain areas of research that it finds objectionable.

 

Cultural Invention

In The Invention of Tradition Hobsbawm and Ranger discussed “invented tradition” as ritualized or symbolic practices that serve to “inculcate certain values and norms of behavior” (1).  People may reflect here on the many rituals they are party to at different times–parades, holidays, the air and water show highlighting the Blue Angels, or saying the pledge of allegiance before sporting events. All of those things serve to tie people to the past and make clear in a subtle way what they should value if they want to be good citizens. But this is not merely a social practice. Hobsbawm and Ranger showed that this was “a conscious process in almost all countries, especially during the 19th century, through which elites and popular movements created rituals, symbols, and texts of a politically usable past” (qtd. in Young 89). In this way cultural norms were and are advanced and people are held together in a shared reverence for certain things, with a shared vocabulary for talking about ideas, and with a shared admiration for symbols that represent ideas. Naturally, this kind of enforcement brings some ideas to the forefront while pushing competing ideas to the margins, serving to censor information that contradicts what is politically and socially preferred.

Important historical events can be turned into traditions because people relate to history via narratives. No matter what transpired in fact, present-day people can only relate to those facts through the stories that are told about them. It should be noted that narratives have peculiar traits that facts don’t. As Bruner (1991) summed up:

We organize our experience and our memory of human happenings mainly in the form of narrative—stories, excuses, myths, reasons for doing and not doing, and so on…Unlike the constructions generated by logical and scientific procedures that can be weeded out by falsification, narrative constructions can only achieve ‘verisimilitude’ (4).

In other words, narratives are a version of reality dependent on their believability. They may contain the grain of truth but are not necessarily bound to it. That is not to say that all attempts to draw meaning from history are either pointless or false—though some interpretations are certainly more supported by the historical record than others. Rather, it is important to recognize that a quote, a moment, or even an entire event can and will be taken out of context to persuade people of one thing or another.

Case Study

If they were polled, many Americans would likely rank the Boston Tea Party as one of the most important moments of American cultural history. An example of freedom in which everyday people rose up and overthrew the shackles of an oppressive government, it is taught in every classroom. But according to historians such as Breen (2004), what people think of as the Tea Party and how it led to the American Revolution is a lot more complicated than is usually recognized.

In the short version, there was a tax imposed, the colonists got mad, sneaked on board a ship and dumped the tea in the harbor and held up signs that read No Taxation without Representation, and then wintered in valley forge and made plans not to shoot until they saw the whites of their eyes.

But what Americans typically think of as a response to over-taxation was actually about much more. According to primary sources such as the Journals of the Continental Congress v.1, in 1774, when the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, they signed a pledge called the “Association” which announced their intention neither to import, nor export nor use any good to or from Great Britain, Ireland, or any other British colony. They attached a list of grievances before trade and commerce would be returned to normal. Taxation was on the list, but there were other grievances, as well, which included:

  • a ruinous system of colony administration
  • acts of parliament seeking to raise revenue in America the deprivation of Americans to trial by jury
  • the direction of new and illegal trial beyond the sea
  • the passage of cruel and oppressive acts in Boston and Massachusetts Bay
  • the extension of the province of Quebec (editor’s note: which they feared would cause social unrest, violence, and the disruption of commerce).

The entire text is archived online through the Library of Congress for all to see, so why is taxation so often mentioned but not the other reasons? One reason is that ideas and culture are spread by imitation and repetition. Robust, simple messages are most often imitated, which is a phenomenon anyone can witness firsthand on the internet, as snappy, oversimplified memes get passed around Facebook, while the longer, more in-depth explanations get ignored or criticized as boring and pedantic. Similarly, tradition and culture are spread from person to person, creating something like a social message, the idea that X is the right thing to do or that Y is cool and Z is out of fashion. In short, because it is easier to say, “They were mad about taxation,” than it is to say that it was a complex, philosophical response to British hegemony. Because everyone hates taxes and most people don’t know what hegemony means.

Another reason is that the event became mythologized as the facts became hazy. According to Young (2000), after the buzz of the Boston Tea Party—known originally as the Destruction of the Tea—died down, the public record became curiously quiet about it for the next 50 to 60 years. By then, most of the people who had taken part in it had died, and the facts entered a sort of twilight zone of public memory, which is ripe for mythologizing. The Shoemaker and the Tea Party, about George Robert Twelves Hewes, one of the last surviving participants in the destruction of the tea, is in part about this twilight zone. There are two biographies about him, both of which were written in the 1830s. They are the first recorded instances of people calling it the Boston Tea Party, which was a sort of politically-nice name for the Destruction of the Tea. But the mythologizing that occurred turned normal men into heroes, turned sometimes random events into precise plans, and summed everything up into a cause-and-effect story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In short, it had been turned into a narrative so people could talk about it more easily and so that the outcome could be presented as the desirable product of an ordered series of steps. It conferred the notion that all of this was pre-ordained, in a sense.

But this is not relegated only to the past. The Boston Tea Party is such a touchstone of American culture, that when a group of Americans decided in 2009 that taxes were too high, they named themselves the Tea Party, which stood for Taxed Enough Already, and became a national political movement. It serves as both a concrete example of how history is taken from context to support present-day arguments and also how nations foster collective identities.

Despite the buzz the movement generated, objective research shows that the Tea Party’s complaints about taxes had little merit. According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (2010), at the time of the protests, tax rates had been declining for all income brackets since 1979 (3). The success of the movement had more to do with the cultural narratives than about taxes. Were they attempting to appeal to tradition? Trying to use an invented past to give themselves legitimacy? It didn’t matter. The idea spread like wildfire, and not so long ago the news and social media were inundated by stories about the tea party and complaints that they were “Taxed Enough Already.”

Meanwhile, these rituals, symbols, and texts are still alive today, and because of enculturation people become increasingly closed off to ideas that are outside of the norms that the culture is based on. This is in turn used like a shortcut by political leaders who don’t have to spend time refuting ideas that the broader culture has, at some point in the past, already rejected. But it ALSO allows leaders to argue a point without having to make a real case. If a leader can convince the public that a course of action is against the culture, is against tradition, or against the community’s shared values, then the actual merits of the case need never be considered.

