Fernanda Veneu-Lumb and Marco Costa show how news reports – even inaccurate ones – can be used in the science classroom.
News is available to us everywhere, all the time – in newspapers and magazines, on television and via the Internet – and this includes science news. Some scientists complain about the accuracy of scientific information in the media and for this reason, some teachers are reluctant to use it in the classroom. However, we’d like to encourage teachers to do exactly this, for two reasons.
We will begin by illustrating some of the differences between news reports and research articles, then offer some ideas for using science news in the classroom. Although we talk mostly about newspaper articles, you could equally well use other sorts of popular science reports: magazine articles, podcasts or video clips of the television news, for example.
News reports generally follow an established pattern. In the first paragraph, you will find all the information you need to understand the story: who, what, where, when, why and how.
Let’s look at an example from the BBC websitew1.
By Matt Walker, Editor, Earth NewsAn international team of botanists has compared extinction rates of plants within 22 cities around the world. Both Singapore and New York City in the US now contain less than one-tenth of their original vegetation, reveals the analysis published in Ecology Letters. However, San Diego, US and Durban, South Africa still retain over two-thirds of their original flora…..
Matt Walker, Earth News editor, describes the results of an international study involving scientists from various countries. Did you notice that the main information is available in the first paragraph?
This is one of the biggest differences between news articles and other types of text. In scientific research articles, for instance, the results and conclusions are presented in separate sections, towards the end. Even in the abstract, the short version of the scientific paper, the structure follows the same pattern: introduction, methods, results and conclusions.
Let’s take a look at how the same story was presented in a scientific journal – in the abstract of an article published in Ecology Letters (Hahs et al., 2009).
By Amy K Hahs, Mark J McDonnell, Michael A McCarthy, Peter A Vesk, Richard T Corlett, Briony A Norton, Steven E Clemants, Richard P Duncan, Ken Thompson, Mark W Schwartz, and Nicholas SG Williams
Plant extinctions from urban areas are a growing threat to biodiversity worldwide. To minimize this threat, it is critical to understand what factors are influencing plant extinction rates. We compiled plant extinction rate data for 22 cities around the world. Two-thirds of the variation in plant extinction rates was explained by a combination of the city’s historical development and the current proportion of native vegetation, with the former explaining the greatest variability. As a single variable, the amount of native vegetation remaining also influenced extinction rates, particularly in cities > 200 years old. Our study demonstrates that the legacies of landscape transformations by agrarian and urban development last for hundreds of years, and modern cities potentially carry a large extinction debt. This finding highlights the importance of preserving native vegetation in urban areas and the need for mitigation to minimize potential plant extinctions in the future.
As you can see, the abstract finishes with the conclusions: ‘the importance of preserving native vegetation in urban areas and the need for mitigation to minimize potential plant extinctions in the future.’ You could discuss the differing structures of news and scientific articles with your students, including which style they prefer and why.
Another difference between news stories and scientific articles is that, in news reports, some of the facts may be presented as quotes by people involved in the subject. Let’s read a bit more of the news story:
“The rapid and ongoing growth of cities and towns significantly threatens global biodiversity,” says Dr Amy Hahs, a scientist working at the Australian Research Centre for Urban Ecology at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, Australia
This explains why Hahs and her collaborators came together to try to understand the threat and how it could be minimised.
Another important point to observe in news stories is who is doing the ‘talking’ in the text: researchers, politicians or members of the public? Why? Is there a further point of view that is missing? Whose?
Many researchers complain about distortions in news reports: that the information presented is wrong or that the scientists are misquoted, for example. As a teacher, you could try to identify such problems in a news report, using your own knowledge of the subject. Or you could ask your students to look for distortions, searching for accurate information on the Internet.
Where can you find the accurate information? Start by looking again at the beginning of the news report; the original information source is generally there. In our news example, the information is taken from a research article published in the journal Ecology Letters (we examined the abstract of this article, above). Many scientific journals charge for online access to their articles, but access to the abstracts, and sometimes to older articles, is free. Furthermore, open-access journalsw2 (for example, PLOS Biologyw3) offer free access to the full text of all of their articles.
Other sources for news reports might be scientific organisations such as universities, NASAw4, the European Space Agency (ESA)w5 or other EIROforum organisationsw6. On their websites, you should be able to find the original information (for example, in a press release – information provided especially for journalists and checked by the scientists involved) and compare it to the news story. Many organisations’ websites have a section for journalists (sometimes called the press or media centre), and access is free.
By comparing the news report and the original research article (or press release), you can not only see the difference in how the article is structured and the data presented, but also consider differences in the writing style.
Here are some suggestions for how to examine and compare news and scientific articles in the classroom.
Hahs AK et al. (2009) A global synthesis of plant extinction rates in urban areas. Ecology Letters 12(11): 1165-1173. doi: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2009.01372.x
The abstract of the article is freely available from the Wiley Interscience website: http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/118545752/home
Raphael E (2007) Developing a teaching resource on peer review. Science in School 5: 70-73.