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Rushing to Judgment

posted: 11.11.11 by Donna Winchell

3377783984_6a2cde6a79_mThe quality of news reporting began going downhill the day the first news network started broadcasting twenty-four hours a day. Let me rephrase that: the quality of commentary on the news began going downhill when someone had to keep talking about it twenty-four hours a day. However, in asking students to look at the headlines as subjects for argumentation, I am in danger of rushing the process and leading them to do what I see news commentators doing all the time: conducting some of their research on camera.

Think about it. A prominent and respected judge is suddenly revealed on YouTube to have beaten his sixteen-year-old daughter with a belt seven years ago. Was it illegal? Can he be prosecuted seven years after the fact? Cue the first lawyer or judge that CNN or Fox can get in front of the camera. This is research in the era of twenty-four-hour-a-day news. Not that these guests do not know the law. They can tell us that a law does not apply to a child over the age of fourteen. They can tell us a law has changed in the last seven years. They can discuss statutes of limitations. The smartest one, though, says that none of these laws can be applied to this specific case until the tape is examined to see if it is authentic. The daughter speaks on camera, as do the father and the mother. Lots of information bombards the viewer who has the time to watch hours of news. It becomes easy to rush to judgment.

Our students need to know that no one should be tried by the media. What a case like this can do for the student of argumentation is reveal the complexity of such a situation. It provides good practice for discussing the elements of argument, for looking at the case in terms of claim, support, and warrant. If you wanted to support the claim that this judge should be removed from the bench permanently, exactly what warrant would you be supporting? If you wanted to argue that the daughter was right in posting the video, how are you defining “right”? The students may be not ready to support claims of fact, value, and policy on the subject, but they could practice writing them. They could discuss what types of evidence are needed to build a case for or against the judge and where to find them. They could also consider whether the fact that the daughter has cerebral palsy in any way colors their response to the incident.

[Photo: YouTube website screenshot by Spencer E. Holtaway on Flickr]

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Categories: Argument
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