Examining the Student Newspaper: An Opportunity to Teach Research Methods

By Mersey, Rachel Davis | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Examining the Student Newspaper: An Opportunity to Teach Research Methods


Mersey, Rachel Davis, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


This article provides a case study of an innovative approach to teaching quantitative methods to journalism students. By posing questions that inspire curiosity, this method suggests that we can motivate students who might be apprehensive about statistics to embrace them in pursuit of answers. It was employed in a media analysis course taught by Knight Chair in Journalism Philip Meyer. In the course, Meyer's 2004 book, The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age, provided the blueprint for the students' examination of their campus newspaper and an entree into quantitative methods for the social sciences and/or investigative reporting.

Journalism schools know well the skills of reporting and writing but show less inclination when it comes to teaching math literacy. Despite many budding journalists' distaste, however, math has pervaded the modern newsroom. Budgets, polls, surveys, and statistics are now stock and trade in government, business, and sports coverage. Lifestyle stories too have taken to the trend. A 2002 content analysis of a daily metropolitan newspaper found that nearly half of the local news stories involved mathematics, where the A-section and the business section led the pack with 53% and 65% respectively of their local stories involving quantitative skills.1 Journalism researcher Philip Meyer tracked this trend to the infiltration of computers in the newsroom. "They're raising the ante on what it takes to be a journalist. ... A journalist has to be a database manager, a data processor and a data analyst."2 It is no longer enough to simply report the numbers; journalists must now be able to interpret and understand them in pursuit of the full truth, which is all too often guised in the fuzzy math of a government or corporate news release.

Against a backdrop of math skills now considered fundamental to journalism training, this research provides a case study of an innovative approach to teaching quantitative methods to students otherwise averse to the topic. By posing intriguing questions that inspire curiosity, this method suggests that we can motivate students who might otherwise be apprehensive about statistics to embrace them in pursuit of answers.

This approach was employed in a media analysis course in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Special Topics in Mass Communication: A Quantitative Evaluation of the Daily Tar Heel was taught by Knight Chair in Journalism Philip Meyer.3 In the course, Meyer's 2004 book, The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age, provided the blueprint for the students' quantitative examination of their campus newspaper, and an entree into quantitative research methods for investigative reporting and/or the social sciences.4

In an attempt to arm future practitioners and scholars alike, the class focused on five elements of newspaper quality: credibility, accuracy in reporting, accuracy in editing, readability, and editorial vigor. Taken together, the five attributes estimate a level of quality in the student newspaper that could be compared to the twenty-two professional newspapers in Meyer's 2004 study. To do so, the class worked in small groups in each of the five areas, using a variety of methodological approaches: analysis of original survey data, multiple data-gathering techniques, and reanalysis of archived data. Statistical procedures, coupled with the use of SPSS, were essential to analysis and embraced by the students, who seemed quite eager to evaluate their student newspaper and to compare it to other papers.

Literature Review

Despite this exemplar, a dislike for numbers-or what could more accurately be described as an abhorrenceamong journalism students and practitioners has been well established in stories and in fact. For example, a group of Columbia School of Journalism candidates answered fewer questions correctly on a math test compared to a group of Japanese sixth graders. …

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