Recognizing the Main Idea and Source Bias in a Complex Reading
College assignments often incorporate or are focused upon complex, multilayered textsWords that make up a book, essay, article, poem, or speech.. Breaking those texts down into manageable chunks is helpful in developing a working understanding of the overall readingA piece of writing to be read. A reading can either be a full work (i.e., a book) or partial (i.e., a passage). and figuring out the writer's central themesThe main idea or meaning of a text., opinionsPoint of view that shows a personal belief or bias and cannot be proven to be completely true. and thesisAn overall argument, idea, or belief that a writer uses as the basis for a work.. This, in turn, will allow you to develop effective summariesA brief restatement of an author’s main idea and major supporting details. Summaries are factual and should be written in the third-person with an objective point of view., responsesA written analysis of a reading that shows understanding and fosters deep thinking about a work., and analysesTo analyze is to make a thoughtful and detailed study of something. An analysis is the end result of analyzing. of the readings.
This lesson will help you develop strategies around unraveling a complex reading and identifying its main ideaThe most important or central thought of a reading selection. It also includes what the author wants the reader to understand about the topic he or she has chosen to write about.. You will also learn how to recognize biasIn writing, bias indicates a writer's personal prejudice for or against an idea, person, activity, or object. Being objective, or displaying no tendency toward a preference, is the opposite of showing bias. in a reading and identify opinionsPoint of view that shows a personal belief or bias and cannot be proven to be completely true. disguised as factsA piece of information that can be proven. Something that is true and indisputable.—two additional and valuable skills in being able to effectively respond to the ideas and writings of others.
Identifying the Main Idea
One way to simplify a complex text with multiple perspectivesThe point of view from which an author considers a subject or issue., explanations, or justifications is to first identify the writer's main idea. Follow these strategies to identify the main idea:
1. Remember that even when you are reading a text with multiple points of view, you are looking for the writer's main idea. While the writer may present viewpoints that echo the main ideas of the contributing authors or other sources, do not mistake these viewpoints for the main idea the writer of the text is trying to convey.
2. Look for repeated words and ideas that indicate the writer's topic and the point being made about it. Repeating keywordsWords that are important to understanding the meaning of a passage or reading. and ideas is a common practice for many writers, and even if they are presented from different perspectives within the text, the repetition itself is a good indicator of the writer's intended topicThe subject of a reading. .
3. Weigh the amount of time given to each viewpoint. If equal time is given to each position, then the writer may be neutral on the subject. If more time is given to one viewpoint over another, it may indicate that the writer agrees or strongly disagrees with that point of view.
4. Look for words that signal the writer's analysisTo analyze is to make a thoughtful and detailed study of something. An analysis is the end result of analyzing. of the situation. If the writer follows a particular viewpoint with "however," then you can assume that the writer does not entirely agree with that viewpoint and is providing a counterpoint.
5. Identify the title and headings. In non-fiction writing, the title often repeats the main idea of the reading.
6. Look for the adjectivesWords that modify and describe a noun. Examples: old, tall, leafy. and adverbsWords that modify and describe a verb, adjective, or other adverb. Examples: quickly, awkwardly, lovingly. that accompany each viewpoint. If a writer prefaces a source with the words, "successfully presents his case," then it is clear that the author agrees with that point of view or believes that point has more merit than another point. If, instead, the writer describes someone's claims as "dubious," it is clear that the writer does not believe that particular point has value.
7. Look for an introduction and conclusion. These are both areas where writers tend to briefly summarize the point of the text. The introduction and conclusion of most readings are usually comparatively brief; however, they serve to drive home the main points of the writer.
8. Break down the paragraphs into the MEAL conceptAn acronym that describes a method of organizing the paragraphs in an essay. Under this plan, each paragraph should have a Main point, Evidence, Analysis, and a Link to the next paragraph.: main idea, evidenceFacts, statistics, or expert testimony that supports a claim., analysis, and linkTo connect ideas together within a paragraph or to create a transition from one paragraph to the next, as well as back to the thesis.. The varying viewpoints will be the writer's evidence. The analysis, however, will be the writer's own thoughts and should point you to the writer's main idea.
