Online Research Skills for Journalists
© 2012 by Jeff South. All rights reserved. This material may not be used without written permission of the author.
Reporters use the Internet every day to monitor the areas they cover and to do research for specific stories. On a daily basis, you should:
Check a list of websites about topics you report on and about the journalism world
Collect story ideas you can follow up on
And when you set on on a specific story, you'll go online for:
Background information about organizations or topics you're writing about
"Clips" of previously published articles about a subject. That way, you'll know what’s already been written -- and what is news.
Sources -- people you can interview and quote in your story. They include “players” (such as public officials -- people who are knowledgeable but probably have a bias); experts (people who are knowledgeable but are impartial); and “real people” (everyday people who might be affected by the news)
Government records -- official documents that may be stored in an online database and are continuously updated
I'm going to walk you through my strategies for finding this kind of information. What works for me may not work work perfectly for you: You might rely more on social media than I do; and new tools (like HootSuite, for monitoring several social media platforms simultaneously) frequently emerge. Ultimately, you'll need to develop your own strategies -- tactics that work for you. And they'll change over time. Still, here's a framework for thinking journalistically about online information.
Build a hotlist of websites
Online research training for journalists used to begin with a list of websites. That was back in the days when sites numbered in the millions. Now they're in the billions -- and so I'm not sure how helpful it is for me to give you a list of "my favorite sites." Sites come and go. Moreover, the sites you consider helpful will depend on what you cover. A reporter on the environmental beat will have a different hotlist, obviously, than an education reporter.
Even so, it's important that you develop a list of sites to check regularly. Some of those sites might have to do with the craft of journalism (like the Poynter Institute's website or Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc.'s website). Some will be resources you might use on any story (like the Internet phone book site, The Ultimates White Pages.) Other sites on your list will focus on the subject or entities you write about -- specific topics or government agencies.
As you cover a beat or even a general-assignment story, ask your sources where they get information online. Monitor the websites of governmental agencies, nonprofit groups, public officials and people interested in (and knowledgeable about) your subject.
Here are three hotlists by reporters for reporters. They might serve as starting point for your own list:
Reporter's Desktop -- by Duff Wilson of The New York Times
And here's a directory of websites compiled by librarians (who, in the quest for information, are our comrades in arms):
Also, check with specialized journalism organizations for websites about specific topics. The Society of Environmental Journalists, for instance, has compiled online resources for its beat; ditto for the Religion Newswriters Association and the Education Writers Association. The Council of National Journalism Organizations has a list of these specialty groups. Also, scope out j-school programs and training programs about specialized areas -- like the Reynolds Center for Business Journalism at Arizona State University.
Don't get overwhelmed. Find and bookmark 10 websites that you think will be helpful. In time, you'll expand and refine your list. See if the websites you bookmark have RSS feeds. (That means they're "bloggy": Each item on the home page is a separate posting with its own headline and body.) Subscribe to the RSS feeds with Google Reader or directly in your browser with Mozilla Firefox. An RSS feed lets you skim headlines without having to read the entire article. That way, with one click, you can see if the page you're monitoring includes any new headlines. You also can use a service like WatchThatPage.com to monitor whether a page has changed.
The advent of social media has changed this "Web-centric" approach to journalistic research. Now, for example, you'll need to monitor a government agency's Facebook page and Twitter feed as well as its website to stay on top of things. (We'll cover that below.)
Get story tips to come to you
Instead of spending time seeking out routine tips, smart reporters have those ideas come to them. They subscribe to listservs and email services created by public relations offices and other entities. The U.S. Census Bureau, for instance, distributes all its news releases and media advisories by email; as a reporter, you can even get some material before its public release -- giving you extra time to prepare a story. So make sure you get on the distribution lists of the agencies and groups you cover.
Also, subscribe to the listservs of the specialty journalism groups associated with your beat. For instance, members of Capitolbeat -- the association of reporters who cover state governments -- routinely kick around story ideas by email and share reporting tips. Members of such groups also will discuss what's hot and what's not. If nothing else, you'll know when to zig when others are about to zag.
Another way to get news tips to come to you is to subscribe to an RSS feed at PR Newswire, a press release aggregator. For instance, you can subscribe to a constantly updated list of all releases on a given topic -- such as "sports" or "political campaigns."
You also can get news to flow your way by using Google Alerts: You can tell Google what to search for (keywords and other parameters) and what to search (the Web, news websites or blogs); and then Google will email you what it finds. You can have Google do that once a week, once a day or every time it comes across material that meets your specifications. (Google Alerts are not foolproof, however. A press release might be posted on PR Newswire, for example, and it can take Google a few days to "find" it.)
Facebook and Twitter also are effective tools to collect story ideas. We'll discuss that below.
Google overview: a box of search tools
Google isn't just one search engine -- it's a box of several search tools: one to search the Web, another to search news sites, another to search blogs, and so forth. Savvy reporters use the entire toolbox, depending on what they're looking for.
For example, go to www.google.com (the Web search tool) and paste the following terms into the search box:
"air pollution" virginia
The top "hits" are for reports by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and other groups.
