Choosing a Controversy

This page provides suggestions to help you with your search for a topic and some tips for beginning your research into a controversy.

Finding a controversy can be intimidating at first. Many of the issues that seem to stir the most controversy are complex and argued in front of the Supreme Court. But you do not need to limit yourself to controversies that make headline news. Here are a few suggestions for starting your search.


What is a controversy?

A controversy can be about innumerable things, but often it involves a debate between several people or groups about an issue, event, or a cause. If in your reading about a controversy you're unable to find more than two distinct positions on an issue, what you may have is more a difference of opinion. But often the language of “pro versus con,” “good versus bad,” or “Republican versus Democrat” hides a range of other perspectives on a controversy that are important to consider. Parents and principals may have strong positions on zero-tolerance policies in schools, but so too do students, teachers and members of the community. And people who seem to share a similar position may have very different reasons motivating their stance.

Brainstorming beyond the familiar

Abortion, capital punishment, and euthanasia are all important issues with numerous controversies associated with them, but they’re also not the only controversies that you can research. Depending on your assignment, your controversy may not need to have a national scope. Investigating a local debate that affects us at the UI or your hometown can be as successful as taking on a larger issue and potentially more rewarding. Before you commit yourself to a specific controversy, consider giving yourself some time to read around and see what issues catch your attention.

Read through recent newspapers and magazines both in print and on the internet. Though it is often convenient to surf through the most recent issue of Time or Newsweek online, it's also sometimes useful (and more efficient) to sit down with a stack of magazines and read through a few months of issues. You can find a selection of useful magazines for free in the Current Periodicals section on the third floor of the Main Library as well as in the Writing Center.

Make a list of issues you have read about for class. Is there an issue you want to know more about? An idea you think a writer has neglected to consider? Think too about other courses that you are taking and the questions that you have wanted to ask but may not have had a chance yet to explore.

Pursue an interest or obsession. Sometimes the best issue that you can pick is one that you already have an interest in outside of the classroom. If it fits the assignment, don’t dismiss your own interests, even your music collection, as you brainstorm ideas. Using your own expertise on a subject can be a great jumpstart on the way to finding a controversy.

In some cases you may be asked to work with your controversy for more than one assignment, so taking the time to pick a topic that will interest you for a few weeks may make the assignment more fulfilling for you. To get you started you might search through some of the resources on the Links to Get Started page.

Exploring a controversy

Sometimes it’s difficult to know after reading just one article if a particular controversy is something you want to know more about or will fit an assignment. Even if you are working with an issue that you know a lot about, it's useful to spend some time searching out a range of perspectives, responses, and opinions, especially if your assignment is to describe a controversy. Some useful questions to explore include:

Whom does this issue affect?
What groups or organizations might have a stance on this issue?
Why might someone take a strong stance on this issue?
What are some of the debates that arise from this issue?

It can also be helpful to find and read several articles from a variety of sources before committing yourself to a specific controversy. For instance, a news article that provides an overview on a topic along with a few editorials or opinion pieces with contrasting points of view.

Making your search work for you

So, you’ve found a controversy that interests you. Now how do you turn it into a workable topic for your assignment? Here are some suggestions to help you refine your search and prepare for the next step.

Create lists of key words. As you begin to read about a controversy, you will most likely come across terms that will help you focus on your search on what interests you most. Also try synonyms and related terms. For instance, if you’re searching for information about anti-smoking campaigns aimed at high school students, see what you find with “adolescents” as well as “teenagers” or “teens.”

Follow links. Often articles on the news sites and newspapers (such as, The New York Times) will include links to related news articles--or links to articles that might be of more interest to you than the first one you found. You might also find links to background information and previous articles on the same topic which will help you understand the context of a particular news story.

Note names of experts and organizations. As you continue your research it may be very useful to read a statement or quotation in its original context, so keeping track of the names of experts and organizations may help you track down the source of a comment when you move further into your research. Also, many organizations have sites on the web that can provide you with more insight into their positions, interests and causes.

Bookmark useful pages. If you’re using the web for your preliminary research, keeping track of pages you find to be useful will help you when you begin to write. If you are working in a public ITC and can't bookmark pages as you research, you might copy addresses to a Word document or email them to yourself.

Look for related controversies. For instance, once you begin a search for articles on gun control, you might discover that the debates surrounding mandatory child safety locks are of more interest to you. Sometimes by considering an unfamiliar or unexpected aspect of a controversy, you may be able to explore and develop your research and your paper more effectively.

It is also helpful to make a conscious effort to diversify the types of sources you search. Web news channels such as Yahoo! News can be extremely helpful at the beginning because they are able to provide you with a large number of recent articles in a short amount of time. But as you research further, it is important to read a variety of sources that reflect a range of political and cultural perspectives. International newspapers and sites offer alternatives to mainstream U.S. perspectives on the news. For other sites that you might find useful in your search, browse through some of the links on the Selected Websites page.

After your initial search, you can pull your thoughts together by answering the questions in Reflect on Your Controversy.