Teaching Resources > Quantitative Writing > Examples > Comparing Journalistic Reports to Primary Sources of Research

Comparing Journalistic Reports to Primary Sources of Research

Mija Van Der Wege, Carleton College
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This material was developed as part of the Carleton Teaching Activity Collection and is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


A set of three short writing assignments were designed to encourage students to think critically about the way that scientific research is reported by the popular media and the reasons that research may or may not be reported in a way that could be construed as misleading. In the first assignment, students find a news report of a scientific finding and write about the actual and implied claims made in the report. In the second assignment, students track down the primary source(s) of the news report write about the actual and implied claims made in the report, comparing them to those made in the news report. In the third assignment, students consider the challenges that face journalists in reporting and try to write their own news report on the primary source(s).

Learning Goals

  1. Increase awareness of ambiguity in reporting of numbers (e.g., use of vague terms, such as "many" or "more")
  2. Review experimental design concerns, such as bias, validity, sample size, effect size, and basic statistics, and their importance in the ability of a person to draw conclusions about research results.
  3. Develop an understanding for how prior knowledge and belief can bias the understanding of research findings, the writing of research results, and the interpretation of even neutral language.
  4. Practice finding primary sources.
  5. Practice writing clearly and concisely.

Context for Use

This assignment will be used in a freshman and sophomore seminar or approximately 15 students. The course focuses on the psychological (linguistic, cognitive, and social) aspects of understanding and reporting quantitative data in the popular and scientific media.

The three assignments in this activity will be interleaved with class periods covering searching for primary sources, experimental design, basic statistics, and the cognitive and social processes involved in understanding arguments and interpreting quantitative data.

Description and Teaching Materials

Teaching Notes and Tips

I haven't used this assignment yet, but will report back. I imagine that students may need some guidance in selecting appropriate news stories for which they can find (and understand) the primary sources.


I will be using a grading rubric, with descriptions of expectations for appropriate content (e.g., is the content clear and appropriate to the intended audience; are an interesting selection of observations made), organization (does the paper have a clear thesis, with well formed paragraphs and a structure of argument that supports a thesis), and clarity of writing (is the paper free from jargon, awkward phrasing, and editorial errors).

References and Resources