Expert Commentary

Research tip sheets: Lessons on online search techniques, reading studies, understanding data and methods

Curriculum overview with links to a variety of materials that help foster basic research competencies.

online search (iStock)

Journalist’s Resource continues to build a library of research-related modular materials that instructors can bring into their classrooms. Our project encourages the development of a new core skill in journalism education, namely the habit of doing what scholars call a “literature review.” For a young journalist, this means not only pulling the previous “clips” on a subject, as reporters have traditionally done, but also efficiently reviewing relevant research studies. This can make for richer engagement with the experts themselves and speedier access to deeper knowledge.

Ultimately, such habits can produce journalism that is more informed and durable — that is less susceptible to critiques that it is mere “he said, she said” reporting, or deficient or biased in some way, whether intentionally or not. Such deeper stories constitute what we are calling “knowledge-based journalism.”

To achieve this competency, students not only need to develop strong information-seeking habits — a basic familiarity with databases, sophisticated Web search skills, etc. — but also a working fluency with key research terms and academic methods. This does not mean that they need high-level statistical training: They merely need a level of comfort, which can be developed with practice and experience.

Journalism can benefit from a closer relationship with social science, even while preserving its traditional values, approaches and techniques. In a digital world, where the pool of available knowledge is rising and competition for attention is increasing, moving in this direction will help the profession maintain its distinctive position in public discourse. (On a related note: Teachers looking to bring research-based insights into their classroom practice might benefit from this 2012 paper “How Social Science Research Can Improve Teaching.”)

For educators looking to deepen their understanding of how students perform research in the digital world, we recommend the following papers:

The following sequence of reference articles and tip sheets can lay the groundwork for developing the skills necessary to achieve a sufficient level of research fluency. We recommend that instructors assign and distribute these articles early on in a semester, and then implement and instill the “research review” habit as students produce stories:


Introduction to academic research and studies: How they work and why journalists should care
An overview of how scholarship operates and how it is produced, as well as an explanation of types of studies and tips for navigating this world.

Statistical terms used in research studies; a primer for journalists
A brief review of the key symbolic and mathematical concepts used in the analysis of data, with links to additional resources.

Interpreting academic studies: A primer for media
A short guide to the basic components of scientific studies and the various types of data analysis and interpretation commonly used.

Guide to academic methods, critical thinking and theory: Overview for journalists
A detailed look at modes of thought that go into generating hypotheses and theories in research. While the discourse is academic, it can help journalists reason through questions in a more rigorous way and read studies with a greater understanding of their design and goals. Students can profitably read just the first three sections.

Scholarly research strategy guide for journalists
A basic tip sheet presenting a step-by-step process for completing a thorough online search on a given topic.

Advanced Internet research techniques: Five key lessons from Google
Educational resources developed by Google, including tips relating to the use of a premier Internet research tool, Google Scholar.

How to find an expert and tap research networks on deadline: Tips on Google Scholar and Microsoft Academic Search
An explanation of the functions and interfaces of two major academic search engines.

Database checklist: Key academic research resources — both free and restricted
An examination of essential academic and information tools. The key idea of a “diversified” search is emphasized and familiarity with a variety of databases is encouraged.

Surveys and polling fundamentals: An overview for journalists
Public opinion data is a key source of knowledge for journalists. Many academic studies also rely on such data. This brief article looks at the structure of opinion research and its limitations.

Study-based story ideas for community journalists
This list of 10 story suggestions is meant to stand as an example of how the research world can be a generator of ideas that might be localized or that might inform a journalist’s coverage of an issue. Also see study-based story ideas for college campus reporting.

Using media/communications research in the journalism classroom
This lesson, which explores how communications research can inform the practice of journalism, focuses on a 2012 study in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly analyzing different news storytelling approaches and their effects on readers. Provided are two sample stories from the study experiment for students to read and assess.

Comparing conflicting findings and navigating contested research
This roundup of research on the effects of violent video games provides a concrete basis for a discussion about how to weigh evidence and compare studies on a given question, and how to spot differences in framing and approach.


Keywords: training, search techniques, journalism instruction

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