Governments also spread or restrict information through budgetary decisions and legislative procedures. Government services that were once established to provide information, such as the Congressional Research Service and National Public Radio, for lawmakers and citizens respectively, have been victim to budget cuts. K. R. Kosar (2015), a former CSR analyst wrote of the dedication of the CSR staff and their renowned dedication to dispassionate analysis. He listed some of the extremely noteworthy accomplishments of the agency over the years but stated that he simply had to leave after spending too much time in an environment that had become, in his words, “frantic” and “reactive.”

At the same time, NPR finds itself under perennial attack from Republican lawmakers who accuse them of liberal bias. Though this may have been the case in the beginning, when NPR did have “countercultural roots” (Sherman 2005), NPR receives funding from various multinational corporations and does a great deal of in-depth reporting unavailable elsewhere. (37). Cutting their budget would be a considerable loss for journalism and for the information needs of their growing audience.

Still another way that the US government is sometimes at odds with information is by passing legislation at the state or local level to restrict scientific study and information. Representative Chip Cravaak infamously amended a funding bill to to make sure that the National Science Foundation could not “carry out the activities of the Climate Change Education program.” Legislators in states like Oklahoma try to get culturally or politically upsetting science removed from schools. The National Center for Science Education keeps a running list of legislative attacks on science education and curricula. These types of attacks in turn create a feedback loop. Distorted information is used to justify policies that further distort information.

Case Study

On May 29, 2014, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology met for a session entitled “Examining the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Process,” in which they listened to the testimony of one of the main authors of the IPCC report, two climatologists who disagrees with the IPCC report, and an economist whose main point was that doing anything to fight global warming would hurt the economy. This amounts to one scientist who represents the current consensus of the vast majority of scientists who work in that field, two scientists who disagree with that vast majority, and one person who is not a scientist. Though people outside the House cannot know for sure why those particular guests were chosen, committee member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) provides some insight:

I am concerned that the real objective of this hearing is to try to undercut the IPCC and to cast doubt on the validity of climate change research. For the benefit of Members who were not here in 2011, I would note that we had a hearing on this same topic back then, and the testimony to be given today echoes some of the claims made then. Ultimately, however, those claims were shown to be unfounded. Yet here we are again..

Read the whole letter here.

She suggests that the inclusion of the skeptical voices was meant to undermine the actual science that should be front and center in the discussion. It is interesting to note that the two skeptics and one non-scientist were invited by the Republicans on the committee while the climatologist representing the consensus was chosen by the Democrats. These invitations fit perfectly into the longstanding pattern of our political approach to global warming: democrats are concerned about it while republicans are not.

So while the facts are not being censored, per se, and there is obviously no Big Brother marching in lockstep to deceive us, there is a sort of tacit understanding that if someone disagrees with the information, he can simply swap it out for some he likes better. The result is that the truth is hidden among the distortions, allowing people back at home to simply think, “Well, obviously there is no consensus among smart people, and if Roger Pielke [a noted climate change skeptic] is good enough to testify in front of Congress, then by gum, he’s good enough for me.”

Though the United States government does not march in lockstep as the Soviet government did—indeed, one of the two main political parties seems to want to abdicate control of the government to private industry—America’s confusing and confounding political and media landscape allows for censorship, some of which is more obvious than others.

Consider the Texas school board. Up until 2011, they had the power to decide what was included in all textbooks used in Texas. (For reasons of economy, many other states adopted the textbooks, as well, so the effects were felt all over.) In 2012, individual school districts started having more say in the process, and the Texas School Board no longer had the final say. But up until then, this relatively unknown group of people who had been voted in by a very small number of people, had an enormous say in what appeared in the state’s textbooks.

Riley (2012) offered some examples of the Texas State School Board in action, noting that the board skews conservative and that decisions about what is put in and taken out are often politically motivated. In a particularly telling episode, religious freedom is downplayed:

A proposed amendment from one of the Democratic board members would have required students to “examine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others.” One Republican member argued that the “founders didn’t intend for separation of church and state in America” and called the statement “not historically accurate” and the conservative members voted down the standard. The board then added a new one that suggests the “separation of church and state” is not a key principle of the First Amendment (Par. 3).

 

Moreover, sometimes the decisions were completely arbitrary. As Riley also noted, the Texas artist Santa Barraza was stricken from the standards because one board member googled her and found a painting that included nudity (Par. 10). 

Thus there are different kinds of government censorship, the censorship of authoritarian regimes and that of freer societies. Though they are different, the net effect can be the same: access to information is limited. While there is no argument that one kind of censorship is more debilitating, if the very notion of truth is subject to change with political whims, an information literate population must learn to access information from multiple sources, comparing free-market to government sources, and honing in on the truth.

Industry and Information

Advertising and Marketing

Advertising uses images, words, and sounds to create favorable impressions in viewers in order to sell products. This video, with the sound down, could be about virtually any large, bio-technology company. 

Yet, with the sound on, the narration gives away the store: this is how advertising works, using images and sounds to stir emotions and positive feelings that might not be entirely deserved.

But the issue is not just what the ads say and don’t say (or how they say it or don’t say it), it is how pervasive they are that gives them power to shape public discourse. Derren Brown, a British illusionist, wanted to show the influence that image placement and advertising can exert on people:

Some people have suggested that this video is about subliminal advertising. In fact, Mr. Brown refers to “subliminal persuasion” in the video. Between the 1960s and 1990s, there was quite a bit of hubbub in advertising, marketing, and psychology journals about this phenomenon. But Sheri J. Broyles’s Subliminal Advertising and the Perpetual Popularity of Playing to People’s Paranoia (2006) reviewed 50 years of research on subliminal advertising and found that, “No research has shown an effect that changed attitudes or impacted purchasing behavior.” Yet, people are obviously consciously suggestible, and advertisers work constantly to influence our behaviors, both in the private and public sphere of discourse.

