How to write a high-quality commentary
Step 1 Find an appropriate article
Finding a suitable article may seem like the easiest part of the process, but you’ll be surprised at just how difficult it can be.
For IA purposes, a useful news article should say neither too little nor too much. The article should describe an issue sufficiently to allow room for analysis and discussion of an event’s implication. But the article should not provide that analysis itself – that’s your job. This is why general news articles from daily newspapers (or news agency services) can work out very well, while articles from more economics-focused publications (e.g. The Economist) or scholarly journals are often less suitable.
Conduct an effective search
The internet has made it possible to search far and wide with incredible speed, but the volume of information can be overwhelming and stall your progress at a very early stage. With this in mind, search for a good article with care.
Where to look
Search engines are well suited for finding articles on specific topics. So rather than going to the home page of your favourite search engine, begin your search in the news section. For example, don’t start at www.google.com, begin at http://news.google.com, which ensures that your search results will already be filtered from news websites.But beware – not all news sites are appropriate for an IB commentary. Additional filtering is needed to select an appropriate article. Some search engines specialize in economics news. Surfwax Economics News (http://news.surfwax.com/economics/) is popular and helpfully categorizes current articles by economics topics from a typical course syllabus.
Often, a web search for a topic from the syllabus that is commonly referred to in the media (e.g. demand, taxes, trade) will turn up thousands of hits. Searching for an article by browsing the results of such a broad search will prove tedious and you are not likely to find more than a very few appropriate articles. However, terms such as ‘income elasticity of demand’ or ‘aggregate supply’ are not typically used by the news media, even though the concepts themselves are regularly the subject of reports in the business and economic news. To find articles relating to such concepts, you must be critical and flexible in your browsing of search results; move on quickly if your first search attempts fail to yield any promising results. When this happens, try out associated terms that are linked with the overall concept. And ask your teacher if there is another way of phrasing your searches to get better results for the topic you are interested in.
Collaborate with classmates
The chances are good that in the search process your classmates will come across and pass on several articles that could be appropriate for a commentary. Collaborate on the search process, share with each other articles you have found, even begin class discussions over the articles found. Online social bookmarking tools such as Diigo and Stumbleupon can be excellent for collaborative discussions on potential articles.
Most schools’ libraries or media centres now subscribe to news-only web databases that purify an article search by allowing only results from established news organizations, such as EBSCO Host or JStore. Try speaking with your school librarian or media centre specialist to learn more about how to conduct effective searches using these subscription-based services. More and more online news sources are putting their best articles behind a pay shield (or paywall) that requires users to pay a subscription to read entire articles. Don’t let this frustrate you; the chances are, your school already pays to get you access to such articles. Take advantage of the resources available in your library or media centre to ensure your search is as efficient and successful as possible.
Vet your article
So how can you tell if your article is a worthy candidate for a commentary? The more articles you have read and collected, the more skilled a reader you will have become. Of the many articles you have saved, you are likely to have decided early on that a few have the right balance of not-too-little / not-too-much information and analysis. Once you have narrowed down your options to two or three for each choice, vet the articles for final selection. You might take the following steps.
- Brainstorm. Pull out a copy of the current IB Guide and turn to the list of topics. Or you might want to use the vocabulary list for the relevant unit. As you read the article, check off the relevant terms.
- Identify concepts. As you read each article, make notes in the margin (or on the website if you’re using a social bookmarking tool) of the concepts from the syllabus to which the article relates. This will help you decide if the article is appropriate for the section of the syllabus you wish to address.
- Identify diagrams. Typically, a high-quality commentary includes at least two (but perhaps more) diagrams. Diagrammed items should be part of the core topics of the commentary, not merely introductory material or of tangential interest. As you read the article, take note of potential diagrams you can include in your analysis. If you are not able to identify at least two relevant economics graphs to include in your commentary, the article may not be of use to you.
- Outline. Create a simple outline of each section of your commentary. List what each paragraph will do, including the types of explanation and areas of evaluation.
Remember that diagrams must be clearly explained in the body of the text, and not merely attached to the commentary. After completing these steps for each potential article, it should be clear which of your options is best suited to be the subject of an economics commentary that meets the requirements of the IA.
Step 2 Write the draft
Now that you’ve outlined the key ideas for each paragraph, you can begin to link together the main ideas in complete prose for your draft commentary.
Satisfy the IA criteria
The IA criteria require that each commentary includes diagrams, definitions, application, analysis and evaluation of relevant economic theory. The discussions below will help you more clearly understand these requirements.
