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Home > Publications > Quill > Use the Internet effectively to find data


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Thursday, May 1, 2008
Use the Internet effectively to find data

Jim Lee

The Internet allows reporters to get specialized information on just about any topic with a few simple mouse clicks. But if your Internet searches don’t go beyond typing a few keywords into Google or visiting a select group of previously bookmarked pages, you, and your readers, are probably missing out.

Some tips on maximizing Internet searches:

Get familiar with sites germane to your beat

If you cover education, make sure you are familiar with your state board of education Web site. If you cover courts and cops, find out what court information is online in your state and refer to it often. If you cover banking, sign up for and bookmark EDGAR Online for information on SEC filings, PIOs and business info.

Professional organizations associated with your beat

Frequent the local, state and national Chamber of Commerce Web sites if you’re a business reporter, the National Association of Child Care Workers if you’re a reporter covering social or family issues, or local, state or national PTA organizations if you’re an education writer. When visiting these sites, take a little extra time to explore any “related sites” links for additional sources. In short, find the places, groups and organizations where the people you cover go when they want information.

Your own professional groups

Bookmark www.spj.org for all sorts of valuable reporting resources. Other sites include the Society of Environmental Journalists, National Education Writers Association Investigative Reporters and Editors. They provide good information on trends, hot topics and what others are writing about, as well as links to where information can be found online.

Hyper-local sites

On local issues, beyond municipal or government sites, look for community interest sites. In recent years, activists have expanded their presence online. These grass-roots organizations use Web pages to get information out about their cause and raise awareness. In interviewing people involved in a community issue, always ask if they or their group has a Web site.

Social networking sites

Don’t forget sites such as MySpace or YouTube, which can provide good story ideas as well as local voices for your stories.

Once you have established a solid base of Web pages that you’ve bookmarked, spend some time browsing them to see how much information is there. Look for references to reports or studies, and make it a point to follow links to that information or the group or agency that put the information together. When visiting sites, sign up for RSS feeds, e-mail alert services or e-newsletters where they are available.

Pay particular attention to online databases. The Maryland Health Care Commission, for instance, ranks hospitals in various types of care and allows people to see how their local facility stacks up to others across the state.

Even when there is no database online, other information could lead to one. The Department of Agriculture in Maryland, for instance, has a division responsible for making sure gas pumps are calibrated accurately. While the database of inspections isn’t online, a report on the latest inspections is, and a simple Public Information Act Request for the latest inspection reports in your area could lead to a good story on which pumps are most accurate and which may be bilking customers.

Digging deeper into searches and tracing back to original documents or reports also helps you identify potential problems, such as finding a study indicating fast food is healthy only to later discover that it was paid for by the fast-food industry.

We all learned in Journalism 101 not to take a single source’s word when writing a story. The same applies to information gathered from the Internet. And once you have traced the information to the original source, make sure you include an info box or links with your story that allow your readers to do the same.

The Internet is a wealth of information, and not all of it is accurate. You can help readers or visitors to your Web site by showing them where you got your information and by pointing them back to the original sources that provided the history and context for your story.

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