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Getting Started, Staying Current

by Chip Berlet, Holly Sklar, and Abby Scher - Z Media Institute

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Do not assume that a topic new to you is new to the planet. Reading-in to a topic or field means becoming familiar with the historical and contemporary record (e.g., globalization is rooted in colonialism and neocolonialism; business nationalist rightwingers railed against transnational corporations and international institutions long before Pat Buchanan and WTO).

Whenever possible, go to primary sources. Don’t assume newspaper accounts (though important for keeping current and locating information and sources) accurately represent how you would summarize or characterize a report issued by a nonprofit or government agency or any other group. Do not assume newspaper quotes and statistics are always accurate.

Putting a story in context is important. The more you know the topic or field, the better will be your reporting, analysis and ability to probe new directions. There is an overabundance of descriptive and anecdotal writing and a scarcity of research-based analysis. Knowledge of history, factual information about current events, and informed analysis about trends empower people working to protect and strengthen democracy and human rights. But remember good research does not follow a straight line. You will probably find yourself jumping around and pulling together eclectic sources to get where you want to go.

The Internet allows us to research and communicate as never before. Stay alert for new and better online sources. Have high standards. The Internet is full of great information--and lots of misinformation. The Internet also makes it both easier and more necessary to stay up to date. You can’t grab a book off your shelf and cite out-of-date data. Researchers and reporters are expected to cite the latest available information (which typically ranges from just released today to quarterly reports to last year’s complete annual information to the latest available study on more specialized subjects).

Conduct a thorough literature search on-line and/or in a decent library. Consult specialized bibliographies, databases, transcription services, archives, libraries, Alternative Press Index, social science abstracts, “Who’s Who” references, etc. Don’t forget trade publications, professional or academic journals and annual reports. Check for Ph.D. dissertations available through inter-library loan. Some libraries offer access to full-text archives of articles from periodicals and newspapers as well as government document sections for print material. Through Powells, Amazon and other online booksellers you can find books that were long hard to find.

Wikipedia can be a great place to look for information, but since anyone can edit it at any time, consider it a starting point for further research.

Use good and efficient web search engines. Google is so ubiquitous that “to Google” has become part of the language. You can also try AlltheWeb, AltaVista, LookSmart, Yahoo, Hotbot, Inktomi, and Teoma. Many offer advanced search options. Some search engines collect data from other search engines: for example, Dogpile, Clusty, and Metacrawler.. To learn more about how search engines work, visit Search Engine Watch: <http://searchenginewatch.com>; although the most detailed information requires a membership.
Consider posting research questions on a Usenet news conference, topical email listserver, or web-page discussion. Explore alternative online communities such as IGC/Peacenet, Znet, Handsnet (human services).

Check out mainstream and alternative web sites for news, current affairs and policy issues, e.g., CNN, <http://www.commondreams.org>, <http://www.movingideas.org>, <http://www.oneworld.net>, <http://www.alternet.org>, <http://www.tompaine.com>, <http://www.inequality.org>, and Z Magazine/ZNET http://www.zmag.org/.

For news about the media, see <http://www.mediachannel.org>, as well as the web sites of media periodicals and organizations.

Newspapers, magazines, press releases, transcripts and other sources are archived and searchable online through many services including Questia, Factiva/Dow Jones, HighBeam (formerly Electric Library), Northern Light (now business-oriented), and IngentaConnect (formerly UnCover). Lexis-Nexis, the most extensive electronic archive for newspapers, magazines, company reports, etc., offers several flat-fee subscriptions and special searches, which some may find affordable. Newslibrary offers archival searches of over 700 periodicals.

In addition, most newspapers and magazines have online editions, many of which have searchable archives either on their own server or through one of the archive services listed above. The New York Times archive is now online for a fee. The Wall Street Journal only distributes its stories via its online archive, by online subscription, but this also gives you access to thousands of other publications in the Factiva Library. Public libraries sometimes maintain clipping files on local issues and companies.