Main Idea: the topic sentenceA sentence that contains the controlling idea for an entire paragraph and is typically the first sentence of the paragraph., identifying one of the supporting claimsA statement that something is true, such as the thesis of an essay. A successful writer must present evidence to prove his/her claim. for the thesis.
Evidence: factsA piece of information that can be proven. Something that is true and indisputabl, expertSomeone who is very knowledgeable about a topic. opinion, or anecdotal evidenceA brief, interesting story that supports a claim in a critical analysis or persuasion essay. proving the claim described in the topic sentence.
Analysis: explaining how the evidence supports the topic sentence.
Link: a transition from one paragraph to another, as well as back to the thesis.
Once you have determined the main idea, you should take a closer look at the writer's argumentA set of statements or reasons making a case for or against something.. One particular concern is whether the author is biased. Bias can be defined as a leaning toward or away from one side of an issue. In other words, the writer is either for or against an argument or idea. Ask yourself these questions to determine whether a reading contains bias:
1. Is the source of the reading known for a particular bias? For example, some news stations tend to lean toward a more politically conservative perspective while others tend to lean toward a more liberal perspective.
2. Is the reading funded by a particular organization? For example, a study on toothpaste that is funded by Superwhite brand toothpaste might be biased. The results of the study directly impact the very company that is paying for the research.
3. Do the graphics accurately represent the subject? If photographs are being used as evidence to support reasoning, it is essential to know whether or not the photographs are authentic or staged, i.e., images altered by a computer program or distorted by a leading or misrepresentative caption.
Photos are not the only images that you need to analyze. Also look at charts, graphs, and illustrations. Look closely at all parts of graphs and charts because it is fairly easy to misrepresent dataFacts, numbers, or information. to portray circumstances that are more positive or more negative than they really are by skewing details and data.
4. Does the reading include subjectiveWording that shows a writer's feelings or opinions. For example, words such as feel, believe, and think are obvious signs that a writer is being subjective. language? Did the reading present ideas that are open to interpretation, perhaps influenced by cultural, social, or political views? For example, an articleA non-fiction, often informative writing that forms a part of a publication, such as a magazine or newspaper. about an oil pipeline running through a national forest that portrays the oil and gas industry as "reasonable" and "cautious," yet describes environmental groups as "naïve" and "unrealistic," may show a bias toward the oil and gas industry.
5. Do the graphs and diagrams accurately represent the data? Read the graphs and diagrams carefully to make sure that they make sense and that what they say is accurately represented in the reading. Graphs and diagrams can be misrepresented in biased readings.
6. Are there any facts that have been left out? A news article that presents only "one side" of an event will tell a different story than an article that includes accounts by multiple parties.
7. Have quotesTo use the exact words of someone else in a writing. Quotes are indicted in a writing using quotation marks and attributive phrases. been edited in such a way that important words or ideas are left out? For example, look at quotes used in marketing films and books. The marketing campaigns may use only the portions that reflect favorably on their product. Even worse is when a quote has been altered in such a way that it implies the exact opposite of its original intended meaning. You may need to locate the original quote before you know whether the writer used it correctly.
Identifying Opinions Disguised as Facts
When you read, you need to be able to separate what is actually being said from how it is being said. This task is made more difficult when writers make their opinions seem like facts. Here are a few ways that you can distinguish between facts and opinions.
