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Spotting Claims in the Headlines

donna_winchell
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From the time students start learning the terminology of argumentation, they can start seeing examples in the headlines they see every day, starting with the claim of an argument. This can keep class discussions timely and relevant.

The term thesis may be more familiar to first-year students than the term claim that we draw from Stephen Toulmin. A simple way for students to discover the claim of an argument is to ask, “What is the author (or speaker) trying to prove?” Answering that statement in a single sentence will usually reveal the claim. More often than not, the claim of an argument is explicitly stated, and in a single sentence. It can be useful to ask students to find the sentence that most succinctly sums up the argument an author is making or, if there is not one, to sum up what that single sentence would be.

 

There are three types of claims: claim of policy, claim of fact, and claim of value. The differences among the types of claims can at times be subtle. Actually, the type of claim that is most difficult to support is the one that is easiest to recognize. That is the claim of policy, which states or implies that something should or should not be done. Students can easily locate examples of these any day in the headlines:

  • Abortion laws should be decided by the states.
  • The growing and selling of non-medical marijuana should be legal in Arkansas.
  • Books about non-traditional families should not be allowed in elementary school libraries.
  • The popular vote should decide who wins the presidency.

Remember, the classification of a claim has nothing to do with its validity, but rather with the form the claim takes. The opposite of each of these examples would also be a claim of policy.

The difference between the other two types of claims, the claim of fact and the claim of value, is suggested by their titles. It may seem strange to think that an argument would have to be made for a claim of fact. It would seem that simply stating a fact is enough. There will be times, however, when the goal is to prove a fact, but one that is not immediately apparent to all readers without support. We are not talking about the simple statement of fact such as the average annual amount of rainfall in Alaska per year, but statements such as these:

  • Growing non-medicinal marijuana would revitalize the economies of some small Arkansas towns that are struggling financially.
  • Some states’ abortion laws are putting the lives of expectant mothers in jeopardy.
  • A smaller percentage of residents in Arkansas are registered to vote than in any other state.
  • Actions by Russian citizens reveal widespread discontent with their government's policies in Ukraine.

On the other hand, a claim of value makes a judgment. Students can recognize these by the presence of evaluative language in the claim. Many of these will have to do with arts or aesthetics since the value of art is a matter of subjective taste, but evaluative statements about other issues would also fall into this category.

  • The conflicts during the filming of Don’t Worry, Darling are more interesting than the plot of the movie.
  • The book Where the Crawdads Sing is better than the movie.
  • Protestors in both Russia and Iran have shown tremendous courage in recent weeks.
  • Flying refugees from Florida to Martha’s Vineyard was a cheap political stunt.

Asking students to apply what they are learning about argumentation to the headlines should help them see the relevance of what could otherwise be viewed as a mere academic exercise. Our hope, of course, is that it will also make them better critical thinkers and citizens.

 

Photo: "Newspaper Collection, Three Headlines, July 2016"  by Daniel X. O'Neil is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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.