Lab news, Q&A

When researching a story, learn from a librarian

Barbara Gray, distinguished lecturer and interim chief librarian, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism

Barbara Gray, distinguished lecturer and interim chief librarian at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism and news research consultant at The New York Times | Photo courtesy of Barbara Gray

My last piece on how reporters might tap into their own archives to create a “newsroom answer machine” sparked some interesting discussion among a few commenters, who pointed out that such mechanisms have been around for a while.

They’re called news librarians, commenters said, and they’ve become a frequent casualty of downsized newsrooms.

So what are newsrooms losing by booting their research librarians? And is it possible for reporters to replace at least some of that expertise while on the daily beat?

I put those questions to former New York Times News Research Director Barbara Gray at her office at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she now works as a lecturer and interim chief librarian.

Questions and answers have been edited for style, clarity and brevity.

What kind of skills do reporters need to be good researchers?

Here’s an easy example. I just saw that really good movie that Ken Burns made with his daughter, The Central Park Five. It was about a Central Park jogger who was raped and beaten very badly. They put five guys in jail and they didn’t belong there. The guy who eventually confessed to this crime, his name is Matias Reyes.

So I threw his name in Google’s news archive. A couple of things came up, some archival things. But if you just put that in LexisNexis Academic – those two words, nothing in between them — you get stuff back to the 80s. You find out his original crimes.

So if you were covering this story now, if you’re working at the Daily News – because [the five exonerated men] have a huge civil lawsuit against the NYPD — you potentially have the Daily News archive. But what if you’re a freelancer and you don’t have the Daily News archive? You can use LexisNexis Academic if you’re an alumni. Or you can go to the public library, the state library and you can use LexisNexis Academic and get all this data that you just can’t get in Google.

Just simple examples like that show students you can’t just use Google for everything. That’s the best way to show people the difference in the information you can get. It’s all about information, and people need to know what happened before. You can’t report in a vacuum.

Go-to tools

Here are a few of Gray’s top tools to add to your research arsenal.

“Get the public library card in your metropolitan area. And I would get the state library card also, because those are two universes of databases you can access immediately,” Gray said. Both databases will be full of archived news and published journal research. You can also get similar access by tapping into your alumni network, since some institutions provide library access to graduates.

Spokeo allows users to quickly search names, email addresses, usernames, addresses and phone numbers for basic information gathered from property records, social media and other public sources.

“You should really know how to use social media to find information and background people,” Gray said. “I’m not talking about branding or any of that stuff. Just how to find people, how to find out who knows who so you can contact people and get information about a person.” If you’re looking to learn, she recommends taking a class with your professional organization.

Commercial databases like TLOxp allow users to search among massive public records databases. At TLO, users can complete some searches for as little as $1. Although she said it’s “really fantastic,” the service can get a little pricey for other tasks. “If you’re a freelancer, the prospects for that might not be that great, but if you know how to use it wisely and you can get access to it as a journalist, you probably should,” Gray said.

Broad searches waste time, so learn to refine. “What I always tell students is to think about what the research will look like, the product, the output. That will really help you search. What words are going to be in it? What format is it going to be in? It’s nice to discover things, but if you have to keep going through screens to get what you want in Google, that could take a long time.” A good place to start the learning process is Inside Search, the official Google Search team’s blog. Or tap into IRE’s collection of tip sheets (membership required).

There’s also this vast treasure trove of information that isn’t online. It requires people to know where to go and what to ask for. Without that, they’re somewhat handicapped.

Steve Coll, former New Yorker writer and two-time Pulitzer Prize Winner, says that when he first trained as an investigative beat reporter, he was amazed at how much opportunity for stories in legal records and court files goes unexploited by American journalists.

In New York state for instance, New York City, there’s a ton of stuff online. But if you go to the court, you can get even more information. You have to go and look at what’s in there. Oftentimes, the thing you were looking for is right in the court file.

Coll talks about how he just stumbled onto great stories all the time just by reading, looking through court files. And no, everything is absolutely not online. You have to FOIA a lot of things. Some things take time to find and you have to know where to go. It’s not going to be on Google all the time.

When newsrooms cut libraries and research staff, what do you think they’re losing?

That’s the big question isn’t it? What information is not getting to the reader or the viewer? What information, because it’s just not findable easily or in the timeframe that they have, isn’t getting to people?

You have to cut resources somewhere, but you don’t want to take information away from people. We want reporters to be able to have information so they can inform their reporting and inform the populace.

There’s a great story on the incentives Texas gives to big businesses and corporations. Lisa Schwartz, one of the researchers there, spent a lot of time working with Louise Story, the reporter, to uncover this information. Would it have gotten done anyway, to the depth that it was? There was a huge reader response to this story. Now people are examining it nationwide. It’s just, is the information going to be in the story? Does the reporter have enough time? Do they have the skills to be able to find it? That’s what the news researchers were for.

If you don’t have the time, if you don’t have the skill set, you have to have someone help you solve your problem. That was what we were really good at. We really knew where to go to find stuff, maybe to ask somebody for something that might not exist publicly. It’s just as basic as that. We know where to go in the time we have, because that’s what we do.

I wonder if all these people they hire on the digital side, are these all journalists who are using LexisNexis? Do they know how to use it?

That’s why I came here. I love The New York Times. I’m thrilled that I’m still able to contribute to The New York Times, but I didn’t want to wait around to see what was going to happen to journalism. I wanted to be a part of the choices that we made and the changes that were happening.

Do you think it’s possible to equip a regular reporter, who has so many different responsibilities, to be proficient enough at some of these things?

I didn’t want to wait around to see what was going to happen to journalism. I wanted to be a part of the choices that we made and the changes that were happening.

No one’s ever going to be a news research professional unless they’re a news research professional. We have people who have done this for 25 years. This is what they do, and this is what they do really well.

But I think we have to try. It’s worth trying to make sure they know how to get as much information as they can, to do a really comprehensive job, to make sure they’re not getting the same thing a blogger would get. If a blogger could do it, then why do we need you? If a press agent can do it, why do we need you? We need you to do more. We need you to give context, we need you to give history. Curating isn’t enough, but you have to know how to curate. Researching isn’t enough, but you have to know how to research. So I think we have to try to make them as proficient as possible.

Do you think we’re seeing the effects of these lost research positions in news coverage?

I can’t really say, because it all seems like such a huge wave at once. I can’t see how we haven’t. When you had a newspaper that had like eight researchers, and they were helping give a lot of support and helping a reporter find a lot of content and answers to questions, and then that’s gone — then they’re also asked to do things in addition to that …

I can’t say specifically that I know there are more errors than there used to be. But maybe it’s just that there’s less information than there used to be.

Want to hear more of Gray’s tips? Check out her Q&A with the Shorenstein Center’s Journalist’s Resource.

About Tyler Dukes

Tyler Dukes is the managing editor for Reporters' Lab, a project through Duke University's DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy. Follow him on Twitter as @mtdukes.
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