1. Recognize logical fallaciesA mistake in reasoning; faulty thinking that weakens an argument or leads to an incorrect conclusion.. A logical fallacy is faulty reasoning upon which an ideaA thought, opinion, or impression., theoryIn science, a well tested and widely accepted explanation for a phenomenon. Theories incorporate facts, observations, experiments, laws, and careful reasoning. In more general usage, theory may merely mean an unproven idea, speculation, or guesswork., thesis, or hypothesisA preliminary explanation that needs further study before it can be accepted. A hypothesis is stronger than a guess but less supported than a theory. is based. There are many different yet common logical fallacies. For example, the "cherry picking fallacy" relies upon choosing only that data or evidence that will lead to your desired outcome rather than revealing the full picture.
The woman crossing the street was clearly in the right when she was struck by the moving vehicle because she was in a neighborhood with many walkers, it was daylight, and the roads were not icy.
This cherry picking fallacy only presents one side of what could be a police report, a legal argument, or a journalistic account of an incident; it fails to take into account all evidence, such as the state of mind of the walker, her location in relation to a crosswalk, the driver's story, and the condition of the vehicle in question. The full story is not revealed.
2. Identify opinions attributed to unknown strangers. This is the use of language that implies a fact without stating it as a fact.
The neighborhood has seen a dramatic increase in theft and property crime, a phenomenon many people say is due to the rising underage student population.
Knowing the identity of the "many people" in the above example is important to analyze this claim. If the "many people" are just the members of the writer's circle of family and friends, this may be an unfounded claim. If, however, most members of the neighborhood association as well as local authorities believe that students are to blame, then this allegation may have more weight.
3. Recognize the difference between imagined and actual motives. Guessing about others' motives is a practice often seen in controversial or poorly crafted journalismCollecting, editing, writing, and presenting news and other information to an audience. . It is speculating as to the thoughts, ideas, opinions, and views of others rather than reporting just evidentiary facts or statements.
One of the students running for council president is campaigning for a campus-wide curfew and ban of all tobacco and alcohol products. Clearly he is pushing his own moral agenda to change the entire attitude of the school.
In the above example, the writer does not give readers any evidence to prove that the student in question based his platform on his own morals. It is possible that there were several deaths on the campus due to drunk driving or that a beloved campus professor was diagnosed with lung cancer.
4. Look for adjectives and adverbs used outside of quotations. While the quotationAn exact copy of the words from a speech or text. These words are placed inside quotation marks to show that they are a perfect repeat of the original. may be an authentic statement made by another individual, an adjective or adverb outside of the quotations is not. The writer is using that adjective or adverb to modifyTo change or specify the meaning of another word, usually the subject or the verb. Example: The red ball quickly bounced over the fence. The adjective red modifies the subject, the ball. Also, the adverb quickly modifies the verb bounced., enhance, or otherwise slantInformation presented with a particular focus or from a certain perspective, such as a writer's angle on a topic. the reading of the quotation.
The politician responded to the media's question regarding the economic stimulus plan with these hurried words: "I am certain we are all eager to hear more about the plan. However, at this time, I am unable to elaborate."
In the above example, the writer claims that the politician spoke in a hurried manner, which could imply that his response was not well thought out or dismissive. This may not be a correct assumption. First of all, perhaps the politician always tends to speak quickly and decisively, or maybe his wife was in labor and he was in a rush to leave for the hospital.+ PRACTICAL APPLICATION
You will encounter readings with multiple viewpoints both as a student in the classroom and as a worker in a professional setting. For example, literature professors often assign complex, dense, and lengthy fictional works. You may be asked to identify the different viewpoints or "voices" of a novel, a play, or a poem. As a geology student, you may be tasked with reviewing and incorporating conflicting studies and journal articles into your own research. You will be unable to make sense of these situations unless you are able to identify the varying perspectives, biases, and opinions.
You encounter source bias every day, sometimes without knowing it. "Advertorials" (a tool marketers use to sell a product or service that combines an advertisement with an editorial, often appearing like a news story) are often excellent examples of the practice of disguising facts as opinions. They are often difficult to distinguish from genuine reporting. In print, sometimes, but not always, they will be identified as advertisements (or "special promotional material") in fine print. On television or radio, the same person who is delivering news may seamlessly transition into promoting a product without you even noticing it has happened.
