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ENGL 1102 - Minor (Floyd) - Spring 2021: 5 Ws

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Who

Who is the author? Are they experts in the subject?

  • This means you're looking for the author's credentials and organizational affiliations. You may have to dig around. Search for the author online. Do their credentials match the topic? Is a gardener talking about gardening? Is a librarian talking about research? Or is the librarian talking about gardening, and the gardener talking about research? That matters!
  • You're also considering the author's qualifications.  Look at what they do, and what their accomplishments are. What if they're writing about gardening, but don't have a horticulture degree?  Does it matter that they have 25 years of cultivating a successful farm? Sure... IF they're talking about growing crops! They're talking about exotic orchid cultivation? Then maybe not so much. Now think about an author of a book on recent history. Sure, she doesn't have a degree in history, but what if she actually took part in the event being written about? Does that make a difference? You bet!
  • Let's think about journalists. What kind of publication do they write for? Does it make a difference if it's the New York Times or the National Enquirer? Which argument would you be more persuaded by? 
  • Also keep in mind the journalist's source! Where are they getting the information they're writing about? 
    • Pro Tip: When you are reading an article written by a journalist, do not base your evaluation on just that journalist's opinion.  Make sure that what they write is backed up with credible information from an authority IN THE FIELD which is being written about.  Here's an example: A journalist writes about the discovery of a new form of black hole, and quotes a renowned scientist arguing for one possible effect the new black hole will have on our sun. This person is a medical doctor, not an astrophysicist. So regardless of how solid your journalist's argument is, the argument is not based on an authority in the field of astrophysics, and thus the journalist cannot claim authority either. Oops!

Can they be contacted?

  • This one is easy. Can you find information in the source that tells you how to contact the author directly? That's a good thing, and means the author is willing to talk to people about what they have written.

What

What is the purpose of the source?

  • To inform? teach? sell? entertain? persuade? Which of these might be most valuable to you as s source? Do you think a website trying to sell you nutritional products might "spin" their argument in favor of what they sell? Probably so, and that's not great. If an article is trying to teach you something about black holes, might that be more believable? Of course!

Fact or opinion based?

  • You need to determine if the article is fact or opinion. This is important. Not everything you read on the internet is true. Not everything you read in an article is true. So you must be able to differentiate fact from opinion.
  • Some sources are trying to tell you what is true. Other sources may be trying to persuade you that something is true.
    • Honest sources will let you know they're trying to persuade you, like opinion pages of a newspaper.
    • Less honest sources will try to mask their persuasion. Watch out for those sneaky ones!
  • Think about it this way: Is the source on a controversial topic? Does it reflect different sides of that argument? Does it represent all sides equally? Sources that talk about opposing points of view are often better than those that do not.
  • It's important that sources of objective and impartial ("Just the facts, ma'am!") Look for political, ideological, cultural, or religious favoritism, and make sure the source isn't trying to score points against "another side".

Are the claims/conclusions supported?

  • When the author makes claims or comes to conclusions, make sure he tells you how he came to that conclusion. A good source will let you know where the information came from!
  • Make sure, too, that the claim or conclusion is supported with facts you can verify.

Why

Why would I use the source?

  • The information should actually relate to your topic. That may sound obvious, but it still needs to be said.
  • The information should be written at an appropriate level (i.e. not too elementary or advanced for your needs). For example, a multi-part statistical analysis may be overkill of you're explaining basic facts, and a book written for children is never a good choice for a college paper!
  • Look at a variety of sources before determining this is one you will use. Ask yourself, is this particular source compelling or persuasive?  (Remember, though, an article can be persuasive emotionally without reliable information to back it up!) Choose solid, well thought-out sources, well-supported sources and you can't go wrong.

Why is the source reliable?

  • Don't discount the need for proper spelling and grammar. Good, reliable sources will be free of these types of mistakes. Typos, poor spelling, and grammar issues are a sign of sloppy work. And sloppy work may be a sign of ... you guessed it ... inaccurate information!
  • Try to verify the information in another source or from personal knowledge. A reliable source will not be the *only* source out there that makes a claim. If your source is about something with which you're unfamiliar, then you need to do MORE research to make sure the content of your source is reliable!

Where

Where did you find the info?

  • What type of source are you looking at? Is it a newspaper? A magazine? A website? A scholarly article?  That makes a bit of difference when you're looking for a reliable source. Refer back to the Source Types tab and check the credibility status of your source!

Citations included? 

  • A really good source will tell you where their information came from. In other words, it will have citations! Sometimes it takes the form of a reference or works cited list, and sometimes it will take the form of links.

Where does the money come from?

  • Consider who the sponsors are. Is it in a trade journal? Then the sponsor is a group from that particular company or business. Is it in a scholarly journal? Then who paid for the research (this information is typically disclosed either at the beginning or end of the article)? Just because a source has a sponsor doesn't make it a "bad source"... it just means you need to review that information carefully along with everything else!
  • Just like fact and opinion, you have to recognize when something is propaganda. Are they trying to sell you something? Is it an article about the benefits of beef, sponsored by a cattle company? If they're trying to sell you something, they may "spin" information to persuade you to buy their product.

When

When was the info created or updated?  Does it matter to you if it's current?​

  • Generally speaking, the more recent the better when you're considering current events and scientific research. If you're looking at historical information (say, the fall of the Roman empire) it might not be as important.
    • HINT: A website's date might be tricky to find. First look around on the page - is there a date at the top or bottom of the article? Sometimes the main website's date will be at the bottom, but remember, that's the WHOLE site, not the information you're reviewing.

Has new research been done?

  • If you're looking at an article published in 1999, that's pretty old. But what if it was published in 1999, and revised in 2015? Is the revision based on new information? That might be really important to the validity of an argument!
  • An article can be published this year, but based on old information. For example, you can read an essay about the great pyramids of Egypt, but if it doesn't talk about the new discoveries made in 2017, is that information up-to-date?
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