In 1978, the Office of Consumer Education commissioned a report to find out exactly how advertising and marketing were affecting US society. The result was a study entitled Impact of Advertising: Implications for Consumer Education by Zena Cook et al, and the report was interesting because of what it found but also because of how it framed the discussion in terms of “consumer sovereignty,” which is the right of consumers to have their wants and needs respected by the market. The intention was, in fitting with the economic theory of supply and demand, that consumer needs and wants would determine what the market produced, instead of the other way around. Implicit in this idea, as a theme running through the report, is that consumers need to be accurately informed about the choices confronting them. The study’s authors noted frankly, “Consumers are today faced with a very serious information problem: obtaining and understanding reliable information about the great multitude of commodities and services they consume is, at best, difficult and, at worst, impossible” (12). They worried about information deficiency (when people are uninformed) and commercial misinformation (when people are misinformed), and stated that, “As advertising replaces useful information with non-informational elements, the processing of factual information is delayed and often ignored” (13). In other words, the further advertising gets away from factual information, the harder it is for the public to be accurately informed.

The report goes into a much greater macroeconomic depth than is required here, but the ultimate fears were that an excess of marketing and advertising would undermine the foundation of the free market, and that increased advertising would create a population that spent more and saved less, while at the same time decreasing spending for the public good, such as parks, schools, and libraries. In short, people could be persuaded to buy things they didn’t want at a cost to themselves and to the public good of society.

The information of industry typically takes the forms of advertising, marketing, and branding. These concepts taken together are broadly the persuasive language and images that businesses and other organizations use to influence consumer behavior. Most people are familiar with advertising and marketing. Branding is a more elusive concept, meaning how a product or company defines itself, including the inherent promises it makes to its consumers (O’Reilly and Tennant 2009). For instance, a beer commercial might imply that its drinkers will have fun and be attractive in a bar full of people consuming its product. This is part of its brand, say, the fun, light beer for 20-somethings who like to party and dance all night; as opposed to the darker, more sophisticated beer for the 30-somethings friends who want to catch up and have a meaningful if lighthearted evening in the comfort of their living room.

Branding is powerful stuff. O’Reilly and Tennant related the tale of a Coca-Cola taste test in which Coke was compared to an unnamed cola. People chose Coke unanimously and were likely chagrined to find that the unnamed cola was ALSO Coke. The authors stressed that the idea of Coke was more compelling than the taste, itself, and that the branding—the logo, the commercials, and the promotions—were what made Coke seem to taste better than Coke (3). It is also fickle. The language of persuasion changes with fashion and consumer desires. During the oil crisis of the 1970s “luxury cars” turned to “gas guzzlers” overnight (169), just as in the early 2000s, advertising made it seem almost patriotic to buy Hummers until the high price of gas made them difficult to afford.

 

Case Study

 

 

 

There was a very effective marketing campaign in the 60s and 70s meant to confuse people about the correlation between smoking and cancer. The same playbook is being followed today to deny the link between burning fossil fuels and global warming. Though people may have powerful economic and cultural incentives to disregard the evidence, it is crucial to see the messaging with clear eyes.

Exxon-Mobil tries to build into its brand and corporate identity the notion that it cares about the environment and safety.

 

Research on Exxon-Mobil’s safety record may challenge such an image.

Here is Chevron, putting a human face on its activities.

 

Impartial sources may complicate such a portrait.

A Question of Focus

 

At any state fair one can usually find an FFA (Future Farmers of America) petting zoo. Children will walk up to the pens, feed, and pet lambs, sheep, etc… This all goes pretty smoothly until the end, where one finds the shorn lambs who have been grease-painted into their various cuts of meat. Young children may be prompted to ask, “Why did they color them like that?” It might be difficult for some parents to answer on the spot because one rarely expects to see a transgression that confuses people’s compartmentalization like that: animals are their friends, except for the ones they eat. When people are forced to simultaneously confront this dichotomy, it causes the uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance. Sticking with this example, here are some tricks that advertisers use to misdirect people’s attention from one idea to another, thus helping maintain this tidy compartmentalization:

Interestingly, the video itself is a bit of sleight of hand, as the presenter is not actually a marketing consultant but an actress, and it is clear that the video is meant to convince the viewer that factory farming is cruel. Regardless of its slant, it makes some interesting points about how things are sold in a way that minimizes consumer discomfort.

 

How Can Information Literacy Help?

The Cook report recommends that consumers need to be better informed about their purchases, which is completely in line with the tenets of information literacy. For instance, whereas information literacy would recommend that people seek unbiased information and weigh different sources against one another in terms of credibility, timeliness, and authority, Cook et al suggest that people evaluate advertising and marketing materials using unbiased sources such as product-rating periodicals, libraries, public consumer agencies, Public Broadcasting Company, and National Public Radio. If the language of the free market is meant to convince people to buy something or, perhaps, to buy INTO something, it should be counterbalanced by unbiased, public information, that does not come from commercial sources. Then, the authors apply their research more broadly to suggest that, “Our choice is not a zero sum choice, but it does involve questions of priorities, the understanding of which we have to grasp in order to make educated choices about the future” (44). In other words, inasmuch as information literacy is a key component of making informed decisions and of being a cognizant participant in a democratic society, understanding the prevalence and effects of advertising is vital.

 

Information and Broader Culture

Going back to the notion of public information, as a culture, people expect to be manipulated by advertisers, and so they put their guards up when the ads play. On the other hand, people feel safe while watching the news or reading the newspapers because those places are supposed to inform rather than to promote. But, as seen in the history of newspapers, the same forces that shape the messages of marketing also subsidize and support the places where people go for information. Thus, finding unbiased sources of information, as recommended, may be more difficult than expected.

