Honors Statistics in Journalism Seminar
Honors 1010

Spring 2013, Wed 1:00 in CL 206 CRN 27672, 1 credit
Course Calendar
Honors College
University of Pittsburgh

Instructor (Stats) Nancy Pfenning
Office Cathedral 2710
Website www.pitt.edu/~nancyp/index.html
Contact nancypfenning@gmail.com
  521-8349 (home, if urgent, before 10pm)
  624-8336 (during office hours)
Office Hrs. Mon. 1:00 (with advance notice), Thurs. 10:00-1:00 (no appointment necessary) or by appt.
Instructor (Journalism) Cindy Skrzycki
Office Cathedral 453
Website http://www.creativewriting.pitt.edu/people/faculty/cindy-skrzycki
Contact skrzycki@pitt.edu
Office Hrs. Mon. 11:00-1:00, Wed. 10:30-12:00 or by appt.
Stat Lab The Statistics Computing Lab and its staff can be used as a resource. It's in 435 CL (take stairs up from Bigelow side of Cathedral). For hours of operation and names of TAs on staff, see schedule but avoid times when it's been reserved (scroll down to their calendar).
Tutors Contact the Academic Resource Center 648-7920 for free tutoring by undergrads or visit their website.


  • MINITAB Basics to be used as a reference if you want to produce summaries or displays from data. MINITAB is available at all campus computing labs, such as Cathedral, Forbes Quad, Benedum, and of course the Stat Lab. If in addition you would like to have MINITAB on your PC, Pitt's Software Download Service offers MINITAB for free.


    This course is a follow-up to any college level (including AP) introductory statistics course for students who are interested in the role played by statistics in journalism. It stresses the development of critical reading, writing, thinking, and public speaking skills. Students are encouraged to investigate statistical applications in news reports relevant to their own major or areas of personal interest. Most of the class sessions will be spent on presentations by individual students, each followed by discussion moderated by the presenter, with occasional input from the instructors. Special sessions may feature a guest speaker with expertise in the more quantitative aspects of journalism.


    Mandatory for all sessions; points will be deducted for unexcused absences.


    A grade of "A" in any introductory statistics course at the college (including AP) level.


    One 15-minute presentation and one half-hour presentation per student; reading two featured articles weekly; handing in a question or comment about each article; midterm paper* and final paper**.


    For the first set of presentations, each student finds a news article or report related to one of his or her areas of personal or academic interest, preferably something that is quite current and relevant. The student sends a pdf to both instructors by Friday 2:00 pm for approval. After the article has been approved by the instructors, the student sends a pdf to the entire class so they can print and read it in advance, mark it with notes, and bring it to class. In addition, the non-presenting class members each prepare at least one written question or comment pertaining to the article that will be handed in for credit at the end of the class session. Depending on time constraints and the direction that the discussion takes, not all students will necessarily speak up with their particular question or comment. As far as the presenting student is concerned, he or she summarizes the article's content, stressing its statistical aspects and its journalistic merits. Then he or she facilitates discussion of pertinent issues---for example, are there unjustified claims of causation? Did the reporter neglect to mention or clarify critical details? Are the results used to slant the article in a particular direction?
    For the second set of presentations, each student must find a scientific journal article about a study that employs statistical methods. Again, after the article has been approved by the instructors, the pdf is sent to classmates, and they prepare questions or comments. The student writes a news story to report on the study briefly but effectively so that an ordinary reader can get the gist of the study's results. The length would typically be a few paragraphs. (For assistance consider getting help at the Writing Center: http://www.composition.pitt.edu/writingcenter/index.html ) In addition, the student writes a BAD news report (just one paragraph, plus title) incorporating some of the common flaws encountered in the first part of the course.
    The presenter first reads the bad news story to the class, and they try to identify the intended flaws. Then he or she reads aloud the serious news story, followed by discussion which can include questions about the extent to which the presenter has succeeded in presenting the facts and conclusions.


    Presentations 15%+25%=40%
    Attendance 10%
    Written Questions/Comments 10%
    Midterm Paper* 20%
    Final Paper** 20%

    Course Grade

    90-100% A; 80-89% B; etc. Plusses are assigned to the students at the top of each grade range and minuses to the students at the bottom.

    Midterm Paper

    *Reference any or all of these three articles to write a Midterm paper about any or all of the news stories we've discussed:
    Misrepresentation of Randomized Controlled Trials in Press Releases and News Coverage by Yavchitz et al
    Survival of the Wrongest by David Freedman
    Cleaning Up Science by Gary Marcus

    Final Paper

    **For the final paper, students are to write a news story with similar parameters as their presentation news story. They may choose one of these topics: autism, Alzheimer's, abortion, gay marriage, global warming, Marcellus shale, education, cheating, AP exams, teen suicides/use of antidepressants, college athletics, sexual abuse/rape on campus; making it as specific as they like. Or they may choose any other topic that interests them. It should be timely: If they word-search with www.googlescholar.com they could start with 2012 and work their way back to 2009. One difference from the presentation news story is that students only submit a final draft to the instructors. For this reason, they should consider teaming up with a classmate or two so they can read and critique each other's stories. (They should inform the instructors if planning to do this, and with whom.) Obtaining additional relevant information from outside sources---or at least attempting to do so---is recommended, especially if something important seems to be missing. The 23rd is the absolute latest to turn in the story.


    No text required; if you'd like to borrow Dr. Pfenning's Intro Stats textbook for reference, ask her in office hours. A calculator (any kind) is helpful.

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