The Complete Writer
Writing Nonfiction: Magazines, Newspapers, Books, Blogs
Chapter 16. Journalistic Research
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The first step in research is at once the easiest and the most difficult: Think.
Any information-gathering project, whether it’s heavy on interviews, Google, and personal observation or whether it requires lots of legwork in public records, archives, and libraries, starts with a systematic, organized approach. Before you begin, you should consider where you will find your material and how you will dig it out.
The basic steps to journalistic research are three: first, gain a broad overview of the subject; second, learn about it in some depth, and third, find and interview knowledgeable people.
Before we begin discussing these techniques, here’s a caveat: this chapter reviews important, easily accessible reference works and information sources suitable for most feature-writing. Before you undertake an investigative article, though, you should take a course in investigative journalism and work on-staff with an experienced editor. Investigative reporting is not for amateurs.
Seasoned reporters will tell you the key to a successful interview is simple: do your homework first. Learn enough about your assignment to speak intelligently with your sources. Nothing turns an interviewee off faster than a writer’s total ignorance of the subject.
Thus, while the interview is the journalist’s most important research tool, it comes last. It’s the culmination of your research, undertaken only after considerable reading, legwork, and thought.
Be aware, by the way, that researchers divide sources into two broad types: primary and secondary. A primary source is a person who has direct knowledge of an event. Among primary sources are witnesses whom you might interview, letters or reports by people who were on the scene, and depositions or court testimony of witnesses. A secondary source is a report from someone who knows about the subject or event but did not actually witness it. Take, for example, an airplane crash. Primary sources are the survivors, the people who saw the crash, and data from the plane’s black box. Secondary sources are Federal Aviation Authority reports; comments from other aviation experts; writing about air safety in general; interviews with friends and relatives of the victims; and newspaper, television, and magazine accounts.
Does this mean that any one-on-one interview is a primary source? No! You could, for example, talk to someone who speaks from hearsay. If the individual was not at an event, did not witness it firsthand, then he or she is not a primary source. But if the person is an expert on a subject—say, a scientist explaining her experiments in killer bee biology—then she is a primary source. So, among interviewees, primary sources include witnesses, participants, and experts directly involved in an action or study. Secondary sources include gossips, people who know someone who was involved in the action, and experts speaking in general about other experts’ findings.
Beginners sometimes jump to the conclusion that anything printed is a secondary source. Again, the distinction depends on whether its writer is “on the scene” of the subject at hand. For example, an article on killer bees written by our entomologist and based on her research would be a primary source. A story written by a reporter, or even by an expert whose article is a reprise of other people’s research, would be a secondary source. Diaries, letters, and journals are largely primary sources. An autobiography is a primary source. A witness’s statement is a primary source; a report by a police officer who came upon an accident minutes after it occurred may contain primary and secondary material.
Often, you must weigh the credibility of your sources. Let’s say you need to understand the latest developments in superconductivity. That has something to do with physics. But because it is a specialized and fast-changing subject, just any physicist won’t do. You must be sure your physicist has real expertise about your subject.
How do you find out? First, ask! What is your specialty? What expertise do you have about this specific topic? What have you published about it, and where? Then verify the person’s credentials with colleagues: ask other physicists about his or her reputation. Remember, too, that most people have some ax to grind: try to identify your expert’s biases and keep them in mind as you consider what you hear.
Given a project about which you know little or nothing, you should first get the answers to a few key questions:
- Who knows about this subject and cares enough to publish an article or book about it?
- Where can I find these articles or books?
- Will this story have a local or a national slant, and how will that affect my choice of sources?
The answer to this question may be less obvious than it seems. Suppose, for example, you’re asked to write a story about senior citizens who keep their jobs past the traditional retirement age. Your editor wants you to focus on two or three successful individuals, weaving in lots of solid information about who hires them and why; why seniors continue to work; the issue’s political aspects; and the advantages and disadvantages to the worker, the employer, and the larger society.
At the start, all you know about the subject comes from a McDonald’s television ad highlighting the company’s experiment with senior workers. You make a note to call someone at McDonald’s national headquarters, whose telephone number you may obtain from the company’s webpage.
First, though, you consider which organizations might be involved with the subject. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) comes immediately to mind. This group concerns itself with anything that affects senior citizens economically. You hazard a guess that something on older workers has already appeared in the AARP Magazine.
