Understanding how persuasion can affect a reader is an important skill when writing about a controversial topic. J.J. Keith of The Huffington Post editorialized one side of the vaccination debate, and used both Aristotle’s proofs and Kenneth Burke’s theory of identification in an attempt to persuade the reader5. This paper analyzes the methods of persuasion used in the editorial and how effective those methods were in convincing the reader of the author’s stance.
Summarizing the Editorial
The featured editorial took a position on whether or not parents should vaccinate their children, based on the vaccination safety debate. Human Organization explored the history and science of vaccinations, reporting the small percentage of vaccinations that cause complications each year1. Coupled with research by Andrew Wakefield linking autism to vaccinations, a strong anti-vaccination movement was sparked, despite Wakefield’s claims being discredited4. The editorial covered one side of the debate, with the author taking a pro-vaccination stance.
The editorial took on both a direct, researched voice and a more emotional one, in an attempt to convince readers of the author’s stance. Keith linked to several other articles that featured the science behind vaccinations, and explained how vaccinations work5. Keith offered examples of where the anti-vaccination movement failed, as with a church in Texas that was struck with a measles outbreak after the pastor denounced vaccines5. Keith also used emotional pleas to make the article more personal, not only mentioning her own ideas of parenting but also highlighting two children suffering from leukemia5. Telling the story of the two immunocompromised children was an emotional plea, humanizing not only the topic but the idea that others in the community are affected by a parent’s choice not to vaccinate.
Ethos, Pathos, and Logos
The featured editorial used Aristotle’s proofs throughout to support the author’s discussion of vaccinations. Human Organization detailed the social science side of the vaccination debate, including factors such as forced requirements for vaccinations, the perception some people have of the deviant interests of the vaccination corporations, and the fear of the risk involved with vaccinations1. Keith countered equally with ethos, pathos, and logos, in an attempt to match theory for theory5. Each of these points followed Aristotelian proofs, with questions on the ethics, emotions, and facts of the debate.
Part of the problem that the author faced is that, despite the links and explanations of scientific facts, the other side of the argument historically has ignored legitimate facts. Aristotle’s rhetoric theories state that an argument is separate from the style in which it is made, especially if the direct route is not taken in the discussion but is avoided peripherally6. With a peripheral route, one side ignores strong arguments and facts, and is either unwilling or unable to assess them6. In the editorial, the author is starting from a position where the scientific facts are seemingly irrelevant, and must use all three Aristotelian proofs to make her case.
The editorial weaved through the Aristotelian proofs as the author attempted to make her case to the reader. Keith used ethos in two ways, from the perception of who she is and the research she featured in the article5. The author mentioned several times how she is a parent, that she writes often about parenting culture, and that in her position she sees many online debates about vaccines. To back up her position, she offered research throughout the article, and links to other sources of information, defending her stance on vaccines. The information not only showed her ethos, but promoted logos as she used data to make her point. Keith included information on vaccines, databases of vaccination rates, and featured a story on how the anti-vaccine movement failed with the Texas church measles outbreak5. Using the Texas outbreak showed logic of a different sort, the fact that not following the data can backfire substantially.
While the author’s point of the Texas outbreak lead into pathos with a bit of cynicism, the rest of the article featured a more emotional thread throughout. HEC Forum explained the peripheral route of ignoring the facts, and in the case of the anti-vaccination movement that problem might defeat the use of logos in the article6. Keith used the story of Jack and Clio, two immunocompromised children suffering from leukemia, as an emotional thread to counter the loss of logos for some of her audience5. The story bookended the article, and combined with the author’s pleas as a parent effectively used emotions to bring a personal feel to the article. Keith also effectively used humor and sarcasm in a few places, including the comment, “However, while there is nothing more “natural” than large numbers of children dying in a Malthusian cesspool of unchecked contagious disease, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that we should avoid that”5. The sentence is a great use of pathos, not only in getting the reader’s attention but in softening the blow just enough to keep them interested.
In the course of using ethos, pathos, and logos with the reader, the author used Kenneth Burke’s theory of identification throughout the piece. Burke’s theory is explained as someone identifying with a certain group or type of person2. Keith mentioned several times that the author is a parent, framing herself as more than just a bystander5. Burke described identity as not just the individual, but in other groups such as parents, and that individuals create identities shared symbolically with others in society3. In a vaccination debate about children, as a parent she made clear that she had also made similar decisions to what she was defending. By identifying with those who have vaccinated their children, the author hoped the reader will see her as being a part of the societal group. Keith made the point near the end that vaccination is a community-wide problem5. Using parental identification inferred that she and the reader should both identify with the entire group.
As a parent, the author’s use of Aristotelian proofs was personally more effective than Burke’s theory of identification. Several times, Keith promoted the author as a parent, with the intent of using that identification to add strength to the argument for vaccinations5. Parenting is a tricky thing, however, and every parent treats their children in different ways. A person declaring they are a parent only verifies that fact, it does not explain if they are good or bad at parenting. Due to the author’s effective use of ethos, pathos, and logos, she ultimately did not need to rely on identification for her agenda.
The editorial benefited from the author’s consistent, thorough use of Aristotle’s proofs. Starting off with the ethos of the author’s experience as both a parent and author of parental culture, the editorial moved into pathos with the story of Jack and Clio. Within that pathos, the author added logos through the explanations of vaccinations and links to vaccine rates and herd immunity. Keith then weaves in and out of all three Aristotelian proofs, effectively persuading the reader through multiple means5. In a very controversial subject like vaccinations, when both sides are very emotional, using multiple methods allowed for room to say what needed to be said in different ways. Using only one method might have bored the reader, or even offended them. Using all three proofs essentially kept the reader from settling on just one issue, effectively keeping their mind open for the next sentence.
This paper analyzed the methods of persuasion used in an editorial on vaccinations, and how effective Aristotle’s proofs and Kenneth Burke’s theory of identification were in convincing the reader of the author’s stance. Keith editorialized one side of the vaccination debate, using identification to set the stage for the article and Aristotle’s proofs to weave a persuasive argument for vaccinations5. Understanding how persuasion can affect a reader is an important skill when writing about a controversial topic, and the editorial is a good example of using all of the persuasive methods to make a case.
- Brunson, E. K., & Sobo, E. J. (2017). Framing childhood vaccination in the United States: Getting past polarization in the public discourse. Human Organization, 76(1), 38-47.
- Colorado State University-Global Campus. (2017). Module 4: Persuasion and communication contexts [Schoology ecourse]. In COM425–Communication Conflict and Persuasion. Greenwood Village, CO: Author.
- Crable, B. (2006). Rhetoric, anxiety, and character armor: Burke’s interactional rhetoric of identity. Western Journal Of Communication, 70(1), 1. doi:10.1080/10570310500305570
- Hook, L., & Mishkin, S. (Feb. 6, 2015). US measles outbreak: Spots of resistance. FT.Com. Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/4eea183c-ade3-11e4-919e-00144feab7de
- Keith, J.J. (2013, September 24). I’m coming out… as pro-vaccine. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jj-keith/vaccines_b_3829948.html
- Powers, P. (2007). Persuasion and coercion: A critical review of philosophical and empirical approaches. HEC Forum, 19(2), 125-43. doi:http://dx.doi.org.csuglobal.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s10730-007-9035-4