Diagrams must be highly relevant and fully explained in the text. Explanations must make specific reference to graph points (e.g. quantity increases from Q1 to Q2.) Graphs should be given priority in your analysis. Make them large and centre them on the page rather than writing text around them. They should be introduced and then clearly explained in the text.
Define and explain
Definitions of relevant terms should be included in each commentary. Not all economics terms need to be defined – it would be easy to use up half of your 750 word count defining terms. Only define terms that are integral to the analysis and evaluation you plan to conduct in each commentary. Once a term has been defined, do not define it again in a later commentary in the same portfolio. Explanations require students to describe clearly, make intelligible and give reasons for an economic concept or idea. It is your job to bring clarification to the economic concepts relating to your article.
Analysis requires you to closely examine the events laid out in your article through the tools and theories learned in your economics course. A clear analysis will identify the interrelationships that exist between different variables presented in the article. Economic diagrams should form the heart of your analysis; anything that can be explained graphically should be explained graphically. With only 750 words, you must be concise and selective in how you analyse the news on which your commentary is based.
This is your opportunity to discuss the implications of an economic issue, and to assess the effects the issue (or policies to redress it) have on stakeholders. Evaluation is the skill many students find most difficult. It requires you to make a judgement based on evidence. In your commentaries, you can evaluate throughout the text, or you may choose to conduct the evaluation at the end of each commentary. To make an evaluation, you can:
- weigh the advantages and disadvantages of certain economic policies
- discuss the effects on different stakeholders in society of a particular policy or event
- compare the short-run and long-run effects of an economic policy or a decision by a particular stakeholder in a market
- critically assess the validity of the economic theories you have applied to your commentary.
Critically assessing the validity of economic theories is the thing many students find the most difficult to do successfully. Evaluation requires that you call into question the economic theories themselves. For instance, economic theory would argue that a progressive tax system is inefficient due to its negative effect on the incentive to work and earn higher incomes.
However, you may argue that in reality there is little evidence that progressive taxes reduce efficiency and that the resulting reduction in income inequality more than justifies the use of such a system in a modern, developed economy. You have now called into question the economic view that taxes are inefficient.
Evaluation is the most heavily weighted criterion of the five applied to each commentary (it is given 4 out of the 14 available marks), so it is of the utmost importance that you pay particular attention to the quality and depth of evaluation in your portfolio.
Avoid unnecessary summary
The article supplies the fundamental information for your commentary. The grader will read the article you have supplied, so it is not necessary for you to recap that information. To do so would waste precious words that count against your limit. You should reference the article by including direct quotes and references to data.
Reference the article
In each commentary, it is critical that you cite the article in several instances. Each commentary should include references to the specific circumstances as laid out in the article. Include at least one direct quote, and whenever there are numbers such as prices, quantities or percentage changes mentioned in the article, attempt to incorporate them into the analysis in your commentary.
For example, if there is mention of airline ticket prices changing for a particular route, then in your graph of the airline market, include the original price and the new price on the y-axis, rather than a generic P1 and P2. This demonstrates that you are a skilled economist able to apply economic theory to real examples. If you use direct quotes, they should be a brief phrase, or a word or two. Avoid long quotes that will count against your word limit.
Step 3 Revision
When you have finished your draft, you submit it to your teacher. He or she will provide you with brief but useful advice about how to improve each commentary. Take this help seriously – it can significantly improve your marks. You should continue to seek advice, but remember your teacher can give only limited help from now on. Be sure to observe all the appropriate language conventions and you can ask a classmate to help copy-edit your work. Finally, use the following checklist of requirements before handing in your final draft.
- Do I have a cover sheet with all the appropriate information? What is my word count?
- Are all the relevant economic terms defined? Have I used economic terminology throughout my commentary, not just occasionally?
- Have I included at least two diagrams? Have I explained them carefully in the body of the text?
- Have I referenced the article to a degree that makes it clear my commentary is on the particular circumstances described in the article, not just a repetition of what I read in my textbook or took notes on in class?
- Is my analysis complete? Have I considered the major areas of theory that are related to this topic?
- Have I evaluated effectively? Have I considered the short run and the long run, the implications for various stakeholders, and the validity of the economic theory itself?
The IA portfolio is intended to be an enriching learning experience. Feel free to seek out articles in areas of your own interest. You are far more likely to bring insight to issues in which you are already interested. However, another equally important motivation is to encourage you to broaden your knowledge of economics and the world by reading widely.