The effect is a pervasive thread in Western culture that is pro-industry and pro-business. While there is nothing wrong with industry and business, if those forces do not work for the benefit of humanity, overall, then their modus operandi might need to be investigated. However, and here is the crux, that kind of scrutiny is difficult if those very same interests have been allowed to define the parameters of the discussion. These parameters are, in part, set by marketing, advertising, and branding, but it runs still deeper than that.

Cultural anthropologist Marvin Harris suggested in his 1979 Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture, that, of the many things a culture can argue about, the one thing that is off limits is its means of sustenance. For instance, if a society depends on whaling for its food, its heating oil, and for its very economy, it will find a way not to discuss the killing-too-many-whales problem. In other words, it is hard to get people to realize that they need to protect the environment when their economic livelihood depends on not protecting the environment. One could likewise argue that if one depends on the products of industry for his sense of prestige, comfort, or purpose, then it is not surprising to see that he is willfully blind to the impact his decisions have.

Thus, business and industry messages have impacts beyond which soda one may buy at the grocery store. They seep into broader culture, coloring the presentation of information supposedly in the public sphere. This is not entirely surprising. Media companies make their living by exposing people to as many advertisements as possible (O’Reilly and Tennant 2009), and beyond that, the market system that was invented to make sure people got the goods they wanted as efficiently and as cheaply as possible has arguably grown larger than humanity can contain and control (Shmookler 175).In the case of corporations, the structure of the system makes it virtually impossible for the organization to behave in a socially and environmentally responsible fashion (182). The people in charge of the corporation are in the position of leadership precisely because of the bureaucratic processes of conformity to the corporate system of maximizing profits (183). This extends down the line until, as Alan Liu noted in The Laws of Cool, work began  taking over public life and personal time via “company-mandated ‘lifelong learning,’” the “home office,” “telecommuting,” and “edutainment” (77).

It is almost unnoticeable that the voices of industry and work pervade the sphere of public discourse. At Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, which is beloved by kids and parents alike, the presentation of educational information is heavily influenced by industry. Thinking about the video on advertising above, consider the wording of the following placard:

Pork producers keep their breeding pigs in specially designed barns that protect the animals from illness, injuries and extreme weather conditions, while allowing fresh air and sunlight in. Sows receive nutritious diets of corn, soybeans and vitamins, have free access to fresh water and are cared for under close supervision of veterinarians. The animals are kept safe from predators and protected from the aggression that often exists among sows housed in group pens. They also are spared from the competition for food that occurs when animals are kept in groups. Housed in individual stalls, sows are able to move back and forth, lie on their sides, and fully extend their limbs.

Pork producers keep their breeding pigs in specially designed barns that protect the animals from illness, injuries and extreme weather conditions, while allowing fresh air and sunlight in. Sows receive nutritious diets of corn, soybeans and vitamins, have free access to fresh water and are cared for under close supervision of veterinarians. The animals are kept safe from predators and protected from the aggression that often exists among sows housed in group pens. They also are spared from the competition for food that occurs when animals are kept in groups. Housed in individual stalls, sows are able to move back and forth, lie on their sides, and fully extend their limbs.

Note how the language makes it seem as if pig farmers are nothing more than benevolent caretakers of the animals. They offer the pigs food and nutrition, and despite visual evidence to the contrary, plenty of sunshine, exercise, and strolls down to the creek to drink fresh water. They also protect them from predators. Except for humans.

Because confusing the animals with bacon may result in cognitive dissonance, it is important to keep people distracted. One would expect to find this deception in a commercial, not in a museum. Conspicuously absent from the discussion is how many pounds of vegetable matter it takes to make one pound of animal matter, how much forest has been clear-cut to support cattle for food, how the overuse of antibiotics is creating drug-resistant strains of diseases that endangers human lives, or how keeping animals in solitary confinement is inhumane. In other words, the focus of the placard makes this read more like an advertisement than a museum exhibit meant to disclose important information.

 

Information and Mass Media

Most of the time when people think of censorship, they think of things like the Soviet Union, China, or the Texas School Board. The assumption is that the Free Market—an economic market in which supply and demand are not regulated or are regulated with only minor restrictions and the Free Press—a press not restricted or controlled by government censorship regarding politics or ideology will make censorship impossible. In keeping with the model of the free market, media outlets have a great deal of discretion about what they cover and how they cover it, just as people are free to choose which media to watch and read. Some stations employ branding and marketing techniques to carve out niches in the media world, and people respond to it. People who want to find a particular slant or focus in their news stories know to seek out Fox, MSNBC, or CNN. Theoretically, all should be well. Yet, complicating this world view are that sometimes government must intervene to keep a popular press from squelching unpopular ideas and that sometimes media, left to their own devices will cover what is commercially profitable instead of socially necessary.

In the first case, consider the 1934 Communications Act, which held that the airwaves–then newly of interest because of the burgeoning field of radio–would be used for the common good instead if strictly for profit.  According to Wright’s  American Society: How It Really Works, “Broadcasters were given renewable licenses for fixed terms that gave them exclusive use of specific parts of the radio spectrum, but they were also described as ‘trustees’ who had to serve the ‘public interest’ rather than simple, outright owners with full private property rights” (5-6). Also, the Act restricted the number of stations an individual could own so as to keep a limited number of people having to great an influence on society. Implicit is that more voices and more owners would provide a greater a greater breadth of opinion and viewpoint.  Thus, in order to encourage the diversity of opinion that goes hand in hand with democracy, the government sought to limit ownership of American radio.  Yet, this would later be decried as an impingement on the free market. For example, if someone can afford to buy 1000 radio stations, what right does the government have to keep him from doing so?  

As if to answer the question, the 1996 Telecommunications Act lifted most of the regulations on radio stations and ownership.  Unsurprisingly, the field became dominated by a few corporations, such as Clear Channel and ViaCom, within the decade (6).  Hence, the ideologies and biases of those parent corporations flourish on over ten thousand stations coast to coast.

