Understanding Rhetoric and Evaluating Bias in Text

Students can learn about bias in text and the rhetorical principles proposed by Aristotle.

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As a high school English teacher, I think it is very important that my students be able to critically evaluate the reliability of text and identify bias in print. Every year, I implement a non-fiction unit in which students are introduced to a variety of texts and I ask them to examine the author’s credibility. For most of my students, this is a new and rather uncomfortable process.

Aristotle's Rhetoric and Method of Persuasion

In order to get the most out of the unit, I choose a topic that will get my students interested and excited. In the past, I have chosen topics like: fast food, racial profiling, and juvenile justice. These are topics that most of my students have strong opinions about, and I am easily able to find a variety of articles representing a multitude of viewpoints. Before I pass out the articles, I want them to be able to identify author’s bias. In order to help my students do this, I introduce the idea of Aristotle’s art of rhetoric and method of persuasion; Ethos, Logos, and Pathos.

Ethos and the Character of the Speaker

I usually begin by explaining that an effective argument, according to Aristotle's rhetorical design, needs to contain three components: Ethos, Logos, and Pathos. The first, Ethos, is based on the character of the speaker. This is essentially the reputation of the author. When my students begin to analyze articles, I ask them to do research on the author's background and check for credibility. This means doing a “background check” so to speak. I want them to discern whether or not the author has the appropriate credentials to speak with authority about the subject.

Logos and the Facts

The second means of persuasion (according to Aristotle) is Logos, which is based solely on logic or reason. When we are analyzing the article, I also ask students to look for facts and statistics that prove the argument. These are the arguments that are hard to refute. For example, let's say the topic that we are studying is whether or not fast food contributes to obesity. If an article on fast food references caloric counts of the servings at specific fast food restaurants, this is an example of Logos. The author has provided an irrefutable fact.

Pathos and Emotion

The final example of rhetoric that we analyze is Pathos, which is emotion. These are the arguments that appeal to our sense of right or wrong. When I go over Pathos, I often cite specific examples of advertisements. Advertisers love to play on Pathos - they evoke anger, fear, and/or desire to get us to want to buy their products. Often I will encourage students to bring in examples from magazines to demonstrate examples of Pathos that they find.

Extension Activities

Once I feel that my students have a grasp of rhetoric, I give them reading assignments in which they are asked to analyze different articles. With their knowledge of rhetoric, students have a better understanding of writer bias and the reliability of the media. A fun extension to this project is to have them write a persuasive essay demonstrating their new-found knowledge of rhetoric. Below are some excellent lessons that deal with rhetoric.

Rhetoric Lesson Plans:

Political Commercials: Leading or Misleading Voters

Students analyze political commercials for their persuasive qualities. They then try to decide whether or not the candidates were being honest or dishonest in their approach.

Not a Clue

Students play a game similar to Clue in order to analyze logical deductions.

Presenting Persuasively

Students create a persuasive presentation that represents the different components of persuasion.

Who Am I Anyway?

Students examine critical census data and how it is determined. Students then take the information and write a persuasive essay.