What follows is a complex reading with multiple viewpoints. After carefully reviewing the reading, notice its main idea, bias, and facts disguised as opinions.
Every Glass Half Full: C. Allen White's Optimism for Pessimists – What Every Student Should Know
Thousands of students head off to college each year with every intention of getting a degree, but only about sixty percent of them will end up with a diploma. What separates the graduates from the dropouts? In his new book, Optimism for Pessimists, C. Allen White argues convincingly that it's the power of positive thinking. White weaves together common sense, student stories, and scientific evidence to prove that everyone can learn to think their way to happiness and success.
Most successful people are optimists – no surprise, since the word itself is derived from the Latin term for "best." White interviewed numerous freshmen, and then caught up with them four years later. He found that people who went into college expecting to get good grades, make friends, and expand their horizons mostly did just that, while those who were pessimistic about the work and challenges ahead were much more likely to have dropped out. His conclusion that positive thoughts produce positive results is a sound one.
Some reviewers disagree, claiming that optimists aren't really more successful in their college careers; they only think that they are. Pessimists have a more realistic world view, the naysayers contend, since you can't always will yourself to be smarter, best your competition, or be liked by others. These skeptics protest that failure is inevitable, and it's better to be prepared for it than to think it can never happen to you. But as White points out, worrying leads to depression, inaction, and poor health. Negative thinking is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Pessimists try to avoid life by overeating, over working, and spending too much time alone. Positive thinkers aren't deluded: they’ve simply found ways to change their negative habits and thoughts. In doing so, they discover that they are better equipped to face difficult tasks. How encouraging!
The most uplifting part of White's call for positive thinking is in his engaging discussion of the biological basis of optimism and pessimism, derived from studies published by the National Institutes of Health (150–161). The NIH reports the following:
A major difference between optimistic and pessimistic people is their coping strategies. Optimism is associated with taking an active approach for both maximizing one's well-being and minimizing stressors. Pessimism, on the contrary, is associated with using mostly escape and avoidance strategies when dealing with distress, as well as with hesitations and a passive attitude when faced with an opportunity. Having confidence about eventual success prompts the optimist to continue trying even when the going gets tough, while doubts about the future discourage the pessimist from persisting. The optimal condition for successful living is a cautious optimism that is firmly grounded in reality.
In other words, students who approach college with a positive outlook will be able to persevere and overcome stress, while pessimists will give up too easily. But don't despair, pessimists – White says that the same research suggests that with time and practice, you can train your brain into developing more positive tendencies, which will increase your self-esteem, confidence, body-image, and willingness to take risks.
Optimism for Pessimists – What Every Student Should Know provides a detailed and interesting look at how a simple idea that all too many dismiss as silly is actually a powerful, life-changing tool. Every college student faces setbacks, difficulties, and doubts. But we don't have to be defeated by them. Whether it comes naturally or through a deliberate effort, we can all use the power of positive thinking to find success.
Now that you have reviewed this complex reading with multiple viewpoints, let's examine the text to determine its main idea, any instances of bias, and facts disguised as opinion.
Main idea: All college students face difficulties and challenges. But those who practice positive thinking, and approach life with an optimistic outlook expecting success are more likely to do well, enjoy themselves, and graduate.
Bias: The writer uses a great deal of subjective language. Those who disagree with the author are described with disparaging terms such as "naysayer" and "skeptic" and their viewpoints are given very little space. The arguments given in the book under discussion are described with positive terms like "uplifting" and "engaging."
The writer seems to give as much credence to informal conversations as to scientific research.
The writer does not take note of how the book's author distilled a long and complex scientific study into a few selected quotes that support his viewpoint.
Opinions disguised as facts: The writer declares that most successful people are optimists, without providing any evidence. She accepts that correlation equals causation based on a small anecdotal sample. She assumes that pessimists want to become optimists.
