Rupar’s research on evidence in newspapers: What to do?

As I said in my last post, my research into some of this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning stories suggested that the most common problem in the stories, from a critical thinking perspective, was that they lacked evidence. I was surprised to find a lack of evidence, but maybe I shouldn’t have been.

In a study of 510 stories in New Zealand newspapers published in 2006, Veronica Rupar found that 62% of them did not “clearly describe[] the input of sources behind their stories.” These articles “only stated an opinion or gave quotes without indicating how the news was assembled … (example: ‘The Prime Minister thinks…’)” (130).

Why does Rupar’s finding interest me? Because it encourages me to think more about how to decide to accept something in the absence of evidence.

People citing how they knows what they claim is how a they get me to believe them. Without a citation of some sort, I have to take what they claim on trust.

Trust in what? Perhaps that he or she was at the scene and correctly understood what was said. Perhaps that the person spoken with was a reputable source about, or in a position to know, the thing in question.

Alternatively, if I won’t accept what the person says on trust, I could accept it based on past performance (was this person correct before? Did he try to be correct?) The claim might also go down more smoothly with the assumption that the speaker, journalist or otherwise, is generally well-intentioned.

In many ways, these questions are simplistic wrappers around research on vetting and accepting arguments from authority that have been discussed for millenia. Douglas Walton’s book on the subject is a great starting point; Thomas Haskell’s book also provided very interesting historical background for a newbie like I.

Rupar’s finding also interested me because of her demonstration that a news story could go from not citing sources to citing them with relative ease (133).

Admittedly, her example involves adding 16 words to what is only a 54-word story to start with. But that simple move would be all, I think, that’s necessary to ease many of my fears.

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