Critical Reading

Jenn Kepka

In college, we often talk about being “critical.” You’ll hear terms like Critical Theory, Literary Criticism, Critical Thinking and Critical Reading thrown around every day. What does this mean, though?

For most of us, when we think of being critical, we automatically think of criticism: “That band sucks!” This isn’t the kind of criticism we’re talking about in college, however. When we talk about thinking or reading critically, we really mean that the reader or listener comes to the piece with an open mind and carefully considers what they are hearing, reading, or seeing. In other words, you’ve got to be ready to learn when you sit down with a new text, story, speech, or presentation. Critical takes then agree or disagree with parts or the whole of what has been presented.

Great! you say. I’m all ready for that! Of course, it’s not that simple. As the next section on analysis and response will talk about, setting aside our own personal opinions (or biases) is a challenging task, and it is often impossible; however, recognizing these lenses through which we view texts is necessary to really gain the most from your college reading.

In addition to approaching readings with a willing mind, we also need to be skeptical of what we read and consume. Uh, wait, what? you’re thinking. You just told me to be open-minded, and now I have to start off doubting everything? Yep! Welcome to college.

Critical Thinking and You

Skepticism can be useful as a reader and media consumer. In fact, because we are constantly bombarded with so many sources, skepticism has become necessary to deal with daily information overload. For example, if you participate in online social media, you likely do not choose who you “follow” or “friend” solely based on whether that person is a reliable source of information on all topics. You may discover that an expert on one type of news is unreliable on others. Maybe that translates to reading any headline passed on by your uncle or long-lost Kindergarten best friend with extra skepticism (or maybe it translates to not reading stories they share at all).

In college, we learn to practice a similar type of information filtering when we learn about research methods and sources. While reading, we should also practice skepticism. This means interrogating the texts we find (and the texts we’re presented) to find out whether we believe what they’re saying.

Critical Reading Checklist

When you approach a new reading, whether it’s in your math textbook or posted to social media, several questions should guide whether you find the information reliable. This list will assist as you approach any media.

Critical Reading Checklist Questions

  • What is the original source for the material?
  • How does that source influence the piece?
  • Who/what funded, produced, or distributed the original piece?
    • Did this have an influence on the outcome?
  • Who is the intended primary audience for the material?
  • What other audiences were perhaps expected?
  • What was the original purpose of the piece?
  • What type of evidence does the author/media creator present within the work?
 Some of these questions can be asked before you even begin reading the piece itself. What is the original source for this material? Did that type of source have an influence on the piece?

This might seem like a simple question, but it’s often not. Most essays printed in college textbooks, for instance, were not written directly for that book. Textbooks themselves have a variety of authors and publication venues, and some are more reputable than others. Looking for the original source for your material will reveal who it was originally written for (and who paid for the work, if someone did). This may tell you more about the audience, the time and context of the piece, and its credibility. It can also explain why certain language choices were made: If you’re reading an essay that was originally published in an American college newspaper, the language will be different (perhaps less formal) than if you’re reading an essay that was written for publication in a scholarly journal, or an essay that has been translated out of its original language.

Nearly every anthology (collection of essays or stories) will give credit to where the piece originally appeared. You may find this at the start of the essay or at the end of the book.

Finding the Source for Other Media Types

If you’re viewing a video online, you may also need to investigate the original source. Many videos on YouTube did not start their lives there. Finding out where the video originally appeared will again tell you more about the reasons why it was created and who it was intended to reach. In addition, if you’re looking at a video on YouTube, there’s always a chance that someone will remove the video. Finding a more permanent source for the video will be useful if you plan to cite it later. In general, you may find that channels maintained by large organizations — news organizations, libraries, or other media providers — will provide a more stable link than individual videos provided by private users. As an example, individual videos from the artist Beyoncé’s Lemonade visual album are available on YouTube. There is an official channel (BeyonceVEVO), that houses the videos through licensed agreement; however, other copies of the videos have appeared from time to time. Using the official version would allow more confidence in the permanence of the work (and would also likely link to other official media). It would also be a better source for viewing the video than looking at a 2-minute clip provided through another site.

Finding the original source for digital/visual media is also important because they can be edited or changed along the way. Consider the first Star Wars movie (Episode IV), that was created to be shown in movie theaters in 1977. Its special effects were built for the movie theaters of its time, as were its costumes and some of its themes. Later, viewers could see the movies at home on video and even on television. When Star Wars was broadcast for network viewers, however, it was altered: the actual shape of a television screen in the 1980s was much different than the wide movie theater screen, so some parts of the film were literally cut off. In addition, commercial breaks were necessary, and the film’s running time wasn’t a perfect fit for TV’s strict schedule, so it was edited further. Finally, some scenes and some language may have been deemed too violent or offensive for some audiences, so they, too, were altered. This all meant that two people could have both seen Star Wars but have had completely different experiences of the movie.

