Knowing how to conduct deeper research efficiently and effectively is a critical skill for journalists — especially in the information age. It is, like other facets of the profession such as interviewing, a matter of practice and establishing good habits. And once you find a successful routine for information-gathering, it will pay dividends time and again.
Journalists need to be able to do many kinds of research. This article focuses on creating a research strategy that will help you find academic studies and related scholarly information. These sources can, among other things, give your stories extra authority and depth — and thereby distinguish your work. You can see examples of such studies — and find many relevant ones for your stories — by searching the Journalist’s Resource database. But that is just a representative sample of what exists in the research world.
The first step is to create a plan for seeking the information you need. This requires you to take time initially and to proceed with care, but it will ultimately pay off in better results. The research strategy covered in this article involves the following steps:
- Get organized
- Articulate your topic
- Locate background information
- Identify your information needs
- List keywords and concepts for search engines and databases
- Consider the scope of your topic
- Conduct your searches
- Evaluate the information sources you found
- Analyze and adjust your research strategy
Being organized is an essential part of effective research strategy. You should create a record of your strategy and your searches. This will prevent you from repeating searches in the same resources and from continuing to use ineffective terms. It will also help you assess the success or failure of your research strategy as you go through the process. You also may want to consider tracking and organizing citations and links in bibliographic software such as Zotero. (See this helpful resource guide about using Zotero.)
Articulate your topic
Next, write out your topic in a clear and concise manner. Good research starts with a specific focus.
For example, let’s say you are writing a story about the long-range health effects of the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant based on a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives titled, “The Chernobyl Accident 20 Years On: An Assessment of the Health Consequences and the International Response.” (The study is summarized in Journalist’s Resource here.)
A statement of your topic might be, “Twenty years after the Chernobyl disaster, scientists are still learning the affects of the accident on the health of those who lived in the surrounding area and their descendants.”
Locate background information
If you have a good understanding of the Chernobyl disaster, proceed to the next step,
“Identify the information you need.” If not, it’s time to gather background information. This will supply you with the whos and the whens of the topic. It will also provide you with a broader context as well as the important terminology.
Excellent sources of background information are subject-specific encyclopedias and dictionaries, books, and scholarly articles, and organizations’ websites. You should always consult more than one source so you can compare for accuracy and bias.
For your story about Chernobyl, you might want to consult some of the following sources:
- Frequently Asked Chernobyl Questions, International Atomic Agency
- Chernobyl Accident 1986, World Nuclear Association
- Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, New York Academy of Sciences, 2009.
- “Chernobyl Disaster,” Encyclopedia Britannica, last updated 2013.
Identify the information you need
What information do you need to write your story? One way to determine this is to turn your overall topic into a list of questions to be answered. This will help you identify the type and level of information you need. Some possible questions on consequences of the Chernobyl accident are:
- What are the proven health effects?
- What are some theorized health effects?
- Is there controversy about any of these studies?
- What geographic area is being studied?
- What are the demographic characteristics of the population being studied?
- Was there anything that could have been done at the time to mitigate these effects?
Looking at these questions, it appears that scientific studies and scholarly articles about those studies, demographic data, disaster response analysis, and government documents and publications from the Soviet Union and Ukraine would be needed.
List keywords and concepts for search engines and databases
Now you need to determine what words you will use to enter in the search boxes within resources. One way to begin is to extract the most important words and phrases from the questions produced in the previous step. Next, think about alternative words and phrases that you might use. Always keep in mind that different people may write or talk about the same topic in different ways. Important concepts can referred to differently or be spelled differently depending on country of origin or field of study.
For the Chernobyl health story, some search keyword options are: “Chernobyl,” “Chornobyl”; “disaster,” “catastrophe,” “explosion”; “health,” “disease,” “illness,” “medical conditions”; “genetic mutation,” “gene mutation,” “germ-line mutation,” “hereditary disease.” Used in different combinations, these can unearth a wide variety of resources.
Consider the scope of your topic
Next you should identify the scope of your topic and any limitations it puts on your searches. Some examples of limitations are language, publication date, and publication type. Every database and search engine will have its own rules so you may need to click on an advanced search option in order to input these limitations.
Conduct your searches
It is finally time to start looking for information but identifying which resources to use is not always easy to do. First, if you are part of an organization, find out what, if any, resources you have access to through a subscription. Examples of subscription resources are LexisNexis and JSTOR. If your organization does not provide subscription resources, find out if you can get access to these sources through your local library. Should you not have access to any subscription resources appropriate for your topic, look at some of the many useful free resources on the internet.
Here are some examples of sources for free information:
- PLoS, Public Library of Science
- Google Scholar
- SSRN, Social Science Research Network
- FDsys, U.S. Government documents and publications
- World Development Indicators, World Bank
- Pubmed, service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine
More quality sites, and search tips, are here among the other research articles at Journalist’s Resource.
Evaluate the information sources you found
As you only want information from the most reliable and suitable sources, you should always evaluate your results. In doing this, you can apply journalism’s Five W’s (and One H):
- Who: Who is the author and what are his/her credentials in this topic?
- What: Is the material primary or secondary in nature?
- Where: Is the publisher or organization behind the source considered reputable? Does the website appear legitimate?
- When: Is the source current or does it cover the right time period for your topic?
- Why: Is the opinion or bias of the author apparent and can it be taken into account?
- How: Is the source written at the right level for your needs? Is the research well-documented?
Analyze and adjust your research strategy
Were you able to locate the information you needed? If not, now it is time to analyze why that happened. Perhaps there are better resources or different keywords and concepts you could have tried. Additional background information might supply you with other terminology to use. It is also possible that the information you need is just not available in the way you need it and it may be necessary to consult others for assistance like an expert in the topic or a professional librarian.
Keely Wilczek is a research librarian at the Harvard Kennedy School. Tags: training