Timeless Research tips for Journalists
The world is more complex than it has ever been, with the truth under seemingly constant threat. As a journalist, it’s up to you to help the public make sense of it all. Your ability to make that happen starts with your research strategy.
For journalists, research runs the gamut from sifting through social platforms for hot-takes and emerging stories to parsing large volumes of data. In 2022, a great story is the product of a skillful marriage of several different research skillsets. Here’s how to put them together.
Research tips for finding your story
Finding a story worth writing about starts with research. This can and should be an active process — no need to sit doodling at your desk until a great idea pops out at you.
Read widely around your specialty subject areas
Whatever your aim, all great research starts with avid reading.
Having strong and consistently growing knowledge of your specialty area will allow you to predict where stories might emerge in the future. For instance, a journalist reading widely around financial practices and the sub-prime mortgages phenomenon pre-2008 would have been in a great position to anticipate a coming crash (as Jesse Colombo actually did).
Likewise, the poor handling of the COVID pandemic wouldn’t have been much of a surprise for an intrepid journalist specializing in medicine or politics. Wide reading around the defunding of pandemic task forces pre-COVID would have positioned that journalist to anticipate the poor crisis response seen in many nations.
Social media is an asset for journalists but must be used wisely
Journalists use social media as a source and research tool more and more frequently nowadays. It’s true that social media can be helpful for journalists, but it must be used with caution.
Social media is most useful during the research phase for finding emerging stories. A journalist looking for a lead might find one from patrolling subreddits or searching for hashtags on Twitter. Platforms like Omnisci are great for understanding topics that are trending at different locations around the world. No need to rely solely on your own feed.
A good rule of thumb when incorporating social media into your research strategy is it should only be a jumping-off point for an article. Trending topics and subreddit content should not be used as substantiating sources or as indicative of what a wider group of people really think.
Research tips for building subject understanding
Once you’ve found your topic, you have a limited amount of time to build your knowledge around it. Your research focus should be on achieving a workable balance of speed and depth when building subject understanding.
Wikifishing is when you go to your subject’s Wikipedia page, skip the page itself, and go directly to the references. This is a straightforward way of finding credible, trusted sources of subject information. If you doubt how trustworthy a referenced page is, feed it through a tool like Ahrefs and evaluate its domain rating.
The great thing about Wikifishing is it’ll generally lead you to rich sources — scholarly articles, research papers, and books — about your subject. This saves you from having to base your understanding on other mediated content that covers your subject.
Use the CRAAP test
Sarah Blakeslee’s CRAAP test is a mainstay of journalistic research. It’s a heuristic for evaluating any given source for five factors:
- Currency: How recent was the source published?
- Relevance: How does the information improve the story?
- Authority: Does the source come from a trusted point of origin? Was it peer-reviewed or fact-checked? If it’s a webpage, does it link out to credible external sources in support of its points?
- Accuracy: Does the source hold up well when compared to other works on the same subject? Or, if this source asserts something different from the norm, is its methodology for reaching its conclusion sound?
- Purpose: Was the source written in the pursuit of knowledge, or was it written with the aim, explicit or otherwise, of supporting one side or another in an argument? Sources of the second kind will be more prone to inaccuracy and omission.
Research tips for mapping public opinion
The public is a great asset in your search for the truth, able to provide you with insights and opinions that’ll deepen your research and give life to your article. Reach out to them.
Use tools, old and new
Services like Streetbees or CitizenMe, more often used by private companies than by media publications, can be excellent for researching public opinion on almost any subject. Their techniques allow you to sample attitudes and behaviors relative to a variety of topics from around the world. A more old-fashioned approach for exploring public opinion is the use of focus groups, which can be particularly useful when gathering research for complex topics like politics.
Where possible, beat the trail
Not all of the tools in a digital journalist’s arsenal are shiny and new. If you can affordably get to a location where story-relevant developments are occurring, do so, and talk to people on the ground. This will give you a much greater scope to gather richer data for your research package as well as observe events for yourself.
Research tips for pulling data
If you’re not a trained data journalist, parsing data be an intimidating part of the research process — but it’s time to face your fears. No journalist can be truly prepared for the task of finding the truth in a digitized world without being able to take on the numbers.
Familiarize yourself with open-source data platforms
There’s a huge amount of free data out there, much of it ready-to-use with minimal additional analysis required. Government data portals and platforms like the Open Knowledge Foundation are stores of high-value information for journalists.
For matters of global interest, you can find more information on platforms like the Corruption Perception Index, Resourcecontracts.org, and OpenCorporates. Some of it is already presented in handy visualizations, while the rest will require some elementary scraping.
Scrape, query, and request
When you’re working with databases that don’t offer the option to export the data as a CSV file, perform a simple scrape using a tool like Chrome’s free scraping tool. It features a simple interface and allows you to extract thousands of records from any webpage for your research.
Calling an API is another great research technique for the tech-enabled journalist. API calls allow you to make use of other people’s existing databases and code to save you the trouble of having to build them yourself. They’re very handy if, for instance, you have data on all currently-serving U.S. senators but want to cross-reference them with voting data. You can find out how to call an API here, and you’ll find a list of useful APIs here. For those of you less comfortable with coding, don’t worry — there are other ways.
Remember, as a private citizen, you have the right to make a Freedom of Information Act request to acquire government agency records on any topic. You can get a lot of valuable information this way that wouldn’t be found through regular search strategies.
Keep things clean
Research isn’t just about finding and pulling data — it’s about storing it properly so you can find all of the information you need when you need it. Data improperly kept becomes an unmanageable mess quickly, so make sure you:
- Version your datasets: Save a new copy after each substantial modification of your datasets. Name the file with a progressive number. And back the version up somewhere.
- Prepare logbooks: These are shared documents in the cloud that keep track of every alteration or development step to or within the data.
- Use codebooks to keep track of what each variable pertains to and write down:
- The label of the variable (as used in the dataset-name of the column)
- The full name of the variable
- A description of what the variable captures
- The type of variable (e.g., ranking, quantity, partition, tag, text, etc.)
- Possible values (range or list)
- Missing data and other problems
Shining a light on the depths
Beating the pavement and talking to people are still invaluable techniques for any journalist — not enough journalists still do these things, in fact. But a journalist’s toolkit nowadays must consist of both qualitative and quantitative research techniques. Relying on idle social media chatter and not diving into numbers and obscure testimony is an assured recipe for articles that are shallow and uninformative.
For intrepid reporters, there are more means out there to create compelling stories than ever before. It all starts with research. If, by the end of your research phase, you feel less like a journo and more like some unholy Frankenstein monster — part librarian, part data scientist, part social media specialist — you’ve done your job perfectly.
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