Below is a complex reading with multiple viewpoints. After carefully reviewing the reading, identify its main idea, bias, and facts disguised as opinions.
From "Employers Violate Civil Liberties Over Online Videos and Posts" by Lionel Burnett in the New York Weekly Post
If you aren't hooked up online then you might as well be nonexistent. Your online presence is basically who you are today. It's a fundamental right to be who and what you want to be online as much as it is in "real" life.
Social media has really changed how people relate to one another. We don’t have to see people face-to face anymore. We can work long hours or live far apart and still keep up with the life events, celebrations, trials, and tribulations of friends and family. With a couple swipes of the finger on a tablet, I can find out who your friends are, where you go to school, who you work for, and what music you listen to. I can even find out what world city you should live in or what type of animal best describes your personality from the quizzes you post! Through our profiles—the photos, comments, and stories we post—we get to decide how the world sees us. It's a lot of fun! But sadly, opening our lives to the world can also cause us big, big trouble.
My friend Aaron was a teacher at a local school. He's also a guy who loves hunting. He stopped talking to people at work about his hobby after his boss took him aside and said that it was "inappropriate to discuss such matters in this environment, particularly given recent incidents. We don’t want to scare the children or parents." Then last week, Aaron posted a few pictures of his latest hunting trip online, along with a video of him showing his eleven-year-old son how to properly load, fire, and unload a shotgun. All his friends thought that it was awesome that he spent time with his son teaching him gun safety. But then the video went viral, and the principal and superintendent at Aaron’s school heard about it. They called him in, and they fired him! They said he'd been warned, and that posting the video was irresponsible. Aaron was fired even though he never signed a contract or committed to any guidelines around using social media. It isn't right and it isn't fair.
Not long ago I had to sign a "social responsibility" statement for my job. The contract requires employees to review the policies and standards of the organization and exercise good judgment online. Human Resources has also issued a ludicrous one-strike rule. This new policy states that if we post something that reflects poorly on the industry, the company, or any employees, we must either a) deactivate our online accounts or b) change our profile names so no one will know where we work. If we refuse, we will be fired. This is a violation of civil liberties! No piece of paper I was forced to sign is going to change what I choose to do online.
No company has the right to tell an employee how to behave in his or her personal life. I fail to see why our Internet lives should be any different than real life. My boss goes out partying every night, but he didn't have to sign a contract saying he would watch what he says or does in a bar. If he tries to fire me for posting things online, I will see to it that he gets dismissed for being so irresponsible and partying all night. Of all of the employees, I guess I am the most upset about this. All of my coworkers signed the new contract without complaining. They aren't all that interested in talking to Human Resources with me either. I will serve as the lone advocate for this important cause without them. I will see to it that these companies stop violating our civil liberties by limiting our vital online presence!
Now, identify the reading's main idea, bias, and facts disguised as opinions.
What is the main idea?
It is a violation of civil liberties for an employer to restrict or control the personal social media use of its employees.
Identify any instances of bias.
The writer believes that social media use is both universal and necessary, and as such is a fundamental right. He appears to have a problem with authority. He does not acknowledge that an employer may have a legitimate interest in how an employee's behavior could impact business. He applauds how social media expands the reach of personal information but does not acknowledge that this expansion brings private activities into the public sphere. The writing contains a great deal of subjective language.
Identify any facts disguised as opinions.
The writer declares that a policy violates civil liberties without ever describing which rights are at issue or providing the legal basis of that assertion. He writes as if there is no distinction between private business practices and governmental interference.
How does recognizing the main idea and bias in complex readings help you to be a better essay writer?
Recognizing the main idea in complex readings helps you to write better essays in that it requires you to unpack, understand, and synthesize the thoughts of others. This, in turn, helps you to form your own arguments supported by sound reasoning. The identification of bias is important because it has the potential to undermine your reasoning. Pointing out and explaining any bias in complex readings develops an awareness of bias so you can avoid it in your own writing, which serves to strengthen your arguments.
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