It’s hard for students to be able to judge the value of a source. Help your class with critical reading skills and digital citizenship as well by examining an online article.
James Glassman wrote an article called, “The Right Medicine for Ailing Puerto Rico.” This article discusses two laws: Chapter 9, a part of U.S. bankruptcy law which allows municipalities (cities, public utilities, and similar entities) in the states to go bankrupt; and HR 870, a law allowing municipalities in Puerto Rico to do the same. Find links to both at the end of this post.
Online articles should not be automatically dismissed as unreliable, but the web is a fast-paced environment, with little of the peer review and fact checking that we assume take place in print publishing. So begin by having your students evaluate the website itself.
Evaluate the website
Some questions students should get in the habit of asking when they think about using an online source:
- Who is the publisher? Are they a trusted source or should you do some research about them?
- Do they show authors’ names, use original sources for facts, and/or provide other data that allows you to find out more about the articles they publish?
- Does the website contain grammatical errors, excessive ads, excessive links, deceptive links (links that don’t go where you would expect), or other indications of being a spammy site?
Make sure that students can recognize article mills or term paper mills; these should never be used as references for papers. Make sure also that they can distinguish reporting from op-ed (opinion-editorial) articles. This article is an op-ed piece, and is therefore expected to reflect the author’s opinion. Op-ed pieces may also contain facts and strong arguments. Traditionally, reporting outside of op-ed pieces was expected to be unbiased.
Evaluate the author
Let students use a search engine to find information about the author. They may discover that Mr. Glassman is the executive director of the George W. Bush Institute and was, before he held that position, a broadcast journalist. He is also a former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.
Students may find that Mr. Glassman has testified before Congress on Puerto Rico’s economic situation, and the role of U.S. bankruptcy law in Puerto Rico specifically: “U.S. law does not provide for the bankruptcy of states, and Puerto Rico, as a territory, is closer to a state than to any other U.S. entity. But Chapter 9 bankruptcy, which applies to cities and municipal agencies, could be adapted by Congress to Puerto Rico and provide a far better basis for an orderly disposition of assets in the case of default than the island’s home-grown, quickly passed [local law].”
Ask students to list evidence that Glassman is an expert on Puerto Rico and evidence that he is an expert on economics and politics. Remind students that being well known or well educated is not automatically being an expert. They should always be sure that their expert is actually an expert on the particular subject being discussed.
Ask also whether there is any evidence that Glassman might be biased on the subject of Puerto Rico. Remind students that biased sources can be used if there is a good reason to do so, but that they should be careful about doing so. At the very least, they should check both facts and analyses of data, and the bias must be acknowledged in their paper.
With these three lists of evidence completed, discuss as a class whether Glassman is a reliable source.
Evaluate the article
It’s tempting to accept or reject an article on the basis of agreement or disagreement with the points made, but students should look deeper. Just as they considered whether the website was reliable and the author was reliable, they must consider whether the article itself is reliable.
- Are there errors of fact?
You will find in this article the phrase, “The president of Puerto Rico, Alejandra Garcia Padilla…” Garcia Padilla is the Governor of Puerto Rico, not the president. The president of Puerto Rico is Barack Obama. This is an extremely basic error.
- Is there biased language?
Glassman describes Puerto Rico’s situation in these words: “The island’s government, which runs a rickety welfare state with excessive spending, has been borrowing like crazy.” A “rickety welfare state” and “borrowing like crazy” are emotional phrases which reveal bias.
- Are there unsubstantiated claims?
Glassman claims that the action against which he is arguing is “special status for Puerto Rico in U.S. bankruptcy courts” and “would open the floodgates for irresponsible U.S. states to demand equal treatment.” Reading the documents listed below will make it clear to students that Puerto Rico is asking to be treated like a state, and thus is not getting special treatment or setting a precedent for states.
Reading primary documents is great research practice. However, if your students are not able to read these documents, don’t hesitate to send them to Wikipedia. Having read the background information there, they should be able to confirm the meanings of the documents:
Making a decision
Should students use as a reference an op-ed piece by an author who shows bias and inaccuracy, published at a website with a history of bias, containing unsubstantiated claims?
This is a good time to point out that papers correctly citing this article as a reference will send readers to an essentially unconvincing article. This is an important reason for citing sources in academic papers and articles.
It can be appropriate to use a biased source as an example of a specific position. In the case of this article, the misinformation about basic facts could cause a paper referencing this article as an example to appear biased, since they could have chosen an article which held the same position but was more credible.
Follow up the lesson with homework asking students to find credible articles on both sides of this or another controversial position.
Addendum: On May 18, the Washington Examiner ran the following statement by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA):
Earlier this week the Washington Examiner ran an op-ed by James Glassman (The Right Medicine for Ailing Puerto Rico). Unfortunately, Mr. Glassman did not take the time to adequately research my position on the issue of allowing Puerto Rico to utilize chapter 9 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code before he decided to speak for me.
If Mr. Glassman had read my statement from the recent House Judiciary Committee hearing on the issue he would know that I feel strongly that an issue of this magnitude deserves close and deliberate examination but by no means have I backed such a proposal. I have said many times that the purpose of that hearing was to gather more information and to hear from stakeholders. As the Committee with jurisdiction over our nation’s bankruptcy laws, the House Judiciary Committee regularly reviews and evaluates proposals to amend these laws and our recent hearing on allowing Puerto Rico to file for bankruptcy was simply part of this review.