Your state has a governor’s commission on aging: this will be a good source of local information. The National Council on Aging is another likely source, as is the Service Corps of Retired Executives, which has both national and local agencies. Naturally, you contact the Social Security Administration’s Press Office.
Come to think about it, you recall legislation eliminating the mandatory retirement age. This means various government agencies have heard testimony on the question of whether older people should be permitted to continue working indefinitely. It also means the subject has some “hot” topics that probably have attracted academic sociologists and psychologists. And it means that at some point the subject surely has been in the news.
If the government started telling business it can’t force workers to retire, then various industries searched out ways to respond. Business and trade publications must have reported on their solutions.
Older workers may have higher health-care costs. This means group insurance providers will have a vested interest in your subject. You make a note to call several major insurers.
Speaking of health, folk wisdom tells you that people who stay active as they age stay healthier and happier. You wonder if that’s so, and if it is, what are the implication for America’s aging Baby Boomers, for industry, and for our society in general. This is the subject matter of sociology and psychology.
Now you have a good idea of where to begin:
- With national newspapers, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, or The Christian Science Monitor
- With special-interest consumer magazines targeted at older readers
- With business and trade publications
- With government publications
- With sociological or psychological journals
These are arranged in order of descending accessibility and ascending difficulty. To gain the quick overview you need before you begin speaking with sources, start with the first two or three sources. More detailed familiarity will come from professional journals and congressional testimony. For a light story, you may not have to dig that deep. If you’re doing a long, serious piece of a book, you’ll go to all these sources and more.
Later—after you’ve done your preliminary reading—you’ll search out:
- Executives or public relations representatives for companies that hire older workers, who may refer you to . . .
- Workers willing to let you highlight their stories
- Employment counselors experienced with older workers
- Spokespersons for senior citizens’ groups, such as AARP
- Other experts, academic, governmental, and other
- Spokespersons for insurance carriers, if you decide that aspect is relevant to your story
Finding Overview Articles
Magazine, newspaper, and journal articles are easily accessible through Google. Choose your keywords carefully, keeping in mind Boolean structure (“x and y” vs. “x or y” or “x not y”). Try to think from general to specific. Break the subject into several main concepts, and then come up with some synonyms for each. For example, “old” means “aged”; “worker” can mean “employee.”
For the story on working senior citizens, then, you might come up with these key words:
- Age discrimination
- Aged, employment of
- Employees, aged
- Employees, senior
- Employees, older
- Older workers
- Senior citizens and work
- Senior citizens and employment
- Working in retirement
- Mandatory retirement
A search of these keywords will bring up a bonanza of general-information articles, websites, and blog posts. Use some discrimination: try to identify sites and publications that are well established and likely to be fact-checked.
These are always good, Google notwithstanding. Take yourself to a decent library: a city, college, or university institution. Don’t be shy about talking to the librarian: helping the customer is their job.
Use the library’s databases to seek out your keywords, those that you’ve brought with you and any suggested by the librarian.
Again, look for books by experts. Those published by university presses are likely to be reliable, as are some that are published through mainline, traditional publishers. Look at the sources; check for endnotes or footnotes, and examine these carefully for credibility.
Scientific and Scholarly Research
Back to Google. You can cut out most but not all of the woo-woo that comes up in a Google search by using Google Scholar: https://scholar.google.com/
This search engine focuses, mostly, on articles in academic journals. Enter your search terms here and you’ll call up a number of scholarly articles in various relevant disciplines. The “older workers” keyword search, for example brings up things like “Job Loss and Employment Patterns of Older Workers,” by Sewin Chan and Ann Huff Stevens, in the Journal of Labor Economics.
Three problems with Google Scholar:
First, indexed articles tend to be out of date. The Chan and Stevens study, for example, is dated 2001.
Second, the most interesting studies tend to be stashed behind paywalls. This effectively makes them inaccessible for anyone who has to do a lot of research.
And third, you would be surprised how many phony academic journals are out there: fake studies are published all the time by ersatz or dishonest “scholars” in fake journals. These are known as “predatory journals.” Many of them are open-access, and the numbers of these frauds grow exponentially every year, increasing the chance that you’ll find yourself reading a phony study. You can find lists of these predatory publications in Scholarly Open Access’s List of Stand-Alone Journals and in Beall’s List of Predatory Publishers. It’s important to check on any title that is not obviously associated with a well-known publisher or university.