If you then click on "News" on the Google toolbar, you'll see recent news stories contains the words "air pollution" and "virginia."
And if you click on "Blogs" (it's on the Google toolbar under "More"), you'll see blog postings containing those words.
The takeaway: If you're looking for general or background information on a subject, you'd use Google to search the Web. If you're looking for recent news stories, you'd use Google to search "News" articles. And if you're looking for people discussing a subject online, you'd use Google's "Blogs" search.
(Those aren't your only options, of course. Yahoo! and Bing also are excellent search engines; and Technorati is great for searching blogs. But for simplicity, most of use turn first to Google.)
Advanced search tips: Google secrets revealed!
Smart searchers use Google in a sophisticated way. They use "Boolean logic": They are very specific in telling Google what to search for and which websites (domains) to search.
Here's Google's tipsheet about that. It explains how to do site-specific searches; how to exclude, as well as include, certain terms in your search; and how to craft searches for "this" OR "that". Among the top tips:
Put phrases in quotes. Compare these searches:
virginia state university
"virginia state university"
Why does the first search give you many times more hits than the second search?
As a journalist, you might run a phrase search to check for plagiarism in a politician's speech -- or to see if a letter to the editor of your hometown newspaper is really a form letter that an organization is planting in numerous papers.
Combine multiple search terms. By default, Google shows Web pages that meet all of your criteria. (In other words, it's connecting each term with the word AND.) If you're looking for information about Richmond artist Ed Trask, you might type:
“ed trask” richmond
You'd get the same results with:
“ed trask” AND Richmond
To really zero in on Trask, you might search for three terms:
"ed trask" richmond art
As a general rule, start with a highly specific search -- as if you're zooming in with a microscope. If you don't find what you're looking for in the first page of results, zoom out a bit.
Expand an overly specific search. Suppose you're searching for words that have synonmyms or could have different spellings. In that case, connect the terms with "OR":
"ed trask" OR "edward trask"
If you're doing an "OR" search that has multiple terms, you need to use parentheses, like:
("ed trask" OR "edward trask") richmond
And if you wanted to get really fancy, you might type:
("ed trask" OR "edward trask") art richmond (va OR virginia)
Limit your search to specific websites by using Google's "site:" operator. After "site:", you type all or part of a domain name. To find references to comics on any VCU website, for example, type:
Reporters consider government websites as the most reliable. You can quote from them: "According to the FBI's website, ..." Government website usually end in "gov". So if you're searching for information on government websites about Virginia artists, you might type:
virginia artists site:gov
Suppose you're looking for information about carjackings on the FBI's website. Type:
Virginia state government sites end in "state.va.us" or "virginia.gov". So if you wanted to find references to the artist Sally Mann on a Virginia government site, you could type into Google:
"sally mann" (site:state.va.us OR site:virginia.gov)
All of these tips work on Google's "News" and "Blog" searches, too. So if you wanted to find recent articles about the Chesapeake Bay on the Richmond Times-Dispatch website, you'd type:
"chesapeake bay" site:timesdispatch.com
If you wanted to see what bloggers who use the Blogspot platform are saying about VCU and the Final Four NCAA basketball championship, you could search for:
vcu "final four" site:blogspot.com
Exclude certain words from a search. Suppose you're looking for information about the singer Pink -- but not the band Pink Floyd. Put a minus sign in front of the word or terms you want to exclude:
music pink -"pink floyd"
Search for specific types of files on the Web -- like Adobe Acrobat documents (PDF files), Microsoft Word documents (DOC), PowerPoint shows (PPT) or Excel spreadsheets (XLS). Use the "filetype:" operator:
"AIDS deaths" filetype:xls
If I'm looking for data for a particular geographic level -- like state-by-state statistics -- I might type:
homeownership rates "by state" filetype:xls
Search for a term "as is." Suppose you have an unusual spelling (maybe it's somebody's name) -- and you don't want Google to think it's a typo. You can type:
That way, you won't get any results with "Smyth" or "Smith."
Use a wildcard in your search. Suppose you're searching for information about VCU's former president, Eugene Trani. He often used his middle initial -- Eugene P. Trani. Sometimes, he was referred to as Eugene Paul Trani. And other times, it was simply Eugene Trani. To cover all the possibilities, you can use as asterisk as a wildcard in your search:
"eugene * trani"
Here's a tip that Google itself doesn't publicize but some searchers have discovered. You can tell Google that you want some words in your search to be close together on a Web page. Suppose I'm looking for information about arrests in Richmond for graffiti vandalism -- and I want to make sure that "graffiti" and "vandalism" are within 10 words of each other. I could type:
graffiti AROUND(10) arrest richmond
Google supports many other special operators. For instance, you can search for a certain date range, or for pages with specific words in the title (the blue bar at the top of your browser window). Here's a tipsheet about those special operators.
You also can use Google's Advanced Search interface instead of typing those commands into your search. (But typing is usually faster.)
Finding human sources: Who ya gonna call?
