Using the Internet as a Reporting Tool for Business Journalism

By Ira Chinoy

Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland

© Ira Chinoy

 

Two things are certain when thinking about the Internet as a tool for business journalists. One is that it is indispensable. The other is that it is, to say the least, challenging.  There is no single magical principle or method of discovery that will lead you every time to the most relevant material precisely when you need it.  That would be like batting 1.000.  But I would like to offer up 10 ideas to keep in mind when you approach the Internet as a source of information in your research.  These themes also inform the selection of Web sites I have put together for SABEW members – at http://jclass.umd.edu/cars/Special/SABEW2004.htm   to get you thinking about the possibilities the Internet holds for your reporting. 

 

1. Don’t wait until you need it.  Athletes and musicians certainly have to do a lot of practicing before they perform, and the best searchers are no different.  They are constantly exercising their curiosity to learn about relevant resources.  If you spend a little time each week exploring Web sites that might be of use to you, you will be that much more prepared when you are facing a deadline.  Google and Yahoo are fine tools and good places to start, but there is a whole lot more out there that you will miss if those are the only tools you use.

2. Don’t isolate yourself:  get help and share ideas.  I’m not sure there are very many true experts on searching the Web, precisely because it is growing and changing all the time.  But there are almost always people who know something you don’t who could be of help.  Identify people inside and outside your news organization to whom you can turn when you are trying to come up with a research strategy.  These might be the people who work in your news library, if your organization has one, or fellow reporters and editors.  And don’t be afraid to reach out to people at places that serve as hubs of information for journalists, some of which are listed on the Web page I mentioned above.  You could also think about instituting a way of sharing information about Web resources with colleagues where you work – periodic brown-bag lunches or an intranet site where you can post descriptions of valuable sites and strategies.

3. Find out whether you have access to fee-based sites.  There are some terrific resources on the Internet that are not free but contain invaluable databases.  LexisNexis is one example, with its billions of archived documents from thousands of commercial and government publications.  You cannot use it directly without a subscription, so find out whether your news organization already pays for access.  Find out, too, whether there are fee-based databases accessible at local libraries and whether the public is allowed access – or whether you can arrange special research access – to online resources at colleges and universities in your area.

4. Ask yourself:  “Who would have reason to collect the type of information I am seeking?”  Here’s an example:  police investigators aren’t the only experts on arson.  The insurance industry has a lot at stake when it comes to arson and have a wealth of expertise, as well.  Are you trying to get background material for someone you are profiling or planning to interview? The people who do “skip tracing” for a living – tracking down people who have skipped out on a debt or jumped bail – also need to find out as much as they can about individuals, and there are Web sites that cater to them.  “Head hunters” – the people who do executive recruiting – and the corporate offices that find and vet candidates for executive positions also have Web sites they use, and you may learn something from these sites.

5. Look for ways to go beyond anecdotes and report on systemic issues.  An incident you are researching may be just that – a single outlier or anomaly – or it may indicate a systemic flaw of some sort, as in the operations of an agency that regulaes certain business or professional practices. An increasing number of government entities have a Web presence that provide an overview of what they do, such as annual reports or descriptions of their mission. In addition, there are web sites at the national, state and local levels that provide searchable versions of the laws and regulations that establish what government agencies are supposed to be doing – and what the entities they regulate are supposed to be doing.  And agencies that regulate business often have entities watching over them, such as inspectors general or the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigatory arm of Congress.

6. Look for ways of making comparisons. In addition to comparing what you are finding in your reporting to how things are supposed to work as spelled out in laws and regulations,  there are many web sites with searchable databases and statistical summaries that can provide benchmarks for comparisons.  The U.S. Census Web site is one prime example, allowing you to compare demographic and business trends in your community or state to what is going on in other places and to national trends and averages.

7. Make verification a reflexive activity.  This means two things.  One is seeking out verification or confirmation of what you are finding on any one Web site.  The other is to think of the Web as a tool for verifying – or checking the truthfulness – of what you are hearing from your interview subjects or the public officials you cover. I urge my students to keep three things in mind when approaching news sources for information, and the same principles apply when thinking about information on the Internet:  what does the source know, how do the source know it, and can you get a look at the data the source is using as the basis for claims or analyses.  One bonus of the effort to verify is that you will have a richer base of material, and you are more likely to stumble across fresh leads and potential stories to pursue.

8. Expect the unexpected.  We are, after all, in the news business.  The value of the content we provide theoretically rises with the degree to which it surprises the reader or viewer. But we may find it difficult to see and recognize that which diverges in fundamental ways from our expectations.  So while you need to have a healthy skepticism about what you find on the Web, especially if it seems odd, do not automatically dismiss these quirky items as unlikely to be true and therefore not worth pursuing.

9. Keep the Web in context:  it is just one of many tools you should consider using in your reporting.  Internet research is not a substitute for talking to people and venturing outside the office in your reporting.  Integrate the Web with the rest of your reporting – as a means of finding leads for people to interview or places to go, for example.

10. Don’t just think of the Internet as a tool.  The Web itself is also a story. It may even turn out to be the biggest business story or the cultural story of our era.  The significance of the Internet may develop in unexpected and even paradoxical directions. There is no way to know this now, of course.  So keep an open mind as you traverse the Web.  Even if a new activity on the Internet looks fringe or a new tool looks clunky, innovations that later become commonplace often seem this way at first.  Have some historical perspective.  In the decades after moveable type appeared in Europe in the mid-15th century, the revolution in printing looked like something that religious leaders would use to consolidate their power rather than something that would spread ideas challenging their authority.  At least one historian has pointed out that this new phenomenon of printing, beyond merely spreading ideas, made possible a whole new activity for people who did not previously have easy access to books – the ability to compare bits of information and ideas from disparate sources.  So keep your eyes open for ways in which the Web is acting as an agent both of continuity or change, not just in business practices, but in the structure of our very relationship with information.  You might come up with some great stories.