Different Sources, Different Considerations

The type of source makes a difference in how we look at a work. It would be unreasonable to hold a peer-reviewed scholarly journal article to the same scientific research standards as a blog post, for instance: though both are capable of presenting in-depth scientific research with exacting methods, blogs are better known for more informal reflection and observation. This doesn’t mean, however, that one type of source is inherently “better” than another type.

Wait, you’re thinking, that is definitely not what I’ve heard. That’s true: In college, in most classes, you will find a preference for certain types of sources. A description of what these sources are and how to use them is in the Source chapter. For now, let’s talk about how to critically approach different common sources of materials.

Printed materials:

Printed material has often received a pass for some elements of critical thinking. For many years, printing a book (or having an article accepted for publication in a journal) was an arduous process, and the privilege of being published was limited to a select (and debatably deserving) few. However, the idea that just because something has been printed, it is true — or that it should not be questioned — is and has always been patently false. Printed books, including textbooks, deserve the same critical approach as digital texts do. To investigate the credibility of printed works, look at the following:

  • Who is the publisher?
  • When was it published?
  • Are there multiple editions? If so, do the most recent editions provide corrections to past editions?
  • Who are the authors? What is their expertise?

This information will be available from the front pages of the book (look for publisher information and copyright information for dates, places, and companies of publication). Finding out whether the publishing house and authors themselves are authorities you trust will take more research, likely online. You might also look for reviews of the work by trusted sources.

Digital materials:

Digital materials have some credibility advantages (and some frequently noted disadvantages) over printed materials. One major advantage in digital media is that errors can be corrected swiftly. When the wrong answer is printed in a math textbook, it might take an entirely new edition — and at least a year, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in printing and shipping fees — to correct the problem. A digital text, on the other hand, could be updated overnight.

This presents a challenge, however, in that digital texts are sometimes seen as less stable than printed texts. The words that appear in your printed newspaper this morning will still be there tonight, while the online version of the same story may have been updated four or five times in the interim. It is important to investigate how digital publishers for any content handle corrections and updates as part of your critical considerations. Therefore, consider these questions when looking at the source of digital media:

  • Who is the publisher?
  • When was it published?
  • What are the update and/or correction policies held by the publisher and/or media creator?
  • Who are the author(s) and creator(s) of the media? What is their expertise?

Take one popular source of digital information as an example: Wikipedia. The publisher of Wikipedia is the Wikimedia Foundation. We could research the Foundation itself — its mission statement, its ratings as a non-profit, current news stories about it — as one place to start. It might also be useful to investigate the update and correction policies on Wikipedia, which have changed over the years. One might conclude that Wikipedia is a fairly credible source of information based on these findings: namely, that it provides a transparent record of updates and changes for most articles, and that its publisher is generally considered reputable (for instance, with a high rating at Charity Navigator).

How does the source influence the piece?

This is a tricky consideration. The requirements for certain places will have an impact on how a piece was written. For example, an article published in a reputable scholarly journal will likely have to conform to certain patterns: It will have an introduction, a methods section, a discussion, conclusions, and a robust reference section. A blog post will probably have hyperlinks. In addition, where a piece was published may have an impact on the tone and the topic of a piece. If an opinion piece was originally published on a web site known for its critical coverage of a certain issue, that might influence how it was written. It might also influence what sources a writer brings in or how many visuals are included. These are interesting questions to investigate as you begin reading, particularly if you’re not familiar with the source.

Who/what funded the piece?

Of similar concern to how a source’s requirements may influence a piece is whether and how a piece was paid for by an interested organization. The easiest example of this is perhaps to look at campaign literature from any election. At the end of any ad for a candidate, a small disclaimer about who paid for the advertisement must be added. The disclaimer is supposed to alert a viewer or reader that what they’re seeing was paid for and created by groups whose purpose is to see the advertised candidate get elected. This may have an effect on how much credibility a reader/viewer lends to the information they present. In other words, if an advertisement says, “Candidate X is a liar,” but it’s paid for by Candidate Z, then we might question Candidate Z’s motives in making the claim. If a non-profit group or a news organization publishes the same headline, we may consider their information to be more credible.

Most publications won’t offer their sponsorship information quite as boldly as U.S. campaigns must. When you view a web site about a particular issue, it may in fact be difficult to see who’s behind the content. Take, for example, Biography.com. If I decide to search for a famous name online, one of the first hits I receive might be a link to a biography.com article about that person. The website itself sounds plain enough — it’s a site that provides biographies, right? What would be the problem? A brief investigation, though, reveals that Biography.Com is actually owned by a television network — A&E — and was created to act as an additional resource for a series of biographical/entertainment television shows. Therefore, I can look at the information on the site through a new lens: these biographies were built with an entertainment purpose, not an informative one. It seems unlikely that I’ll find solid, objective biographical information there, despite the catchy name.