Reporters often go online research to find people to interview for their stories. You'll find the names of possible sources as you visit websites. For example, you might see somebody quoted in a newspaper story -- and you might want to interview that person for your article, too. Or you'll see a group mentioned in an online document, and you'll call that organization to talk to an official there.
Here are other ways to find sources:
Profnet -- This is a network of "professional communicators," ranging from public relations practitioners and industry analysts and academics and bloggers. You must register, but it's free. This allows you to search a database of resumes and/or to blast a message saying you're looking for an expert on a given topic.
You must be careful in selecting and choosing self-styled experts, of course. Some may simply be seeking publicity -- and might not have the expertise they claim. As with any source, ask key questions like "How do you know that? What's your background?"
Many universities also have a database of faculty experts. Here is VCU's.
To find "real people" to interview -- folks affected by the issue you're writing about -- you can search blogs, Web forums and the comments that have been posted to online articles. Before quoting anybody, be sure to contact the person by e-mail first.
And, of course, you can use social media to help find sources.
Social media: Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and more
Social media are augmenting, and sometimes displacing, Web-based ways of seeking story ideas, collecting background information and finding sources. In recent years, that has been an explosion of interest among journalists in using social media.
LinkedIn has a group called LinkedIn for Journalists. There's also a tipsheet on how journalists can use LinkedIn.
LinkedIn can be especially helpful for finding sources by the person's name, organization or industry. Moreover, LinkedIn users can identify their professional skill or expertise. That allows you to search for sources with a particular background to interview.
You also can use the forum LinkedIn Answers and the Advanced Answers Search to see what people are talking about -- a good source of story ideas and sources.
The National Center for Business Journalism (aka the Reynolds Center) at Arizona State University provides free webinars about LinkedIn. Here is a self-guided tutorial from a recent webinar. You can watch a recording of the session or skim the PowerPoint slides. The Reynolds Center also has a series of self-guided training materials on social media.
Facebook has a group called Facebook + Journalists. Facebook also has published a guide called "Facebook + Journalism 101." Moreover, Mashable has published "The Journalist's Guide to Facebook."
For starters, you can 'friend' or 'like' sources and organizations related to your journalistic focus. That way, you can monitor what they're doing or discussing.
You can use Facebook to track down sources: If you know an individual's name and find the person on Facebook, send a message seeking an interview. Or join groups and monitor the postings for story ideas or experts -- or post a note that you'd like to talk to an expert on a specific subject.
Another reporting tool is Facebook's "Interest Lists." Reporters can follow beat-specific lists, compile lists of experts and monitor their competitors. [For more, see this article on the blog "10,000 Words.]
With Facebook and LinkedIn, using your network of friends or groups, you could crowdsource your story -- by posting your questions or the focus of your article in progress and inviting feedback.
Twitter also has a guide for journalists. It's divided into four parts: Report, Engage, Publish and Extra. (Like other social media, journalists use Twitter in many ways -- as a reporting tool, an interaction tool, a publishing tool and a branding tool. In computer-assisted reporting, we're mostly interested in the reporting aspect.)
As with Facebook, on Twitter you'll want to follow officials or groups that you report about. Moreover, you can use Twitter Search or Twitter's Advanced Search to find tweets that mention keywords and carry certain hashtags (like #rva for Richmond). Moreover, you can use Twitter to crowdsource a story -- to ask followers (and their followers, if they re-tweet) for comments or advice.
Many other social media tools also can guide reporters. The Ebyline Blog, for instance, has posted "The Writer's Guide to Pinterest."
The "deep Web" or "invisible Web": dynamic databases and government records
The "deep Web" refers to databases that Google doesn't penetrate. Some of these databases are proprietary -- they're available only by subscription. (Example: Lexis-Nexis and Dow Jones Factiva -- storehouses of full-page articles from newspapers, magazines and many other sources. For journalists, those services are crucial for finding clips beyond what you can get from Google or Google News. The clips will contain background information and names of possible sources. You can access these full-text services through VCU Libraries.)
The "deep Web" includes government databases that are continuously updated. A good example is the Virginia court records:
Suppose I'm trying to find whether a political candidate been charged with a crime in Circuit Court in the city of Richmond. Go to the URL above and click on "Case Status and Information" > "Circuit Court" > "Case Information". Enter the Richmond City Circuit Court. Then search for the person's name.
The "deep Web" holds many times more data than the "regular" Web. The ResourceShelf ResourceBlog can help you learn about "deep Web" sites. Some tools, such as BizNar, will search several "deep Web" sites simultaneously.
But as a general rule, you must find the "deep Web" sites associated with your areas of journalistic focus and explore them one by one, to understand how they work. For many "deep Web" sites, the interface is Google-like and simple; for others, it is clunky and complicated.
Just as you bookmark a handful of regular websites to check, you should bookmark "deep Web" sites that merit frequent visits. Here are some "deep Web" resources to explore:
U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission -- Corporate filings, such as a company's annual report (a form called a 10-K) and its proxy statement (DEF-14A), which shows how much each company official gets paid
Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) -- Federal court records. You need to register, and give a credit card in case you download documents.
Legislative Information System -- Legislation and other records for the Virginia General Assembly
Local (Richmond & VCU)