Research Tips, JOUR E-137: Feature Writing, March 21, 2006

Research Tips
Jessica Baumgart
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
JOUR E-137 Feature Writing with John Lenger

Who am I?

  • I’m a news librarian
  • Have been one for almost 9 years
  • Currently at the Office of News and Public Affairs, aka Harvard News Office

Why am I presenting?

  • Know a lot about sources and finding information
  • To help you learn about resources
  • To share tips about effective information finding and evaluating

What challenges do you face when you’re doing research?

Finding Information

  • Think about the process before searching
  • What do you want to know?
  • Where could the answer be?
  • Break difficult or big pieces into smaller chunks
  • Find a good starting point
  • Go!

Potential Sources

  • This presentation includes these sources:
    • Public Records
    • People
    • Business Information
    • Libraries
    • Archives
    • Databases
    • the Internet

Public Records

Public Records

  • Government records available to everyone
  • Federal, state, and city government materials
  • Not always in places that are easy to access, like a centralized repository or the Internet

Massachusetts Public Records

What is a public record?

What records are public in Massachusetts?

  • “Every government record is now presumed to be public unless it is subject to an exemption.”
  • Supervisor of Public Records determines the public record status of any government record.
  • Court and legislative records are handled differently.

Public Records Examples

Where to get public records?

  • Some public records are easily available at city, state, and federal government offices
  • Databases like Autotrack, Accurint, LexisNexis, and GuideStar have some
  • Depository libraries
  • On the Internet
  • Freedom of Information Act requests

FOIA: Freedom of Information Act

  • Enacted in 1967 to ensure public’s access to government records
  • Text:
  • Applicable to the executive branch only
  • Does not apply to elected officials
  • Other laws provide access to records not covered by FOIA

FOIA Requests

For more about public records


People: For Your News Story

  • Interview someone to get quotes
  • Talk to someone close to the story
  • Use your own personal experience
  • Ask people for assistance along the way

Finding People

  • Experts list (many universities and similar organizations have these)
  • Reverse directory
  • Public records databases, like Autotrack
  • GeoURL ( or an Internet search
  • Professional networks

People: For Referrals

  • Consult a colleague
  • Join a discussion group or professional association
  • Get a mentor
  • Talk to a librarian or archivist

Information about People

  • Biographical resources
  • Contact information
  • University degrees
  • Employment history
  • Criminal records

Business Information

Business Information

  • Most businesses must file things with the government, some filings are public records
    • Tax forms
    • Environmental Protection Agency documents
  • Even non-profits must file certain forms
  • Some big businesses have press offices or libraries that can help you

Sources of Business Info

  • The corporation itself
  • Annual reports
  • External business sources, like The Wall Street Journal or business journals
  • GuideStar for nonprofits:

Libraries and Archives


  • Reference materials
  • Local history
  • Databases
  • Newspapers and Magazines
  • Librarians


  • Often have unique, primary source materials, like manuscripts, letters, personal papers, etc., and may have some objects
  • Access policies vary, but many are open to the public or accessible with a fee
  • Good for background, historical pieces, specific quotes, “lost” stories

Examples of Archives

  • Harvard University Archives
  • Some businesses and organizations have archives
  • News archives
  • Historical societies
  • Public libraries
  • ArchiveGrid:



  • Full-text databases can be good for background information, some quick facts, or to see what’s been written before
  • Don’t forget about electronic resources available through your library
  • Some access is remote, so you don’t have to be in the library to look something up

News Databases

More Databases

The Internet

The Internet

  • Great for certain things, bad for other things
  • Could be a good starting point as well as an ending point
  • Use your time efficiently: after 15 minutes of searching on your own with poor results, ask for assistance or try another source.

Cautions about Using the Internet

  • Just because it’s on the Internet does not mean it’s true or reliable
  • Anyone can have a site for anything
  • Disappearing information & Web sites
  • Beware of the Invisible Web
    • Just because something is on the Internet doesn’t mean a search engine can find it

Search Strategy

  • Ask “Should I really use the Internet for this information?”
  • Be direct. Looking for a definition? Go to a dictionary, not a search engine
  • Choose a starting point: specific site or search engine

Finding Specific Sources

  • Think about where you would go to find the information in print or from a person, then find an equivalent on the Internet.
  • Use a metasite or Internet directory: a place where someone has reviewed sites and posted the links

Examples of General Metasites

Journalism Metasites

Search Engines

  • Not all search engines are the same
  • Experiment with different search engines
  • Find one you like
  • Read the instructions and tips for using it
  • Learn how to use it well
  • Go beyond the first page of search results

Search Engine Tips

  • Break your search into concepts and words
  • Use multiple words and any unique or unusual words
  • Be as specific as possible
  • Use the search engine’s special features to limit your results
  • Think about specific sources and look for them instead of performing a general search

So you found some information.


How do you know it’s good?

Evaluating Information

Handy Acronym for Evaluation: PARCS

  • Provider
  • Authority
  • Reliability
  • Currency
  • Second Opinion

Provider and Authority

  • Provider
    • Who created and maintains the site? Who provides the information? What is the provider’s reputation? Is the site reviewed? Is there an editorial board? How does the provider’s identity influence the content?
  • Authority
    • How and where does this person or company get their information? What kind of credentials does the person or company have in this subject? How do others view this Web site? Are there any awards or certifications?

Reliability and Currency

  • Reliability
    • Is the information reliable? Does it make sense? Is there evidence, research, information, citations, etc. supporting the site? Is the information biased or flawed in any way?
  • Currency
    • Is the information up-to-date? Is there a date on the page? When was the last update? Is someone still working on the page? How does time effect the information?

Second Opinion

  • Second Opinion
    • If you aren’t sure the site or information is reliable, get another opinion. Look for another site or look for more evidence that this information is reliable.

(or scrap backwards)

  • Provider
  • Authority
  • Reliability
  • Currency
  • Second Opinion

Questionable Sources

  • Popular Web sites raising issues for journalists and librarians:
    • Wikipedia
    • Weblogs



  • Find people to interview
  • Article ideas
  • Learn what people want to know
  • Have your own
    • Some journalists use them to communicate to an audience
    • Internal weblogs can enable resource sharing

Weblogs for Journalists

More Weblogs for Journalists


  • This presentation discussed:
    • Public Records
    • People
    • Business Information
    • Databases
    • Libraries
    • Archives
    • the Internet


  • Who would like to share a topic?
    • What are some places to start?
    • What are some potential sources?

Thank You!

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