But is that really such a bad thing?  It certainly isn’t a new thing. One may recall that the early press in America was openly partisan. Today it is less so. In 2005 Rosenson  evaluated the news stories in four major newspapers to determine how neutral their coverage of state legislatures was and if the tone of their coverage was swayed by the partisan orientation of the newspaper’s ownership and found that the newspapers were neutral in their coverage over 80%of the time (2015). However, it should be noted that his evaluation focused on tone and balance, and seemed to equate objectivity with neutrality. Moreover, other researchers have indeed found bias.

Gilens and Hertzman’s “Corporate Ownership and News Bias: Newspaper Coverage of the 1996 Telecommunication Act,” examined news coverage about the 1996 Telecommunications Act and showed definitively that the beneficiaries of the Act covered it more favorably than did those news outlets which did not have a vested interest in the decision. This analysis included not only editorial content but hard news, as well. 

Thus, some newspapers presented news that served to “further the interests of their corporate owners rather than the interests of their readers in fair and complete coverage of an important public policy issue” (383). Further, they surmise:  

As more and more media  outlets come under the control of fewer and fewer corporate owners, the potential for conflicts of interest increases. News organizations owned by large conglomerates with far-flung investments are more likely to find that the public issues they report on carry implications for their corporate parents’ financial health. If newspaper coverage of the proposed changes in television ownership regulations examined here is indicative of a general tendency within the news media, we have much to be concerned about (384)

The poet John Milton, of Paradise Lost infamy, also worked as a journalist in his day, and one of his contributions was to suggest that the press should act as a “marketplace of ideas.”  That is, people should have access to opinions across a wide spectrum, compare them side by side, and decide which are best, accordingly.  Since then, it has been understood as unquestionably true that democratic societies benefit from a press free from government oppression.  But the traditional dichotomy of business and government—that the former represents the free market and freedom while the latter represents rulers and oppression—might be somewhat misleading in this instance.

There are, according to Wright, four main problems with the notion that the free market will lead to a free press and its underlying assumption that “the best ideas survive the competition”:

*The owners of mass media companies have the power to decide what content they produce.

*The free market argument assumes that the market for news is extremely competitive, but since only the very wealthy can afford to compete, the offerings are fairly limited (ie. Most cities have one or two newspapers instead of 12 or 15).

*Corporate news stations make their money almost entirely from advertising, so the central aim is to attract advertisers, even if that comes at the expense of watering down, dumbing down, or omitting offensive news.

*Corporate news is beholden to shareholders and thus seeks to minimize costs and maximize profits, even if it means offering stock journalism, fluff articles, op-eds, and otherwise inexpensive and/or pedestrian articles. (2).

If the fear is that media companies will sometimes choose profits over responsibility, never was it so clear as in 2007. That year  two important things happened: The IPCC released a report that predicted dire consequences for all of humanity if carbon emissions were not lowered drastically, and Ana Nicole Smith died.

In a revenue-driven media system, this should not be surprising. News channels knew that they would profit if they played wall to wall Ana Nicole Smith, so why shouldn’t they?

Information literacy asks for an awareness of the forces behind the stream of information both in the private and the public sphere. According to Blidook’s “Choice and Content: Media Ownership and Democratic Ideals in Canada,” there are three main ways of assessing the impact of media ownership on the content they provide:

  1. Look at the practices of the media owner to see if its interests have influenced its content.
  2. Look at whose interests their content serves.
  3. Compare the differences in the content between a source that has a vested interest and a source that does not (55).

These are important considerations when determining the usefulness of a source. Different news providers have different constraints and biases. For instance, the Washington Post points out that NBC, which was owned by General Electric at the time, had nothing to say about General Electric’s tax avoidance issues in 2010. Likewise, it is next to impossible to find unbiased reportage about labor unions on Fox News, which champions business interests over worker interests.

As Blidook cogently sums up:

The fact that a given event occurs does not mean that a given news outlet will report on that event, or if the event is reported, that it will be presented in a manner that weighs certain information in the same manner as another news outlet.  In short., there is a process between ‘fact’ and ‘coverage’ that affects whether the given fact is reported, and also the manner in which it is reported….This process may include many factors, though one important factor is ownership of the media outlet and the interests or biases of that ownership. (55)

In accurately understanding and discussing information, it is a good practice to dig into the sources to find out who owns them, what issues or causes they champion, and what biases they typically show.

Ahsley Lutz at Business Insider has posted a handy chart showing media consolidation (ie. who owns whom), though she is good to point out that GE and Time Warner’s holdings have changed some since the chart was created.

Likewise, there are a number of websites that monitor media behaviors, though often they are subject to their own biases. Pew Research Centers Project for Excellence in Journalism is one good place to go for information about journalism, in general. The Media Research Center  explores liberal bias in the media. Media Matters explores conservative bias in the media.

Influence Brokers


In understanding the complicated media and political landscape in any policy debate, it is important to understand the competing sides of the debate as well as the biases of the policy experts that politicians consult to inform or justify their decisions. It is useful to understand the role of think tanks and other influence brokers. As one might expect, people who have a political, professional, or economic interest in the information that societies draw upon to form policies may be highly motivated to trumpet the upsides and squelch the downsides of their research and findings.

What is a think tank?

Politicians in America mostly have backgrounds in law, and that makes sense, since those are the people in charge of drafting laws. But the corollary to that is that they are rarely also experts in the subjects they are required to make laws about. Thus, it would make sense that the lawmakers bring in subject matter experts to educate them on how their decisions might ultimately effect the world. Often these experts are culled from think tanks, which are typically privately financed research groups that study government, laws, business, and other specialized subjects and use their research to influence public policy.

There are three main arrangements that stem from this influence:

1) Politicians seek guidance on an issue and seek out the experts in think tanks who can provide research and knowledge to inform their decisions.

2) Think tanks seek out politicians who will be voting on a particular piece of legislation and offer them the research they have done. Often a component of this is that the think tanks are actively trying to advocate for or against some policy and seek to influence lawmakers.

3) Think tanks draft model legislation and give it to politicians and influence them to submit it.

This range of activities suggest a sliding scale of industry influence in the nation’s laws, and the reader can decide for herself which seems more or less compatible with the idea of democratic governance.

