New Year, New “News”

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Newspapers, black and white

As a new year and a new term begin, it’s time to look at the basic terminology of argumentation and how it relates to today’s headlines. A claim is a statement that your argument supports—the thesis statement of your argumentative essay. A claim of fact drawn from the headlines may or may not need to be supported. The statement that a bomb cyclone hit the Eastern coast of the United States on January 4, 2018, does not need to be proven. It is simply a fact verifiable by a number of different sources, although you might need to define the key term “bomb cyclone.” A claim worded as though it is a fact may need proof if it is open to interpretation or can be verified only at some point in the future: Flood damage along the East Coast from the high tides of January 4, 2018, will run into the millions.

A claim of value goes beyond fact to make a statement of relative worth. Because estimation of worth is subjective, a claim of value may be relatively more difficult to defend. Claims of value most often deal with aesthetics or morality. The thesis of a movie or book review, for example, is a claim of value: Star Wars: The Last Jedi was a disappointment to some long-term fans. Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour is Oscar worthy. Other judgmental statements are also claims of value: Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury is an unbiased report of what those inside the White House think of President Trump. Fire and Fury is a self-serving and unsupported attack on the Trump presidency.

A claim of policy is future oriented. It states what should or should not be done. It is the most difficult thesis to support because it requires proving that a problem exists and that a proposed solution is a feasible and desirable solution to the problem. President Trump should be impeached for obstruction of justice. Robert Mueller should be fired as special counsel to the investigation of Russian interference into the 2016 US presidential election.

When you seek support for your argumentative claim, you will most often be looking for a blend of factual support, which appeals to an audience’s reason, and appeal to needs and values, which appeals to the audience’s emotions. The more controversial the issue at hand, the harder to overcome a reader or hearer’s emotional investment in the matter. Over the last two years, we have realized as never before the extent to which the “news” has become biased. News networks that are on the air twenty-four hours a day no longer even try to clarify the line between reporting the news and commenting on it. Add to that the fact that the “news” on our Facebook feed during the campaign was being influenced by Russia, and we have to be more cautious than ever about what sources we trust for reliable information.

We also must be aware of what assumptions underlie our arguments. We cannot construct an effective argument if we cannot understand our own biases and the biases of those with whom we disagree. Abortion is such a very difficult issue to discuss because those who believe a child is a human being from conception may be trying to talk or write to those who do not define a fetus in the same way. Those who voted for Trump primarily because of his ability to influence Supreme Court decisions for decades, including those regarding abortion, were willing to dismiss what others saw as disqualifying flaws in their candidate. The basic question that can help a writer or speaker get to the heart of underlying assumptions is, what do I have to believe in order to accept that claim? What do I assume about the electoral process or same-sex marriage or the legalization of marijuana that shapes my argument? What does my opponent believe?

Claim, support, assumption—these are the elements that shape all arguments and that will be our means of approaching the issues that appear daily in the local, national, and international news.

Image Source: "Newspapers B&W (4)" by Jon S on Flickr 8/11/11 via Creative Commons 2.0 license.

About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.