21W.036 | Spring 2022 | Undergraduate

Science Writing and New Media: Writing and the Environment

Critical Review

Scientific researchers whose findings have direct implications for ordinary citizens are often stymied by the challenges involved in bringing their findings to the general public. One traditional strategy has been to rely on magazines like Scientific American, the New Yorker, and Discover or newspapers like the New York Times. But what about the many ordinary people who do not read these publications or who simply skim the science articles because the vocabulary seems daunting? Are there other strategies that might reach a broader or simply a different audience? What about the web? What about the television networks? What about more personal outreach?

Imagine that several U.S. foundations have joined forces to fund the new Green Media Institute. The Institute will be devoted to educating the general public about the environment and environmental issues. Its primary task will be to distribute grants to worthy media ventures. Before they can open the application process, however, the institute’s staff feels that they need to learn more about some of the media that applicants are likely to select. They have turned to several journalists and critics for help in understanding the distinctive strengths and limitations of various media.

You have been asked to focus on video documentaries (as opposed to audio documentaries and podcasts). You want to build a solid foundation for your commentary, so you have chosen to develop your broader insights into video documentary through a careful critical review of two particular documentaries.


To achieve the desired goal of providing broad insights into video documentary as a potentially enlightening educational medium, you must take on the unfamiliar task of analyzing and reviewing two specific documentary productions. The only roughly comparable assignment that most of you have completed is a book review. In this case, however, you need to educate yourself before you can write your review. You will also need to expand the range of features that you consider in your review to include sounds and sights as well as words. I have put together a list of documentaries that focus on four topics of interest to environmental scientists. All of these documentaries were designed with the intention of engaging and edifying the general public. While these materials were originally presented in many different venues, you can now view all of them on the web. Pick a couple of topics that intrigue you; then, watch ten minutes or so of the videos associated with those topics before you choose the pair of documentaries that you wish to view in their entirety several times.

Each of the listed documentaries attempts to bridge the distance between the work of academic scientists and the interests and priorities of the lay public. The directors and producers have chosen different strategies, in part because they bring distinctive priorities to their task and in part because they make different assumptions about their audiences. As you review the documentaries, try to uncover the producers’ priorities and their assumptions about the audience. In other words, what are they trying to accomplish and why have they chosen their particular strategy? What happens to the scientific studies as they are translated into a more accessible format? To what extent do the documentaries consider the social and political context for environmental issues?

Remember your intended audience and your intended goal. Keep in mind that the folks at the Green Media Institute may not have seen either of the video documentaries that you plan to examine.

Read Preparation for Critical Review (PDF) (DOC).

Pre-Draft Exercise #1

  1. Identify the pair of documentaries that you plan to examine in your critical review.
  2. Provide full identifying information for each documentary.
    1. Director(s) [If no director, look for other decision-maker.]
    2. Organization that originally sponsored/commissioned the production (e.g. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Public Broadcasting System (PBS), National Geographic, Discovery Channel, etc.)
    3. Original production date
    4. [If relevant] Narrator/Host
  3. List two or three initial observations about the different strategies adopted by the directors/producers of your documentaries.
Preparation/Advice for first phase of critical review assignment
  1. Rationale for pre-draft exercise #1:
    • Director’s name—the decision maker (should play an active & explicit role in your discussion). Find out info on director et al.
    • Narrator—the main character in some documentaries.
    • Original sponsoring organization and original venue (TV, website, movie theatre, etc.)—key to understanding audience & objective.
    • Dates—relation between the documentaries & evolving science
  2. Some basic guidelines for critical review (Version 1 due on March 10th):
    • Length—what this means for the level of detail and depth of paper
      • First Version must be at least 1500 words long.
      • Revised version must be between 1700 and 2000 words long.
    • Active voice: Real people made decisions and created the documentary
    • You are your readers’ guide. Spell out your reasoning.
    • Evidence—Make sure we know where it comes from.
      • Use MLA citation system (more later)
    • No draft is complete without Works Cited list!
    • Write a letter to your workshop partners

Pre-Draft Exercise #2

  1. Identify the article or articles that provide background information on the topic that provides a focus for the documentaries you plan to analyze. (You are in charge of finding these articles, but I am happy to help.)
    • Describe briefly what kind of information it provides.
  2. Identify the article or articles on documentaries that you plan to use in the course of your critical review. (You should choose among the articles described as broader articles on science documentaries. Do not include the Diego Pineda article.)
    • Describe briefly what role the article or articles might play in your critical review. What perspective does the article provide?
    • (You may choose a different article later if your own ideas change, but do your best to select an article or articles that will help you develop your ideas.)

