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NHECHS - HCCS Library Instruction: The Author

This guide compiles instructional materials selected by HCC Librarian Jenn B. Stidham for library instructions sessions designed for North Houston Early College High School students.

Author Perspective

Fact or Opinion Silhouette of a head with a question mark in the center

An author’s purpose can influence the kind of information he or she chooses to include.

Thinking about the reason an author produced a source can be helpful to you because that reason was what dictated the kind of information he/she chose to include. Depending on that purpose, the author may have chosen to include factual, analytical, and objective information. Or, instead, it may have suited his/her purpose to include information that was subjective and therefore less factual and analytical. The author’s reason for producing the source also determined whether he or she included more than one perspective or just his/her own.

Authors typically want to do at least one of the following:

  • Inform and educate
  • Persuade
  • Sell services or products or
  • Entertain

Combined Purposes

Sometimes authors have a combination of purposes, as when a marketer decides he can sell more smart phones with an informative sales video that also entertains us. The same is true when a singer writes and performs a song that entertains us but that she intends to make available for sale. Other examples of authors having multiple purposes occur in most scholarly writing.

In those cases, authors certainly want to inform and educate their audiences. But they also want to persuade their audiences that what they are reporting and/or postulating is a true description of a situation, event, or phenomenon or a valid argument that their audience must take a particular action. In this blend of scholarly author’s purposes, the intent to educate and inform is considered to trump the intent to persuade.


Why Intent Matters

Authors’ intent usually matters in how useful their information can be to your research project, depending on which information need you are trying to meet. For instance, when you’re looking for sources that will help you actually decide your answer to your research question or evidence for your answer that you will share with your audience, you will want the author’s main purpose to have been to inform or educate his/her audience. That’s because, with that intent, he/she is likely to have used:

  • Facts where possible.
  • Multiple perspectives instead of just his/her own.
  • Little subjective information.
  • Seemingly unbiased, objective language that cites where he/she got the information.

The reason you want that kind of resource when trying to answer your research question or explaining that answer is that all of those characteristics will lend credibility to the argument you are making with your project. Both you and your audience will simply find it easier to believe—will have more confidence in the argument being made—when you include those types of sources.

Sources whose authors intend only to persuade others won’t meet your information need for an answer to your research question or evidence with which to convince your audience. That’s because they don’t always confine themselves to facts. Instead, they tell us their opinions without backing them up with evidence. If you used those sources, your readers will notice and not believe your argument.


Fact vs. Opinion vs. Objective vs. Subjective

Need to brush up on the differences between fact, objective information, subjective information, and opinion?

***Fact – Facts are useful to inform or make an argument.

Examples:

  • The United States was established in 1776.
  • The pH levels in acids are lower than pH levels in alkalines.
  • Beethoven had a reputation as a virtuoso pianist.

***Opinion – Opinions are useful to persuade, but careful readers and listeners will notice and demand evidence to back them up.

Examples:

  • That was a good movie.
  • Strawberries taste better blueberries.
  • George Clooney is the sexiest actor alive.
  • The death penalty is wrong.
  • Beethoven’s reputation as a virtuoso pianist is overrated.

***Objective – Objective information reflects a research finding or multiple perspectives that are not biased.

Examples:

  • “Several studies show that an active lifestyle reduces the risk of heart disease and diabetes.”
  • “Studies from the Brown University Medical School show that twenty-somethings eat 25 percent more fast-food meals at this age than they did as teenagers.”

***Subjective – Subjective information presents one person or organization’s perspective or interpretation. Subjective information can be meant to distort, or it can reflect educated and informed thinking. All opinions are subjective, but some are backed up with facts more than others.

Examples:

  • “The simple truth is this: As human beings, we were meant to move.”
  • “In their thirties, women should stock up on calcium to ensure strong, dense bones and to ward off osteoporosis later in life.”*

*In this quote, it’s mostly the “should” that makes it subjective. The objective version of the last quote would read: “Studies have shown that women who begin taking calcium in their 30s show stronger bone density and fewer repercussions of osteoporosis than women who did not take calcium at all.” But perhaps there are other data showing complications from taking calcium. That’s why drawing the conclusion that requires a “should” makes the statement subjective.

ACTIVITY: Fact, Opinion, Objective, or Subjective?

Open activity in a web browser.

Author Bias

Degree of Bias

Most of us have biases, and we can easily fool ourselves if we don’t make a conscious effort to keep our minds open to new information. Psychologists have shown over and over again that humans naturally tend to accept any information that supports what they already believe, even if the information isn’t very reliable. And humans also naturally tend to reject information that conflicts with those beliefs, even if the information is solid. These predilections are powerful. Unless we make an active effort to listen to all sides we can become trapped into believing something that isn’t so, and won’t even know it.

— A Process for Avoiding Deception, Annenberg Classroom

Review the website or other source and look for evidence that the site exhibits more or less bias. The factors below provide some clues.

 Coverage

 Unbiased: This source’s information is not drastically different from   coverage of the topic elsewhere. Information and opinion about the   topic don’t seem to come out of nowhere. It doesn’t seem as though i   information has been shaped to fit.

 Biased: Compared to what you’ve found in other sources covering the   same topic, this content seems to omit a lot of information about the   topic, emphasize vastly different aspects of it, and/or contain   stereotypes or overly simplified information. Everything seems to fit the   site’s theme, even though you know there are various ways to look at   the issue(s).

 Citing Sources

 Unbiased: The source links to any earlier news or documents it refers   to.

 Biased: The source refers to earlier news or documents, but does not   link to the news report or document itself.

 Evidence

 Unbiased: Statements are supported by evidence and documentation.

 Biased: There is little evidence and documentation presented, just   assertions that seem intended to persuade by themselves.

 Vested Interest

 Unbiased: There is no overt evidence that the author will benefit from   whichever way the topic is decided.

 Biased: The author seems to have a “vested interest” in the topic. For   instance, if the site asks for contributions, the author probably will   benefit if contributions are made. Or, perhaps the author may get to   continue his or her job if the topic that the website promotes gets   decided in a particular way.

 Imperative Language

 Unbiased: Statements are made without strong emphasis and without   provocative twists. There aren’t many exclamation points.

 Biased: There are many strongly worded assertions. There are a lot of   exclamation points.

 Multiple Viewpoints

 Unbiased: Both pro and con viewpoints are provided about   controversial issues.

 Biased: Only one version of the truth is presented about controversial   issues.

 

EXAMPLES: Bias

Making the Inference

Consider the clues. Then decide the extent that the bias you detected on the source is acceptable for your purpose. It might help to grade the extent that this factor contributes to the site being suitable on a scale like this one:

A – Very Acceptable

B – Good, but could be better

C – OK in a pinch

D – Marginal

F – Unacceptable

You’ll want to make a note of the source’s grade for bias so you can combine it later with the grades you give the other factors.

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