One of the quickest ways to figure out who funds what you’re reading is often to look at who holds the copyright on the materials. On websites, this is often found at the bottom of the page in very small type. You may also find information on the About page. It can be useful, as well, to look at the main page for any site instead of a branch. For example, if you were looking at www.somewebsite.com/page/animals/dolphins.html, to find out who is funding and publishing the site, you could go to just www.somewebsite.com. You can also search for website names online to find out more about them. This is particularly necessary if you plan to use more than one article or page as a source in research.

Who was the intended audience(s)?

Once you know where, when, how, and by whom a piece was published, you can begin to piece together audience information. For example, a piece written for publication in The New York Times may have a different intended audience than a piece written for the campus newspaper, even though both are written in the same type of media (a newspaper). In addition, timing can be important in considering audience: an opinion piece written in the 1980s for The New York Times would have an assumed audience of people who purchased and read a print version of the newspaper each day, which would have likely limited the audience mostly to college-educated, middle- and upper-class readers living in or near a few urban centers where the Times was regularly delivered. Now, opinion pieces for the paper are available online, often before they’re published in print, and can be read from anywhere in the world. Therefore, while the target audience may still be the same (current-events-interested, educated readers), the secondary audience is much broader (anyone with reliable Internet access).

The intended audience will change how a piece is written, what it is written about, and the evidence that’s used. A piece written for an online audience will likely contain links to other sources; it may contain multimedia or more color images; and it may be more likely to cite other websites or extremely current research. On the other hand, a piece written for a scholarly journal would have been written at least six months (but more likely, more than a year) before its publication, which makes linking to very recent research difficult. It would also be more likely to include references to other scholarly journal articles, as readers of journals are more likely to consider that type of research credible.

This is most interesting when argumentative presentations are involved. Consider what catches your eye or makes you more likely to follow or like something on social media. Are you most often swayed by numbers and statistics? Are you more likely to watch a video if it presents a strong storyline or an emotional tale? Are you more likely to share a study if it was conducted by a known, famous name, or if it was touted by a media company that you trust? Writers and media creators will consider how their audience is likely to respond when writing a persuasive piece, and they will try to incorporate the types of proof that will be most persuasive. Sometimes, that means more personal stories; sometimes, that means more statistics; sometimes, that means cat videos. Evaluate what you’re reading to figure out why the evidence presented was chosen. When a piece doesn’t convince you, it may be because you weren’t the intended audience — and it can be useful, then, to investigate whether this piece would have worked for the audience it was aimed at.

What was the purpose?

The type of evidence used may also be a reflection of a piece’s purpose. As you may have read in the Assignment Analysis section, there are many reasons a writer might create a work. They include:

  • To Summarize
  • To Respond
  • To Explain
  • To Inform
  • To Persuade
  • To Illustrate
  • To Entertain
  • To Compare or Contrast
  • To Show Causes or Effects
  • To Classify or Divide
  • To Tell a Story

Looking at the purpose behind what you’re reading may tell you why certain choices were made. If the intent is to entertain, then a story might have a happy (or suspenseful, or tragic) ending. If the purpose is to inform, however, that same story might end with a lesson. If the idea is to persuade, then you might notice the balance of information leans to one side.

Considering these questions when you start your reading will give you a way to evaluate a piece’s credibility. One final step is necessary, however, and this is the most challenging piece of all.

Investigating your own bias.

Most of us have topics about which we aren’t necessarily rational. Consider your love of a favorite sports team, for instance, or musical group. Is there a fact about the team that someone could tell you which would make you stop loving them? For example, I could read 100 articles about how my hometown team has the worst defense in the state and still consider them to be the best team in the world.

We often hold other opinions or beliefs that are anchored in something other than rational research or fact. When considering the credibility of sources, it’s important to think about our own beliefs and biases and how these will influence our approach. One way to think about this is to take inventory of your beliefs on a topic before you begin reading about it. Ask yourself, Is there anything this author could do to change my mind? If not, recognize that you’re coming to the reading with previously held convictions, and these may make it difficult to evaluate that author’s work.

This is particularly difficult to navigate when we read pieces with which we are likely to agree. Many of us have, at one time or another, suffered from confirmation bias, which is “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses” (Wikipedia). This means that people are often likely to seek out information that supports what we already believe. We’re more likely to read magazines, watch television shows, listen to podcasts, and engage in conversation with those who will support the view we hold of the world. When we find a piece of media that agrees with us, we feel better about ourselves, and we’re more likely to approach the piece less critically — to believe it without question.

Combating confirmation bias requires the same attention as all critical reading. Look carefully at your sources. Ask yourself why you believe (or do not believe) what they’re saying. Portland State University has developed an excellent online resource for evaluating news and online sources (http://guides.library.pdx.edu/fakenews) that may also be helpful.

This guide originally appeared in Jenn Kepka’s Better Writing from the Beginning text, an open resource licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

License