Consider an electronic clipping service such as those provided by many Internet portals The Data Center (Oakland, CA) provides fee-based online searching services, and has extensive research files. The have a special web guide on how to do research: <http://www.datacenter.org/research/res_tool.htm>.


The Reporter’s Handbook is a handy source used by investigative journalists.

Specialized web sites for journalists, with lots of hotlinks, include:
Investigative Reporters & Editors
National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting
Columbia Journalism Review
American Journalism Review
Institute for Alternative Journalism (Alternet)
The Poynter Institute for Media Studies/Computer Assisted Reporting
Julian Sher’s JournalismNet <http://www.journalismnet.com> has an extensive database for Canada in both English and French, as well as links to European sites.


Publicly traded companies are required by law to disclose top salaries and other financial information. Lots of good corporate information is available online through the Securities and Exchange Commission <http://www.sec.gov/edgarhp.htm>, Lexis-Nexis, Bloomberg, Powerize.com, business magazine websites (e.g., Business Week, Fortune, Forbes), sites which combine free and fee material such as Dow Jones, Morningstar, Dun & Bradstreet, Standard & Poor’s, Hoover’s, Valueline, as well as through online brokerages such as ETRADE and the personal finance sites within many internet providers and portals such as AOL, MSN and Yahoo. Remember information directly disclosed by a company may not be complete or absolutely accurate. Use it to gather other information when possible. Research “interlocking directorates” ---- an executive’s ties to other companies – using Dun & Bradstreet’s “Million Dollar Disc Plus.”


Government agencies such as the Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Centers for Disease Control, Federal Elections Commission, etc. have good web sites providing current and historical data. To locate information in varied agencies try FedStats.gov. For Congress and other legislative information search Thomas (as in Thomas Jefferson) <http://thomas.loc.gov/>.The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press publishes federal and state-by-state guides to public records available under freedom of information act laws: <www.rcfp.org>; and has many other useful resources for reporters.


Become familiar with key general references and sources of information, e.g. the U.S. Statistical Abstract, General Accounting Office studies, Census Bureau reports, National Journal’s Almanac of American Politics, Economic Policy Institute’s The State of Working America and other general references. Almanacs and other general references are now available on-line and on CD-ROM. Microsoft Bookshelf CD-ROM is very handy.


Key international sources include the United Nations Development Program Human Development Report, UNICEF State of the World’s Children, International Labor Organization, etc.
Get on press lists for key organizations, government agencies, etc. Some organizations, e.g., Poverty & Race Research Action Council (Washington, DC), publish extensive resource lists in their newsletters.
Organizations with research resources typically have extensive web sites. Some, like the Economic Policy Institute’s <http://www.epinet.org > and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities <http://www.cbpp.org> are very well organized and up-to-date.

Many research and activist organizations are linked through large web sites such as:
Moving Ideas (Electronic Policy Network) at <http://www.movingideas.org>
Common Dreams <http://www.commondreams.org>.
Corporate Watch site <http://www.corpwatch.org>
Political Research Associate’s <http://www.publiceye.org>


A key conservative right web site is the Heritage Foundation’s <http://www.townhall.com>, which links to many other sites.


Assume that somewhere is a person who has spent their entire adult life researching the exact subject about which you are writing; even if it is sectarian splits in WWII Ukrainian nationalist movements, (To fact-check a story one PRA researcher found this person in Canada). Find that person and ask for advice or quotes. Use them as a guide to important sources.


Assume there is an organization that studies the topic you are researching and contact them. Get to know the key organizations in your field and stay current with their work. To take just a sample:

Applied Research Center
Campaign Finance Information Center
Center for Defense Information
Center for Democratic Renewal
Center for Responsive Politics
Center for New Community
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
Children’s Defense Fund
Citizens for Tax Justice
Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity
Data Center
Economic Policy Institute
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
Institute for Defense & Disarmament Studies
Institute for Policy Studies
Institute for Women’s Policy Research
National Council for Research on Women
National Gay & Lesbian Task Force & Policy Institute
National Security Archives
Political Research Associates
Public Campaign
Sentencing Project
United for a Fair Economy
Urban Institute

 

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