The history of think tanks is a pretty boring affair, which is probably how they have come to have so much influence. Nothing discourages active oversight more than a boring subject. But they have existed for over a hundred years, which is about how long it has been in vogue in America to think that policy experts, social scientists, economists, and other people trained in the study of society are uniquely qualified to shape civilization.

According to James Allen Smith’s The Idea Brokers, think tanks first made a big splash in America in the first quarter of the 20th century. At the time, there was not a lot of intellectual capital in Washington, so leaders sought to bring in experts to help shape policy. Smith opined that this desire stemmed partly from the efficiency craze of the late 1800s. Recent scientific breakthroughs had led some to suspect that efficiency could be quantifiably, scientifically measured (46-48). Thus, in the 1920s and 30s academics who had previously been passive observers of industry, government, and policy were beginning to take a more active role in advocating for policies (49-51). As one might anticipate, this advocacy spanned the political spectrum and influenced policy, social messaging, marketing, framing, and news in every conceivable area of social and/or economic concern.

Sound Science : an example of Think Tank and Industry Influence

To understand the reach of industry public relations and think tank advocacy in modern times, one need only trace the use of the phrase “sound science” from its inception to its broader use in society. Anyone familiar with the discourse surrounding climate change has heard the phrase sound science bandied about. The leg work for this was done by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway in Merchants of Doubt, Chris Mooney in The Republican War on Science, and Riley Dunlap and Peter Jacques in “Climate Change Denial Books and Conservative Think Tanks: Exploring the Connection.”

As Chris Mooney (2005) pointed out, the roots of sound science go back to the tobacco companies who, in the 60s, were having to find ever-more inventive ways to deny that smoking caused cancer. In 1964 the surgeon general released a report that tied cigarette smoking to a variety of serious illnesses, and the tobacco companies mobilized to do something they dubbed “manufacturing uncertainty.” Their lawyers would direct teams of researchers and scientists to undermine the facts however they could (67-68).

It was revealed in 1979 that a 1969 internal memo from Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company titled, “Smoking and Health Proposal” purposefully sought to confuse the public’s understanding of the link between cancer and its product (Kenyon 2016). The memo stated its goals in the kind of blunt language it would never want to be part of the public record. In part it read, “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy” (qtd in Kenyon Par. 2). Though they did not use the phrase “sound science,” the seeds of manufacturing doubt in science were sown.

Mooney (2005) documented that the American Industrial Health Council in 1981 described their mission as ensuring the “adequacy and quality” of science used in the industry. They likewise praised President Reagan’s pursuit of “sound science” in the creation of federal health policies (qtd. In Mooney 66). Later, the George C Marshall institute included similar language in its mission statement (65).

According to Oreskes (2011), in 1990, S Fred Singer, who was one of the “experts” who testified to congress that there was no link between smoking and cancer, created his “Science and Environmental Policy Project” to “promote sound science in environmental policy” (143)

In 1993 the phrase moved from mission statements into the very name of one think tank: The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition. They described themselves as “a grassroots-based, not-for-profit watchdog group of scientists and representatives from universities, independent organizations, and industry that advocates the use of sound science in public policy” (qtd. in Mooney 67). That same year, internal documents of Phillip H Morris had called for the creation of just such a think tank (67); however, there is no concrete evidence of a link between the two events.

In 1999, ExxonMobil’s stated environmental science policy, according to Skjaerseth and Skodvin’s Climate Change and the Oil Industry, was to, “Work with government and industry groups to develop environmental laws and regulations that are based on “sound science” (45-46).

By 2001, President George W. Bush, formerly the founder of Arbusto Oil, made sure to include in his speeches his insistence that US climate change policy be informed by, wait for it, sound science.

For all this talk of wanting sound science, are these think tanks actually pursuing the truth? Dunlap and Jacques (2013) studied 108 climate change denial books written before the year 2011 and found that 1) most evidence very strong ties to right wing think tanks, with the relationship decreasing among self-published books and 2) that 90% are not peer-reviewed (701-05). Since peer review is a central tenet of scientific writing, it seems unlikely that the aim of these organizations was as pure and noble as stated. In fact, according to James Hoggan’s Climate Cover-Up, (2009) in 2006 the American Enterprise Institute offered cash to scientists who would “agree to write a critique of the anticipated Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC” (74). 

 

Case Study

A colleague read my lecture notes on think tanks and told me that he has first-hand experience with the Heartland Institute. This piqued my interest because Heartland Institute is pretty big in the global warming denial game (though their interests include all laissez-faire/libertarian politics), and one will often find them releasing research in support of anything that keeps government small and taxes low.

My colleague—he asked for anonymity, so we will call him Elvis Jones—worked for Anonymous American Auto Manufacturer (let’s call it AAAM) in the Environmental Regulatory Legislative Support Group. He worked with scientists and lawyers as part of a team that made sure AAAM facilities met EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) standards, determined how meeting those standards would affect AAAM’s bottom line, and in some cases, investigated whether the standards were based on the best understanding of science.

During the process through which the EPA would make regulations, they would publish the proposed rules and regulations in the Federal Register, at which point anyone can go there and comment on the proposed regulations in hopes of influencing the final form of the regulations. For those who are policy minded and have knowledge of a field being regulated, this is a good opportunity to participate in government beyond voting. The documents that are posted there can then be used by people to make estimates about how the regulations, once they become official, will affect their businesses.

At AAAM, once the documents were posted, they would be circulated throughout the company, and everyone would have the chance to analyze the regulations to see how much it would cost them, to debate the science, and in general, to get everyone’s input on what it would ultimately mean to the company.

Just to be clear, one can’t view any given company as a monolith. There are people in the company who care only about profit, and there are people who care only about the environment, and there are people who constitute every shade in between those two poles. If some in upper management are concerned only about making money, others strike a more even-handed approach and realize that the environmental impact of a new plant is important. Others may be concerned about profit but also realize that the public backlash for doing something profitable but ALSO anti-environmental is not a winner in the long term. All of those different voices would be trying to influence Elvis’s team.

