During the last presidential campaign, many of us made the mistake of trusting what we read on social media. It was easy to pick up on a quote or a meme that said just exactly what we wished we had said and to pass it along to those friends and family members whom we had not already blocked due to irreconcilable political differences. Facebook and Twitter and other media have made it easy to pass along misinformation with the click of a button. We were too naïve initially to recognize the forces at work to shape our opinions. We should have known, given how quickly Facebook picks up on any search we do and plies us with ads for just that product or service. Go to cars.com, and you are hit from all sides by car ads. Start planning a trip to New York, and it is ads for flights and hotels. How could we not have known how closely our interests – including our political ones – were being digitized and studied? More importantly, how could we not have questioned the sources of political news that seemed too good to be true—or too appropriately demeaning to our opponents to resist?
It’s a simple truth of print journalism that articles do not have to be documented in the way that academic research has to be. Yes, we read direct quotes that we hope are correctly attributed to the specific speaker identified, but we also have that “source close to the White House” or that staff member who wishes to remain anonymous. It is easy to fall into the trap of trusting everything in print. Even the best journalistic writing does not come with notes and a list of works cited. Maybe that is why documentation seems such a foreign concept to students. However, good journalists, in print or on air, know the power of proper attribution. They know that statistics from the State Department about the number of American tourists killed in foreign countries are likely to be trustworthy and trusted. A report by the Department of Transportation, identified as such, about the number of accidents caused by distracted driving bears the weight of authority.
We have all learned pretty quickly as the researched essays we assign increasingly draw on electronic sources that students do the digital equivalent of trusting anything in print. They tend to assume anything that came up in a search is just as good as any other source. After all, they found it on the Internet! Of course, Wikipedia is the first source that pops up in many searches, and we have to remind our students that some of the people writing for Wikipedia are no more qualified to write about the subject than they are. A Wikipedia article can be a quick source for facts, but its author is not guaranteed to be a specialist on the subject. Somewhere along the way students must learn how to evaluate online sources.
As they incorporate those sources into their writing, in support of their arguments, they often have to be reminded to take advantage of the weight of authority. There is a reason to avoid “floating quotations,” those that appear with no lead-in or no identification of where or whom they came from. Sentence. “Quotation.” Sentence. The value of using sources is that another author can lend authority on a subject of his or her expertise that the writer does not have. If that source is identified only on a works cited page and in parenthesis by last name and page number, the claim of authority is lost. One of the most useful skills for documented essays that our students can learn is to work into their own sentences the claim to authority of the author they are quoting or paraphrasing.
A very different claim to authority is becoming more and more apparent in some of the political battles going on right now. Personal experience and anecdotal evidence can be one of the most powerful types of support because of the emotional impact it adds to the mix. This is the basis for the impact of the #MeToo movement. It is also the reason that survivors of the tragic shootings at the Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, were able to lead a march of hundreds of thousands of supporters of gun control and school safety reform. There are few types of authority greater, on an individual basis, than the ability to state, “I know it is true because it happened to me.”