Important to know: The original Beall’s List was taken down when one of the crooks threatened its founder and operator with a lawsuit. A follower, however, downloaded contents that were current at the time and republished it in a wiki, adding more titles to the original and inviting readers to participate in the Wiki. Thus you need to go to the site published on Weebly to access this invaluable resource: https://beallslist.weebly.com/
For serious, in-depth research once you’re beyond the first-pass stage, you’re best served by visiting a university or at least a good community college library, where you can obtain articles free of charge.
How to Find Experts
A convenient place to start looking for experts on topics large and small is, of course, the Internet. If your subject involves a service or a product, some company no doubt provides it in your area. Do a search for the product or service and simply call the president of a local firm and ask for an interview.
If your subject is a social issue, some nonprofit undoubtedly addresses it. Nonprofit directors are often more open to talking with the press—they like getting free publicity—so, they can be very helpful.
You may have to get past a gatekeeper. Explain who you are, what you’re doing, and what publication you’re writing for. Usually you’ll be directed to someone who knows the subject. If not, move on to the next company.
Trade groups bring together business people with similar concerns. Google “trade associations” or “professional organizations” plus your topic’s key terms, and you’ll often find a lead to an interviewee.
City, county, and state commissions are good local sources of experts on public policy issues. Call the mayor’s, county supervisor’s, or governor’s office for leads.
Elected representatives keep abreast of public issues that affect their constituents. Google a state, city, or county plus terms such as “governor,” “representative,” “senator,” “commissioner,” “mayor,” “city council,” and the like.
State or local governments staff certain departments with experts. Fish and game departments, for example, often hire ecologists knowledgeable in regional conservation issues. The highway department may have an engineer who can talk about safe bridge construction. Experts on corrections, child abuse, the handicapped, real estate, the environment, communication, transportation, education, tourism . . . name a subject, and you’ll find someone who knows about it somewhere on the public payroll.
Chambers of Commerce collect information on tourism, economic development, and various civic projects. They often have in-house specialists or can refer you to private-sector experts. Here again, though: watch their comments for bias.
Universities and colleges are full of people who know what they’re talking about. On controversial topics, you may get a straighter story here—scientists and other academics are less likely to speak from pure self-interest than are politicians, public-relations reps, and bureaucrats. But bear in mind that academics have their own hobbyhorses, chief among them concerns about promotion and prestige.
Find academic experts by calling the college’s press bureau or public information office. Explain what your story is about, who you’re writing for, and what specific information you need.
One expert is an excellent source of another: each time you interview someone, ask for a reference to someone else who might help you.
Watch local newspapers and city magazines for clip-and-save listings of consumer advocates, elected representatives, points of interest, and the like. Local business journals often run annual lists of the areas biggest companies, complete with officers’ names and phone numbers. Keep a file of such material in print form if it’s unavailable on the Web. If it does appear on the Net, bookmark it.
How to Find Manuscript Sources
Much unpublished material rests in state and national archives, university libraries, and various private collections. Historical societies invariably keep documents, letters, and memoirs that cast light on modern topics.
The Library of Congress publishes the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, which is online and largely searchable. Tens of thousands of manuscript collections in hundreds of U.S. repositories are catalogued.
If you write regularly about your state or city, make it a point to familiarize yourself with the state’s official archives, local museums and historical societies, and university manuscript collections. Introduce yourself to the librarian, and if you don’t have a specific assignment, spend some time browsing.
Public records are by definition “public,” meaning you or anyone else can see them. Much of this material is online, though in some cases you may still have to go to a government office to view them. For a fee, you can do a pretty comprehensive online background check on just about anyone. Be careful, though: online results are not always accurate.
How Do You Know When You’ve Finished?
It is possible to get so involved with the research that you never get around to writing the piece. In reporterese jargon, this is called “over-researching the story.”
At some point, you’ll have to stop, if for no other reason than the editor’s snappish reminder that you have twenty minutes to deadline.
When people start repeating things you’ve heard elsewhere, you usually have done enough. When you’ve covered all the bases with an interviewee and he answers the final “is there more I should know?” question with “no,” you’re probably safe in quitting.
Think over your angle or focus and ask yourself, “Do I have enough material to cover this fairly? If the issue is controversial, have I investigated all sides? Do I know the most current developments?” If the answer is yes, you might as well stop.
You should finish with several times more material than you can use. Before you begin writing, you will sift and organize your notes, picking out the most germane points, while the rest serves as background that makes you an informed speaker.