When it comes to college-level research, students are often given the advice to look for sources with “authority” to help build their own credibility and ethos when writing. The logic of this is that using publications with name recognition or good reputations within the scholarly community shows that the student is “evaluating” their sources to choose “good” ones instead of using the first three sources in the results of a Google search (or–gasp–Wikipedia!). To be sure, respected publications such as newspapers of record like The Wall Street Journal or academic journals like Nature work to provide high quality, fact-checked writing that has earned trust among educated readers. However, these traditional authoritative sources have their own limitations (everything has limitations), and choosing sources strictly based on name recognition rather than a more complex, contextual set of criteria can create some real blindspots in our research.
To be blunt, sources that we have historically considered authoritative often lack the demographic diversity in their writers, members, editorial boards, etc. that we would find in the general population. In other words, these publications have primarily been written and published by people who are predominantly white, middle- or upper-class, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied, and male. The point is not that the authors and publishers have done a “bad” job, nor is it to suggest that we reject these as sources; rather, the point is that what we have come to treat as an authoritative and even as an objective perspective (journalistic, scholarly) might be only capturing part of the big picture.
Here is a basic example: Say an engineer or facilities manager working on a building is of average health, strength, and physical ability; they are likely not going to recognize if a door to that building is on the heavy side and may not see how people with less upper-body strength, that are using a wheelchair, or that are pushing a stroller might have difficulty opening the door and keeping it open to get into the building. This engineer or facilities manager could raise their awareness of the needs of other people and try to actively factor this in when they are designing and working on a building, but it has taken decades for this sort of thinking to slowly become a cultural habit, and it is very easy to slip back into an able-bodied state of mind. A person who uses a wheelchair, meanwhile, is going to quickly see design flaws in the built environment and be positioned to offer better ways to design that environment from the beginning (rather than waiting for “flaws” to be recognized after the fact). Our default setting is to see the world through our own eyes and experiences.
Like this example with the different ways we experience the simple task of opening a door, organizations and publications could better serve the public at large if they had a more diverse group of people working there. Diversity brings more ideas to the table, and helps us think critically about the ideas at the table. There has been great work done on how diversity benefits organizations, and this is slowly becoming something that organizations value and actively attempt to create, but unfortunately, most traditional mainstream media continue to lack real diversity.
For example, a 2018 report from the Women’s Media Center found that “women of color represent just 7.95 percent of U.S. print newsroom staff, 12.6 percent of local TV news staff, and 6.2 percent of local radio staff, according to industry research that is based on news organizations’ replies to professional association queries.” At the time of that report, women of color made up at least 20 percent of the U.S. population. We see similar problems in government: for example, despite women making up 50.8 percent of the population, only 23.7 percent of our representatives in U.S. Congress are women.
Furthermore, the issue is not simply that there is a lack of diversity amongst the people who own and shape dominant media–the issue is also that those who are overrepresented amongst this group are those that have more socioeconomic and political power and privilege. Because of the reach of this media, we historically have heard the messages and ideas of the rich, powerful, and privileged more than those of people who have less power. For this reason, if we want to add a true breadth of points of view to our research, we need to look beyond the “usual suspects” we find on the bibliographies of academic writing. No single person or source ever tells the full story–we need to consider not just who or what IS in a source, but who and what is NOT in a source, and to work to find the parts of a story or issue that aren’t being addressed.
The big question: Will the loudest and most powerful voices be able to represent issues in their fullest complexity? Can they understand the lived experiences and the stakes for all stakeholders?
Uncovering the Complexity of Issues for Multiple Stakeholders
Just as a single argument can not settle an issue forever and all time, major problems we face in the world are multifaceted and complex. Here are a number of social issues that Composition II students have researched that become more complex once we consider how the issues intersect with and manifest differently in light of different people’s identities, experiences, and circumstances.
If you haven’t heard these issues presented in these ways before, think back to the point made earlier about dominant media: if dominant media lacks diversity in its ownership and creators of content, and that media–along with politicians–are major players in shaping the public conversation, it’s no shock that these facets are less familiar to many of us.
Diversifying Our Research
So, how do we enrich our research by uncovering new facets and perspectives that lie beyond traditional “authoritative” sources? We can seek out historically marginalized voices in the public and/or academic conversation by searching for authors and/or publications that represent these voices, and we can adjust our search terms to look for important intersections between our research topic/issue and various facets of identity that create diverse experiences.
Expanding the Publications and Venues You Consult
While niche publications of course existed before the Internet, digital publishing has rapidly expanded the number and the reach of digital content (magazines, news sites, blogs, etc.) that focus on underrepresented people and issues. And, of course, in the last decade social media especially has expanded participation in public conversations taking place online (and often sparking activism that extends offline). Many of the online publications listed below are broad enough in their coverage that they will have content related to most research topics, particularly those that are social issues.
- GLAAD.org This is a major organization advocating for justice and equity for LGBTQ folks, with a particular focus on media representation; they have been doing this work for thirty years.
- Them.us This platform provides LGBTQ perspectives on pop culture, news, and politics. It is owned by Conde Nast, which publishes major magazines such as the New Yorker, GQ, and Wired.