Pre-Draft Exercise #3

Briefly describe central idea for your critical review (½ page); then, create a tentative outline for your critical review. The outline should highlight the development of your central idea, not just the sequence of topics. Come to class prepared to discuss your outline.

Critical Review First Version

Requirements for first version of the critical review:

  • 1st version must be at least 1500 words long. Include MLA works cited list.
  • Proofread and edit your critical review; then, write a letter addressed to your workshop partners commenting on the state of your critical review.
  • Post your critical review and letter by 1 p.m. Post your critical review as a Word document (not a pdf or pages doc).
  • Bring three copies of your critical review and letter to class.

Peer Review #2: Critical Review

Guidelines for comments and workshop discussions of critical review.

Begin by reading your partners’ critical reviews for pleasure. Then, take a look at the list of questions provided on the next page and reread the reviews with these questions in mind. Write out your comments on your partners’ critical reviews (see list below). Use each question as the point of departure for a thoughtful response (“yes” and “no” answers are of little value to your partners). Your finished comments on each critical review should be at least 400 words long (not counting the questions themselves). When you are satisfied with what you have written, post your comments in the appropriate location for each of your partners. Be sure to include your name and the name of the essay’s author with your comments.

Remember that your comments are intended to help the writer create a more compelling version of his or her critical review. Be tactful and complete. I have not asked you to comment on the writer’s grammatical or mechanical errors. I will take care of those problems myself. Thank you in advance for your thoughtful comments.

Questions for the Critical Review


  1. How effective is the current introduction? Does it engage your interest? Does it establish a clear direction for the ensuing discussion? Any suggestions for the author?
  2. Does the writer make clear why his or her subject matters?
  3. What is the main idea (central insight) of the critical review? Where do you see that idea stated most clearly?
  4. Does the writer provide sufficient background information about the subject of the documentaries, or is there something more that you would like to know? Does the background information appear in the most useful location within the critical review?
  5. Did you learn enough about the documentaries to enable you to follow the writer’s analysis?
  6. Does the writer make effective use of one or more of the scholarly articles on science documentaries? If not, can you suggest a possible role for one of the articles?
  7. How well does the writer handle evidence from the video and the journal articles? Is there enough supporting evidence within each paragraph? If not, point out weak spots.
  8. Can you follow the logic that leads from one paragraph to the next? Identify any gaps—places where you have difficulty following the logic.
  9. How effective is the writer’s conclusion? What changes or additions might you suggest?
  10. Reconsider the introduction in the light of the conclusion. Does the introduction point the reader in the right direction? Would you suggest any changes to the introduction?


  1. What is the most intriguing point presented in this review?
  2. What would you say are the review’s major strengths and why?
  3. Should the writer consider reorganizing the critical review? Does the sequence of points within the review lead us step by step toward the central insight?
  4. What do you think the writer needs to focus on when he or she begins revising this critical review?
  5. Does the writer’s prose serve him or her well? Do you have any general suggestions for next version?
  6. Review author’s letter to workshop partners. If the writer asked for your input on a particular question, please answer that question here.

Revised Version

Reminders for revised version:

  • Identify your writers and directors (or producers) in the body of your critical review and include any relevant background information.
  • Use the MLA in-text citation system. You can find information on this citation system on the web (check out the Purdue OWL site).
  • Remember to include a list of “Works Cited” at the end of your essay. Without such a list, your readers have no way of locating the sources that you mention in your essay. The absence of a Works Cited list will result in an automatic grade penalty.  
    Documentaries, articles, and websites should all appear in your list of works cited.
  • Revised version must be between 1700 and 2000 words long.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2022