At the same time–and here is where the think tanks come in–it was not at all uncommon for the Heartland to take upper management out to lunch and say, “Hey fellows, enjoy your meals on us. By the way, we just released this newsletter that might interest you….” The newsletter would argue against the science or against the environmental impact or about how the regulations were too costly to implement, and so on. The common thread was that they were and are written to highlight the evidence FOR their libertarian, anti-government views, and to minimize or deny completely any evidence to the contrary.

In other words, they are meant to sway the opinions of people who are not informed enough to know the whole story, and after receiving the newsletters, management would take them back to the office and put them in everyone’s mailbox. Elvis states that the newsletters were usually accompanied by a roll sheet, on which employees had to sign to show that they had received and read them.

Elvis states that the majority of the scientists with whom he worked were dedicated to science and were unlikely to be persuaded to ignore science for the sake of cutting corners and saving money. But if the newsletters convinced management, that could mean policy decisions and proposals that would have to be repeatedly swatted down. Moreover, these same think tanks often present their research to lawmakers who do not have the scientific background to understand it for what it is.

I asked Elvis if he ever received newsletters meant to influence his group’s decision-making in the favor of the environment. He stated that there are advocacy groups for the environment and for science, but that they are not as well-funded or well-organized as the ones that are solely for profit.

 

Besides influencing companies and politicians directly, think tanks and other policy advocates try to influence public opinion in a variety of ways. Graham Wayne, a contributor to Skeptical Science and the Guardian, has uncovered that Heartland is also taking this approach with American schools. In 2013 they were the force behind the NIPCC or Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, which was meant to challenge the findings of the IPCC.

To make sure they got the word out, they sent memos to school boards and science teachers encouraging them to present their findings. Needless to say, this is problematic because the NIPCC report is less objective, less credible, less authoritative, and less factual than the IPCC report by an order of magnitude. Yet, public school educators, with already busy schedules, are unlikely to have the time to research the NIPCC claims, so their arguments may be presented as reasonable alternatives to the vast consensus among experts in the field.

Another way that influence brokers attempt to influence public policy is through astroturfing. In politics, when common, everyday citizens organize themselves into a large group to persuade the general public of the merits of an issue or cause, it is known as a grassroots movement. These types of movements may spring up around any kind of issue, from any side of the political divide. Senator Lloyd Bentsen, the late Democratic Senator from Texas, once stated on the Senate floor that he could tell the difference between grassroots and astroturf. He was complaining about protests and letter-writing campaigns that were meant to appear spontaneous and organic, but which were actually a paid part of corporate marketing and public relations spin. There are many examples of astroturfing in the not-too-distant past. Researching Microsoft anti-trust letters, Brooks Brothers Riot, Al Gore’s Penguin Army, Broadband for America, or numerous other well-known incidents will perhaps prove eye-opening to the information literate student.

In 2015, investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson gave an illustrative TED Talk about the reach of influence of astroturfing and gives some helpful tips on recognizing it.   


Given their reach, finances, and devotion to ideology over science, think tanks such as Heartland should be watched closely and their findings viewed with healthy skepticism. When research turns up a think tank paper or policy statement, it should not be automatically dismissed as wrong; however, being aware of different think tanks and their biases will allow researchers to better understand the slant of their thinking as well as what they might be leaving out or misrepresenting. It would only be wise to become familiar with some of the more prominent think tanks and their known political affiliations.

 

Questions for Critical Thinking

 How are the censorship in the former Soviet Union and in the case of the Texas School Board different? How are they similar?

What do Hobsbawn and Ranger mean by the phrase “invented tradition?” How does tradition—whether invented or organic—impact information?

What are some of the ways that governments may censor information?

What are information deficiency and commercial misinformation? Which do you think is a bigger problem and why?

What is cognitive dissonance, and how do marketers and advertisers try to keep us from feeling it?

What are some examples of government and industry interacting with one another to shape the contemporary information landscape?


What are four reasons that the free market might not lead to a free press?

What are the three main arrangements that lobbyists and influence brokers may have with lawmakers in the United States? Which seem most and least democratic?

What is sound science?

What is the difference between a grass roots movement and an astroturf movement? What are some ways to tell them

In your own words, what are “weasel words?”

In your own words, what is the difference between “false equivalence” and “treating all opinions as equal?”

 

Research Skills


When thinking about the best sources to consult for information, where you look depends on three things: when the subject happened, the depth of knowledge required, and specific guidelines called for in the assignment.

Current events are found in sources that publish frequently, while in-depth analysis is typically reserved for sources that publish less frequently. This is so because newspapers and television news derive greater sales from breaking stories and in part because in-depth analysis takes time. Thus, information about something that happened last week will not be found in a scholarly journal, a book, or an encyclopedia, just as information about something that happened 50 years ago won’t often be found in the daily newspaper.  When picking a source based on timeliness, consider when your subject happened before reaching for a source. 

At the same time, in-depth, scholarly information generally appears in specialty or academic presses. These presses must often be subsidized by universities or other benefactors because fewer people are interested in such material, so there are fewer sales and less advertising revenue.  The benefit of these sources is that they offer very deep coverage of information without concern that the content will bore lay readers or upset advertisers.

Consider how deep you need your coverage to be when thinking of where to look.  Whether you need in-depth scholarly articles detailing the intricacies of cancer cells or  a general overview of how campaign finance has shaped American politics, you will save time by  gauging the level of information you need before beginning your research.

 

Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources:

Your teacher may further complicate things by asking that you use primary and/or secondary sources.

primary source is an original object or document from a specific time or event under study. Primary  sources include historical and legal documents, interviews, eyewitness accounts, results of experiments, survey data, observations, diaries, paintings, works of literature, ancient pieces of pottery unearthed in Iraq, and much more. In the natural and social sciences, primary sources are often empirical studies — research where an experiment was done or a direct observation was made.
A secondary source is anything that’s written about a primary source, such as  an essay about a novel, a newspaper article about AIDS research, a movie review, or subsequent thoughts on The Gettysburg Address.
A tertiary source is an encyclopedia, textbook, or other compendium that distills information from multiple primary and secondary sources and presents that information as a broad overview of a subject. While these sources provide a good introduction to a topic, they rarely go deep enough to satisfy the information requirements of academic or professional research.

