How to Research As a Journalist When the Internet Is Down
The internet is full of information, but sometimes what you are looking for requires a different approach. Whether you’re looking for public records, family trees, or really old archives, it’s time to dig offline like an old-school journalist. Here’s how to get started.
Make no mistake: the Internet is an explorer’s dream. Looking for whether you are scientific information , refute arguments or just trying to back up their own arguments , the network is vast and infinite. However, there are some things that haven’t gone digital yet.
Information you won’t find on the Internet
As we said, the Internet is a good starting point, especially if all you need is general, readily available knowledge of a topic. However, if you really want to learn more about a topic, such as local history, how your city was founded, who lived where you live today, or even what your community looked like ten years ago or even a century ago, you need to more detailed, specific resources.
Perhaps you are interested in genealogy and want to map your family tree. Maybe you have adopted and are looking for your biological parents. Maybe your family has immigrated from afar and you would like to know where they are from, or, like me, you have no idea where your family’s line runs past the murky historical waters of slavery. The internet can help, but it is by no means a complete resource.
These restrictions are not limited to things like history. You may be interested in civic engagement and want to collect data from government agencies on things like road tickets and red light cameras. Maybe you want to get the voting protocols and help people register to vote. Alternatively, perhaps you are just a property owner who is tired of high property taxes and wants to know why the city is constantly changing how it is calculated. Anyway, if you want to find out more, view the official records, or talk to people whose opinions matter, it’s time to expand your search. In times like these, we can learn from the experiences of pre-internet journalists and start checking primary sources, checking links, and talking to people. Put on a beginner hat.
Start at your local library and talk to a reference librarian
If we are avoiding the Internet – or rather, we have exhausted every decent source the Internet has for us – the next logical step is your library. If you have access to a university, presidential, or other major library, head there. University libraries often have access to huge databases and archives (like EBSCO or ProQuest , which are not available in small local libraries and should be used.
Before you start digging on your own, make an appointment with a reference librarian. After all, they are here to help and can get your research started right. Many will even do some of the work for you. If you want to dig into old periodicals or (God forbid) microfiches, they can help you sort through the stacks, pull out documents that most likely contain useful information, and help you combine all that information into something useful. …
Note that the reference librarian is not going to do your work for you. How far they are willing to go will depend on what you need, how busy they are, and the type of library they are running in. However, the first step is to communicate with the librarian.
Contact the Library of Congress and National Archives
When you’ve run out of resources at your local library, it’s time to expand. Contact the Library of Congress and National Archives . You do not need to be in Washington DC to use them effectively (although it does help).
The Library of Congress’s Ask a Librarian Service offers a wealth of information on its website, but can also help you connect with a reference librarian. Some help sections even have an online chat where you can refer your request to someone who can help. If not, you can always use their request form. You will receive a response within a few business days. If what you need is too much for email, you can call or send a paper letter asking for the information you need. The National Archives has branches across the country , and has online and remote research guides that can lead you to information you will never find on Google.
Remember that having LoC and archives ‘help tables’ online does not mean that all of their information is available online. Many of them are only available in person, or you can make copies and send them to you. Be sure to plan the time it takes to receive these documents. Also remember that in some cases reference material may only be transferred to other reference librarians, so you will need to obtain it through a library in your community.
Petition to government agencies or FOI law requests
Sometimes the best option is to reach out to people directly with the information you need and ask for a copy. This is easier in some cases than others. If you are interested in the foundation and history of your city, you can easily walk down to City Hall and ask your local archivist or city historian. If you are trying to track how many people die each year as a result of police-related shootings , you may find few people willing to help , and others either do not have the data to help or are not allowed to share. … This can make things very difficult, whether your interests are traditional or controversial.
In these situations, you have several options. First, you can always write and ask the government agency with the documents you are looking for. We’ve already discussed how to contact government agencies and officials , and some of these tricks work if you’re trying to dig up information. Make sure you are working with the correct agency that handles your requests. Formal letters (copies of which you should keep as the inevitable answer is “can you send it again”) sent by certified mail with acknowledgment of receipt will help you make sure that no one can say that they “did not receive” information that you sent. Calling in advance to make sure you’re submitting the correct forms and the correct information also helps, so you don’t waste your time writing and posting just to get a response that says, “Sorry, please submit Form A449- B. in triplicate to expedite your request. ” At worst, you can always go in person and talk to someone on your own.
Second, if you think it might be difficult to get the information you need, file a formal petition. This is where more specific letters come in, composed and sent to several officials. If you don’t get, for example, road traffic crash data from a bureaucrat at your local transportation office, petition the state transportation office and tell them about you. nothing came of it with the local office. If that doesn’t work, contact your department heads directly or contact your lawmakers who are on the transport committee or oversight board. Don’t be afraid to work your way up the chain.
Finally, there may come a time when you have to be serious, such as filing a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The Electronic Frontier Foundation has excellent guidance on this process , as do Public Citizen and theNational Security Archive . Of course, filing a FOIA request doesn’t mean it will be answered, but it does help and sets off a paper trail that you can track. In addition, you may have to do this even for records that should be easy to obtain, such as your own FBI or NSA file, which are usually available upon request directly from the FBI or NSA . Even so, overloaded resources and, in some cases, targeted obfuscation make it difficult to get even “open” records on time, so these formal tools can help. Again, feel free to back up your paperwork with phone calls or visits to your local office or branch office to see what you can find. Of course, be professional in all cases.
Go to the old school and do interviews
When talking about the importance of professional behavior, don’t underestimate how rewarding an old-fashioned good interview can be. Everyone’s busy, of course, so taking the time to speak with an official, meet with a government official, or even speak on the phone with someone you admire can be difficult. This does not mean that you should not try. One of the best tools in an old-school journalist’s arsenal was face-to-face interviews, and of course having smart, inspiring questions helped them answer the questions they (and everyone else) really had.
When you ask, be sure to explain what you want to discuss. Keep your question small and state exactly what you need . Let the other person know that you are free to choose when you can talk, and offer to meet with him, come to his office, or work with his busy schedule. After all, you are asking for a favor, so be prepared to be flexible. In short, give them the ability to easily say yes. Once you log in, you can ask all the questions you want to be answered.
When you’re done, thank the person for their time, especially if you’ve received great information and might want to talk to them again. Even if the discussion was controversial, you never know when you might need their help again.
Digitize your work and contribute to the common good
Finally, after you have done all this excavation, visited government offices, libraries and the offices of people with the knowledge you need, do not lose it. Archive everything. Digitize these notes and your interviews. Make copies of any material you can get your hands on, then scan and archive them securely. Keep this material in reserve .
In part, it is important that all this is in a safe place. You don’t want to go through all of this again if you don’t have to. However, a more serious and perhaps more important reason to digitize all of this is to make it available to others. We mentioned earlier that the responsibility to create a great Internet lies with all of us to contribute and contribute to this gestalt . Passively not being a dummy on the Internet is a good first step, but creating things, providing useful information and helping others who need the same information as ours is dozens of times better – and more empowering.