Honors Statistics in Journalism Seminar
Honors 1010

Spring 2016, Thurs. 2:00-2:50 in CL 321 CRN 29337, 1 credit
Course Calendar
Honors College
University of Pittsburgh

Instructor (Stats) Nancy Pfenning
Office WWPH 1814
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. 10:45-1:30 (no appointment necessary) or by appt.
Instructor (Journalism) Cindy Skrzycki
Office Cathedral 443
Website http://www.creativewriting.pitt.edu/people/faculty/cindy-skrzycki
Contact skrzycki@pitt.edu
Office Hrs. Wed. 4:30-5:30, Thurs. 4:00-5:00 or by appt.
Stat Lab G26; for hours of operation and names of TAs on staff, see schedule but avoid times when it's been reserved (schedule to be posted on the door).
Tutors Contact the Academic Resource Center 648-7920 for free tutoring by undergrads or visit their website.


  • Journalists Need to Do the Math
  • and
  • How Much Car Do You Buy to Keep Your Teenager Safe?
  • before our second class meeting; write up two questions or comments about each, to be handed in that day.
    For general reference, you should read
  • Statistical Terms Used in Research Studies: A Primer for Media and
  • Sense About Science and Straight Statistics
  • Here is a brief guide to MINITAB 17 Basics , in case you want to reference it for stats analysis; for work on a Mac, see MinitabForMac .
  • MINITAB is available on the PCs 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.


    Two 25-minute presentations per student; reading approximately 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. 20% of presentation score will be deducted for each day that submission of pdf is delayed.

    After the article has been approved by the instructors, the student immediately sends a pdf to the entire class so they can print (or access on mobile device) 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? A draft of the presentation must be submitted to the instructors by 2 pm Sunday. 20% of presentation score will be deducted for each day that submission of a first draft is delayed.

    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 or from Harrison Kaminsky, Managing Editor of Pitt News: hdk6@pitt.edu) The same penalty applies for late submission of articles or drafts for the second presentation: 20% for each day of delay. The student may also write 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 reads aloud the his or her news story, followed by discussion which can include questions about the extent to which he or she has succeeded in presenting the facts and conclusions.


    Presentations 20%+20%=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 1-to-2 page Midterm paper about two or more of the news stories we've discussed, noting patterns, contrasts, further insights, etc.:
    Even Best Medical Reporting Infected with "Make Do" Bias by Craig Gurian
    Survival of the Wrongest by David Freedman
    Cleaning Up Science by Gary Marcus

    Final Paper

    **For the 2-to-5-page 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 2015 or 2016 and work their way back to 2011 or 2012. One difference from the presentation news story is that students only submit a final draft to the instructors. For this reason, they team up with a classmate or two so they can read and critique each other's stories. (Teams will be confirmed by the instructors later in the semester.) Obtaining additional relevant information from outside sources---or at least attempting to do so---is recommended, especially if something important seems to be missing. Thursday the 21th at 2:00 is the absolute latest to turn in the story, but early submissions (starting Thursday the 14th) are encouraged.


    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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