In my three courses this fall, students are now all working on scholarly essays that incorporate high-quality sources (focusing on peer-reviewed journal articles). Since the work lies primarily in the field of education, students are using APA style guides.

Often when teaching students citation, we focus our lessons on (the drudgery of) formatting and idiosyncratic citation structures (APA’s annoying lowercase/upper case peculiarities, for example, in bibliographies) as well as the challenges of finding and evaluating a reasonable amount of valid sources to support the claims of the essay.

Students often struggle with evaluating sources for bias, and honestly, they are not well equipped to recognize flawed or ideologically skewed reports that appear to be in credible journals and are themselves well cited.

Part of the problem has been well documented by Gerald Bracey; citing Paul Krugman, Bracey confronts the rise of think tanks that promote their agendas through the veneer of scholars and scholarly reports. Then, Bracey notes, “[t]he media don’t help much. By convention, they present, at best, ‘balanced’ articles, not critical investigative pieces” (p. xvi). This is what I have labeled “both sides” journalism.

While scholarly writing and citation can often slip into a circus of minutia, one lesson needing greater care is helping students (and anyone making a research-based claim) recognize that their credibility and authority is built on the validity and quality of the sources they incorporate.

Here, I want to present three lessons illuminating that dynamic—all pulled from current issues.

Lesson One: The “Science of Reading”

One of the best examples of the problems with ideological think tank reports and media coverage occurred (again) at Education Week, a major publication covering education that has abandoned “critical investigative pieces” for simply reporting (crossing the Big Foot line) and “‘balanced’ articles.”

Ideological think tanks, as Bracey warned, are well organized and very aggressive, systematically alerting media and providing press releases so detailed that journalists have to do little work (except, of course, evaluating the credibility of the report to begin with).

Media routinely cover that think tanks release reports, and journalists have argued it isn’t their job to determine if those reports are valid or not.

For example, Education Week is so invested in the “science of reading” narrative and movement, that they eagerly present reports from NCTQ because their reports reinforce that narrative—even though, NCTQ itself has been repeatedly criticized for not meeting even the basic guidelines for scientific research.

Sarah Schwartz ignores that NCTQ is not a credible source for making claims about teacher training in reading. But with just a brief Google search, anyone can find that NCTQ has had numerous reports reviewed, finding a disturbing patterns: “Although NCTQ reports have been critiqued for their limited use of research and highly questionable research methodology, this report employs the same approaches as earlier NCTQ reports,” explain Stillman and Schultz in one of the most recent reviews (also concurrent to the report cited in EdWeek).

Students, like journalists, are often not expert in the topics they are addressing, and well-formatted reports can seem credible, but often fail the basic expectations of peer-review (NCTQ releases their reports without peer review and receive media coverage while the discrediting reviews tend to receive no media coverage).

The lesson here for students (and journalists) is that any claim is only as good as the sources used to support that claim.

If the “science of reading” is a valid narrative (and, in fact, it isn’t), citing sources that fail the basic test of being scientific certainly erodes if not discredits the initial claim.

Lesson Two: Gun Violence/Control

Since school shootings are a subset of the larger pattern of mass shootings unique to the U.S., I have been researching gun violence and school safety for many years. These topics have robust research bases that tend to contradict public and media assumptions about both.

I had just recently covered school shootings and safety with my educational foundations course when the highly publicized mass shootings near Atlanta, GA and in Boulder, CO erupted. So I returned to research on gun violence in two classes, having some students challenge what I was sharing. Those comments tend to echo typical pro-gun talking points and the common, but weak, arguments supporting gun ownership found in mainstream media.

Here’s the essential problem with research on school safety and gun violence/control: Gun advocates are ideologically driven and use compelling but false arguments to promote their gun agenda.

In other words, standard arguments for school safety (armed police on campuses, surveillance cameras, metal detectors, active shooter drills, etc.) and access to and ownership of guns (Second Amendment) are dramatically different than findings in existing research. Making this dynamic worse is that gun advocates have powerful organizations such as the NRA and even high-profile scholars offering discredited but popular arguments and research.

For example, John Lott is an economist and author of a high-profile pro-gun book; he also publishes research on gun violence that in many ways looks to students, the public, and the media like high-quality research.

Again, simply reporting on Lott’s research or citing that research in academic writing proves to be misguided since his work has been widely discredited once reviewed (see above).

The lesson here for students is that not all published scholarship is credible, and, possibly even more importantly, students need to seek out a body of research, never relying on only one study or the work of one scholar.

Lott is discredited but his work is also a distinct outlier; academic and scholarly writing loses credibility when relying on cherry picking (outlier research) in order to support a claim.

Lesson Three: Identity Politics

Another aspect of academic and scholarly writing grounded in sources is the importance of terminology—using disciplinary or technical terms in valid and accurate ways.

Recently, Barbara Smith took Megan McCain to task for McCain’s misuse of “identity politics”:

As one of three Black women who coined “identity politics,” Smith offers an incredibly important lesson for students because her Twitter thread offers credible sources for her claim, How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective and What Liberals Get Wrong About Identity Politics, the latter of which leads us to the seminal text itself, Combahee River Collective Statement.

The lesson for students here is the need to clarify terms in valid ways, including finding the primary source for scholarly language.

In some frustrating ways, citation formats and structures are both tedious and powerful aspects of building a student’s or scholar’s credibility. But a far more important task for students in terms of establishing their credibility is finding bodies of evidence that are verified by the field itself, most often peer reviewed and sitting within the bounds of many similar studies.

Since the space for scholarship and evidence continues to expand, students need to be better equipped for the difficult task of determining when sources are valid and when they are mere ideological distraction.

Unfortunately, as I show above, we have ample evidence around us daily of the great divide among research, the media, and the public—a divide often manipulated by powerful organizations with ideological agendas.