When I was a graduate student at Brigham Young University, I received weekly training on how to teach BYU’s first-year composition course. One such training focused on helping students find credible sources for their research papers. To illustrate the importance of finding factual sources, our professor described the story of Bonnie Kimball, a cafeteria worker fired for supposedly giving a student free lunch.
On May 15, 2019, the New Hampshire Union Leader published an article entitled “NH lunch lady fired for feeding student who couldn’t pay.” Notice how the title immediately paints Kimball as a charitable worker attempting to help a poor student with no money. According to the Union Leader, “The boy had several a la carte items on his tray, and Kimball quietly told him to have his mother put some money on his account . . . On March 29, the student came in and paid his lunch bill. Kimball was called in by two managers later that day and fired over the tab, she said.”
Within days of the Union Leader’s initial article, Kimball’s story went viral. Reddit and Twitter were abuzz with the story to the point that José Andrés, a famous chef, offered Kimball a job. The public outcry was so great, that by May 24th, nine days after the article had been published, Kimball had raised $8,498 on GoFundMe.
In response to the public outcry, Brian Stone, president of Fresh Picks Cafe, (Kimball’s employer) released a video on May 20th addressing Kimball’s termination. Stone claimed that Kimball had lied about the events and that “this student hadn’t been charged anything for the previous three months.” After Kimball was let go, however, the student was charged regularly.
More evidence continued to come forward when the Union Leader interviewed the student’s mother and published another article on May 21st stating, “The mother said her son is not a poor child going hungry, but a 17-year-old who is supposed to pack a lunch for school.”
Other news sources such as The Washington Post and NBC News picked up the story. Both news sources quoted the Union Leader, and The Washington Post provided additional information, such as Stone’s video, what Kimball told the Associated Press, confirmation of Kimball’s GoFundMe account, and comments from Amanda Isabelle, the superintendent for Kimball’s school district.
One takeaway from Kimball’s story is that social media is not, in and of itself, a credible source. In fact, as I’ve taught first-year composition classes, I’ve met students who knew Kimball’s story, but so far, none of them knew she was lying about giving lunch to a boy who couldn’t pay. They’ve only heard that a cafeteria worker was unjustly fired for giving free food to a student who didn’t have the money. (This also says something about the need to check bias and use critical thinking, but that’s an article for another day.)
Another takeaway is that it’s important for time to pass between when something happens and when it’s reported. Note that of all the sources I’ve provided, The Washington Post’s article contained the most information with the most sources, and it was published last (May 24th). It takes time to research and fact-check.
Furthermore, when finding credible sources, it’s best to read laterally/horizontally (meaning, open a separate Google tab and Google information about the site you’re reading from and the author), read vertically (check your source’s sources by clicking on hyperlinks and/or footnotes), and check for bias (the source’s bias and your own).
Remember, it’s folly to reject all news sources and research when you find bias because all sources, whether scientific, journalistic, religious, etc., have bias. Your job is to find the least biased sources, which usually rely on rigorous fact-checking, such as mainstream news sources, and information from experts, such as peer-reviewed articles.
There are many great resources for finding credible, reliable, and current sources.
Here are a few:
“‘Fake News’, Disinformation, and Propaganda” from Harvard Library (includes the infographic on ).
“EAPS120: News literacy: Fake news” from Purdue University (includes a list of fact-checking sites)
“Evaluating Sources: Using the RADAR Framework” from the University of Utah (also includes a list of fact-checking sites)
“Source Evaluation” from Brigham Young University (includes videos explaining why peer-reviewed articles are “gold standard[s] of academic publishing” and how to evaluate popular sources)