- Colorlines This publication covers current events and daily news through the lens of race. Their columnists and writers are often guests in major news programming.
- The Root This online magazine was founded by scholar and public intellectual Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (you might know him from the PBS show Finding Your Roots), and its tagline is “Black news, opinions, politics, and culture.”
- Feministing.com This web site offers feminist analysis of current events and politics, as well as pop culture. Their writers are accomplished and write for other reputable publications.
- Note that while each of these seems to focus on one facet of identity (gender identity and sexual orientation, race, gender), their overall interest in social justice leads them to often cover issues in ways that recognize intersectionality or how issues they care about impact other historically marginalized groups. For example, Colorlines has a whole section “Gender and Sexuality,” and GLAAD.org has articles coming from the perspective of queer people with disabilities.
Are these publications political in nature? Yes, of course! Given their focus, advocacy is one of their purposes, not just reporting and analysis. But as you hopefully already recognize at this point, everyone has an angle of vision and biases shaped by their life experiences and their personal beliefs. This bias becomes an issue with it leads to distortion and misrepresentation of facts and events.
Writing and research tip: Many readers of have not heard of these publications before, so if you were to use an article from one of these publications in your writing, you could highlight the credibility of the source by including a key piece of information that speaks to the quality and value of it. This is a good time to engage in the practice of lateral reading (go beyond the About page on the publication’s own site to learn more about it; Wikipedia is usually helpful for this).
Adding to Our Search Terms
In addition to identifying and reading niche publications and the sites of organizations who focus on these intersections, we can add new terms to our searches on the open Internet and in the library’s databases. There are scholars (especially interdisciplinary scholars working in, for example, both political science AND queer studies), journalists and news organizations (like NPR), and major non-profits that do work at these intersections, and you will be more likely to discover that work if you are more intentional in seeking it out. In fact, it can be an interesting exercise to add any of the following terms to our searches to see new paths to go down that we would not have imagined were there: race, ethnicity, class, socioeconomic, gender, sexual orientation, sexuality, disability, religion, indigenous, LBGT, queer, minority, social justice, restorative justice. As a quick illustration, try taking the term “climate change” and adding one of those terms, then try another; “climate change queer,” for example, will produce results that might surprise you but provide some truly new angles to the issue.
Using Diverse Sources Effectively and Ethically
When writing based on our research, we need to make rhetorically sound choices. As we have been saying throughout this chapter, the sources that are household names (e.g. Newsweek, The Washington Post) or that are scholarly aren’t always the best choices. A much wider variety of sources can become useful, depending on our rationale for using them–that rationale comes from considering our rhetorical situation (audience, purpose, context). If we have a good rationale for using a source, then we also need to present the source effectively in our writing so that its value is clear to our readers.
Here is an example scenario: Let’s say you have been studying the issue of vaccination rates declining, and you want to write an argument that vaccines are important for children’s health, with parents who choose not to vaccinate their children as your audience. If you are writing to the subgroup of parents who have educated themselves on the science of vaccines and who resent doctors and the government pressuring them to vaccinate, than sources that are usually considered expert or authoritative–scientists, university researchers, doctors, the Centers for Disease Control–are not going to be particularly persuasive! In fact, you face a real challenge here, which is figuring out what kind of argument and what kinds of sources might stand a chance at persuading an audience that has already informed themselves and considers this a personal decision. One possible choice you might make is to work with the voices and stories of former anti-vaxxers that understand how your audience thinks because they were once part of that audience and whose personal stories can help illustrate the negative consequences of not vaccinating. These former anti-vaxxers are sometimes interviewed in major news media, but their stories can also be found in blogs online. A blog post written by a non-medical professional, another parents who was worried that vaccines would hurt their child, might have far more credibility and even “authority” for a vaccine-hesitant parent than a traditionally authoritative source.
But even if you are writing for an academic audience–say, putting together an annotated bibliography on your research issue–there is still great rhetorical savvy in offering sources that show the multiple ways that people and communities experience your research issue. In many ways, this is an extension of qualifying our statements and avoiding absolutes: our research is shortsighted and, frankly, logically faulty if we fail to account for the variety of factors and perspectives at play. Therefore, when we aim for variety across our sources, that aim can be in terms of discipline, information, political/philosophical/theoretical perspectives, and demographics.
One more important point: if you are going to do the intellectually rigorous and ethical work of examining a research issue from a variety of perspectives and facets, then it is wise to follow the mantra “Nothing about us without us,” popularized by disability activists. That is, if you are going to write about the impact of an issue on a group of people that you personally are not a part, then be sure to include the voices of people who are part of that group in your writing. This gesture of inclusion is one way of writing responsibly, as is taking the time to learn and use the preferred terms for the people, groups, and communities you are writing about/with. This can require some intellectual courage: it might be tempting to avoid talking about things like race, gender identity, or disability because we are afraid we will say the wrong thing and be criticized for it, but taking the time to learn and to ask questions (inform yourself!) will not only make your writing and research more persuasive and powerful, but also prepare you for all the learning about other people you will need to do as you move into the new careers and communities you will be part of in the future. In other words, this all is a kind of 21st century social literacy that you will need that goes far beyond composition class.