Practice Analyzing and Interpreting an Article

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  • 0:01 Basic Format of an Article
  • 1:15 How to Analyze an Article
  • 1:47 Four Types of Propaganda
  • 3:50 Analyzing Shadid's Article
  • 10:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kara Wilson

Kara Wilson is a 6th-12th grade English and Drama teacher. She has a B.A. in Literature and an M.Ed, both of which she earned from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

When reading news articles, we often get caught up in the drama, but in order to analyze an article we need to look at it differently. In this lesson, we'll discuss exactly how to do that.

Basic Format of an Article

It's easy to turn on the news or flip open a newspaper and take in what we hear or read. But when reading or listening to the news, we should not only be learning new information but questioning what is being presented so that we can become critical thinkers rather than sponges that absorb and believe whatever is told to us.

A news article is a report of a current event or issue and it is expected to be a balanced account so that different viewpoints are acknowledged without slanting the article with any favoritism or bias.

There are three basic elements to look for in a news article:

  1. The Lead: This opening paragraph includes who, what, when, where, how and why.
  2. Explanation: After the lead, the writer includes other important facts or details to inform readers and to anticipate and answer any questions readers might ask. Direct quotes from witnesses or people involved on both sides are also included here.
  3. Additional Information: This section can draw parallels between this issue or event with similar cases or reference similar historical incidents.

How to Analyze an Article

Analyzing an article takes asking some important questions:

  • Who is the audience for this article? Is the way it is written (vocabulary, amount of detail) appropriate for that audience?
  • What main points or arguments are being made, how are they supported, and are those sources reliable?
  • Is the writing style engaging through interesting and varied word choice?
  • Is this article an example of unbiased reporting by presenting different points of view?
  • Is there any evidence of propaganda?

Four Types of Propaganda

Propaganda is biased or misleading information used to promote a particular political cause or idea. There are many forms of propaganda, but we're going to discuss four types that are often used in relation to current events.

Name calling or stereotyping gives a person or idea a bad label by using a disparaging name that's easy to remember. It's used to make people reject a person or idea without examining the label's real meaning. A few examples are 'Tree-Hugger,' 'Red Neck,' and 'Dumb Blond.' In news stories they might not use name calling outright, but they may rely heavily on stereotypes by only interviewing people who can be distorted into fitting that stereotype so that the article is one-sided.

Plain Folks convinces the audience that an idea is good because it is what the vast majority of people want. An article might use this tactic by writing statements like, 'This is the will of the people,' or 'Most Americans want. . .' without actually knowing what the majority wants but using it to persuade the reader to agree.

Artificial Dichotomy tries to claim that there are only two sides to an issue, and it is used to trick the audience into thinking there's only one way to look at that issue when there are probably many different sides that aren't being mentioned or explained. If a person from a country commits a crime and then a journalist writes an article using distorted facts and half-truths to condemn the country where that person came from, painting an us-vs.-them scenario in which we are all good and they are all bad, that would be an artificial dichotomy.

Scapegoat transfers blame to one person or group without fully investigating the issue. For instance, to blame a president for all of the country's problems would be using that person as a scapegoat because problems build over years. The president isn't the only one who has power in the government, and individuals and groups contribute to those problems.

Analyzing Shadid's Article

Let's analyze an example to apply what we've discussed. 'In the City of Cement' is an article written by Anthony Shadid, the Baghdad bureau chief of The Washington Post until December 2009. In 2010, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his rich, beautifully written series on Iraq. 'In the City of Cement' is an article from that series and was written in 2009.

As I read Shadid's lead, try to identify the who, what, where, when, how, and why. Also, try to see if you can tell who Shadid's audience is based on his writing style.

'BAGHDAD - There is a hint of an older Baghdad in old Baghdad. You might call it more of a taunt. It's there at the statue of the portly poet Marouf al-Rusafi, pockmarked by bullets, who gives his name to an untamed square. Around him revolves a city, storied but shabby, that American soldiers have finally, ostensibly, left.'

Shadid begins with a powerfully descriptive paragraph, but he also cleverly weaves in information into the lead.

  • The who: Iraqis in Baghdad and American soldiers.
  • The what: American soldiers have left Baghdad.
  • The when: present day since Shadid uses present tense verbs like 'is' and 'revolves.'
  • The where: Baghdad, Iraq.
  • The how: American soldiers left after warfare, which is referenced through phrases like 'pockmarked by bullets,' 'untamed square,' and 'storied but shabby.'

It doesn't go into specifically how the American troops pulled out of the area, nor does it say why, but it does say that they have 'finally, ostensibly, left' hinting that they were there for a long time and may return. How do we know Shadid's audience? Well, through the phrases already mentioned, we can tell that he uses an advanced vocabulary and doesn't feel the need to explain why American soldiers are there. So, he's most likely writing to educated adults who already know about the Iraq War.

Let's look at an excerpt from the explanation section. As I read it, note any important facts, details or direct quotes. 'U.S. combat troops finished withdrawing from Baghdad and other Iraqi cities on June 30. . . Their concrete is everywhere - from the sprawling Green Zone to the barriers and blast walls that line almost every street - reorienting the physical, spiritual and social geography that for more than a millennium was dictated by the lazy bends in the Tigris River. . . In time, though, those walls may matter less than the deeper forces that six years of an American presence hastened. Baghdad is now a city divided from itself. Shiite neighborhoods rarely have Sunnis. Sunni ones, far less numerous today, no longer have Shiites. Christians have all but left.'

Shadid provides facts about when U.S. combat troops finished withdrawing, and mentions specific details like barriers, blast walls, and the Green Zone. Shadid doesn't explain this though because he's assuming his educated audience will already know.

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