 

 

 

 

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As you do your research you will likely retrieve many articles that contain your search terms. So you’re done, right? Not exactly. Finding sources is only the first step. Once you get into your research, you will find several different kinds of sources, some more useful than others. Here is what to do when…

 

When:

The article contains your keywords, but is not about your subject. You are looking for articles about shell companies but end up with an article about Shell Oil Company or about a company that sells sea shells (by the sea shore).


Then:

You have to look for other articles because a quote from such an article will not help you prove or defend your thesis. You may even have to reevaluate your search terms and determine if they should be more specific of more general.


When:

The article contains your keywords but is focused on a different aspect of your subject. You want to write about social programs that help solve the problems of juvenile delinquency, but you find an article about how one particular neighborhood is protesting the opening of a new detox center for juvenile offenders.

Then:

Store the information away in the back of your mind because, although it does not help you prove your point, you might be able to use it to explain the social context of the paper.

 

When:

The article is about the same aspect of your subject, but from the opposite point of view. You want to prove that government-funded after-school programs don’t decrease gang violence, but the article contends that such programs actually do decrease gang violence.

Then:

Save the article as a source for a counterargument to include in your paper, then read more articles and hope that they will help you prove your point. Use the new articles to refute the claims of the first article.


How do you refute an article?

Study more articles and find out if the first article is the consensus view of experts or a lone scholar’s thoughts on the matter. Most of the time that lone voice crying out in the wilderness is wrong, but sometimes it is right, so you need to review the evidence and see if it is compelling. If it is compelling, then you can accept it. If the evidence is lacking or unpersuasive, then you can refute it on those grounds.


Is there bias?

Do some research to see if the author or source has a consistent political bias. If so, those allegiances may call into question the truthfulness of the claims therein.


Is it timely?

Science, research, and technology update our understanding of the world daily. Claims that represented the best understanding in the year 2000 may no longer represent the best understanding. Look for more current articles to see if anything has changed.


Does it Use Weasel Words?

Weasel words are used by some commentators to disguise personal opinions as facts. These phrases are not always weasel words, but when you see them, you should pay attention to the claims being made to see if they actually ring true. Common weasel words are:

Some people say…

Research has shown…

It is believed that…

It has been said/suggested…
Many people believe…

It is often argued that…

Critics/experts agree that…


And there are many others. What each of these phrases has in common is that it makes a claim without providing any indication of who said it, when she said it, or why she said it. In other words, when you see these words be sure to start asking questions. Further research might show that the article is not being entirely honest.


But Then:

What if you can’t refute the articles you have found that contradict your original claim?

Then:

You might have to reconsider your thesis. Perhaps you are wrong and should try to prove the opposite of what you first thought. Or, perhaps your thesis is only conditionally right. Instead of saying, “It is best to approach such and such problem in such and such solution,” you might instead qualify your thesis statement. Examples of qualifying a statement are:


I am opposed to abortion except in cases of rape or incest.

Or

When the economy is good, the top 10% of wage earners should enjoy lower taxes, but in times of economic distress, the highest wage earners should be expected to pay a higher tax rate.

Or

Genetically modified foods should be allowed in the United States if they are clearly labeled as such

And so on….

When:

The article is about your subject, corroborates your thesis, and is timely and free of bias.

First:

You still have to evaluate it for credibility, timeliness, and bias. If the article is out-dated, comes from an unreliable source, or is biased, you may have to leave it out of your paper or include it with caveats and qualifiers. HOWEVER, if the article passes inspection…

Then:

Take notes for later. Write down all of the information you will need for your works cited page. Write down any information you will want to quote, paraphrase or summarize, being careful to note the page number or paragraph number of the where you got the information. This information can be mapped out in your outline and used in your paper. Always follow the documentation style your instructor wants you to use.

 

 



 
 
 
 
 
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Malpractice is defined as improper, illegal, or negligent activity. In the realm of research, here are some examples of information malpractice:

 

Plagiarism

It should go without saying that copying work that is not your own and/or using sources without attribution will get you into serious trouble.

Solution

Always do your own work and adhere to MLA, APA, or other assigned documentation guidelines.

 

Cherry-picking Science

Science is enormously complicated, and an individual research report is just one piece of a larger puzzle. Definitively quoting one story that seems to support your argument while ignoring all the others that do not–whether deliberately or not—will keep you from fully understanding your topic.

Solution

Read widely enough about your subject to make sure you understand it as completely as possible before you report on it. By comparing the work of the experts in a given field, you will develop a clearer picture of what is known and unknown, as well as which areas of inquiry are likely to be most productive.

 

Presenting History without Context

History is nuanced and discrete. Behind every anecdote and quote, there is a complex set of facts and circumstances, all of which could dramatically alter the event’s interpretation.

Solution

Place the primary source in its historical context by determining, as best you can, the point of view of the source and its original intent. Read and evaluate the source carefully and critically, and be prepared to do more research to determine why the quote was said or the action taken.

 

False Equivalence

False equivalence occurs when someone falsely equates an act by one party to the act of another without taking into account all of the underlying differences which may make the comparison inaccurate or invalid.

Solution

Always make sure that the comparison you wish to make is supported by the facts of each instance. Also, try not to let your own biases color your interpretation of the facts.

 

Treating All Opinions as Equal

An expert in the field of geochemistry likely knows more about hydraulic fracturing than a random commenter on an internet message board. An atmospheric scientist will know more about climate science than a journalist, an economist, or a meteorologist. Don’t give all opinions about your subject equal weight.

Solution

Respect expertise, education, and prestige. Investigate authors and their professional affiliations in order to determine authoritativeness and expertise.

 

 

 

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