Research and reporting features

Feature writers tend to spend much more time researching and reporting their story than writing it. That’s because to write with authority, intelligence and a fresh perspective, you need a comprehensive picture of your story’s topic. Here are a few excellent guides and resources that feature writers should check out.

Interviewing tips
For a range of resources on interviewing, see Teaching Interviewing on J-Source.

Fact-checking
For a look at the life from the other side of the fact-checking street, check out Cynthia Brouse’s book on fact-checking, After The Fact.

Research tools
As promised by Sue Ferguson in Chapter 3 of The Bigger Picture, here are links to a variety of essential sources and resources.

Public records
Government records track two basic sorts of information:

  •  Information on government activities and decision-making (such as what deliberations lead to the purchase of helicopters for the military, or which companies bid for the City Hall IT contract). The principle of transparency in liberal democracies ensures that reporters, as members of the public, have a right to access the vast majority of such records although there are important restrictions pertaining to national security and jurisdiction.
  • Information on individuals. Privacy restrictions exclude much of what is collected (health and tax records, for example) from being accessed by a third party, but certain information (about births, deaths, divorces, property transfers and licensing, for example) is generally available.

Many – not all – public records are online. You may need to root around a while to find what you’re looking for, but here are a few places to begin your search:

Government

    * A number of award-winning features have begun with journalists creating custom databases that reveal new and intriguing information. To undertake what is called Computer-Assisted Reporting, you don’t need to be a math whiz. But it does help to know the basics of Excel and other tricks of the trade. Investigative reporter Fred Vallance-Jones lays it all out on his web site www.carincanada.ca.

Courts and Laws
CanLII is a website maintained by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, with a search engine accessing all Canadian legislation. From its main page, you can link to provincial court and tribunal websites, as well as some international legal information institutes.

Business

Don’t stop here. See J-Source’s Government page for links to these great resources:

  •  Bank of Canada
  • Canadian Land and Title Records Pathfinder
  • Toronto Municipal Government
  • Ontario Politics Pathfinder
  • Canadian Federal Government Pathfinder
  • Wikileak Website for Posting Government Secrets
  • Access to Information Database of Requests (CAIRS)
  • Canadian Access to Information Manual
  • Access to Information Quicklinks

. . . and the Courts & Crime page for links to:

  • Canadian Courts Pathfinder
  • Supreme Court of Canada

. . . and Business & Finance will take you to:

  • Department of Finance Canada
  • Company/Industry Sources Research Guide
  • Big Charts
  • Toronto Stock Exchange
  • Industry Canada

Freedom of Information and Access to Information
Not all public records are readily available. You may need to use the federal and provincial information laws to get what you’re after. Here are a few online resources to guide you through the process:

  • The Canadian Access to Information Manual (click on Research)
  • List of federal Access to Information coordinators (their provincial counterparts can be found by calling the specific province’s information office or privacy commissioner) 
  • Info Source, Ottawa’s directory to how and where the government stores information, and how to access it.
  • The Coordination of Access to Information Request System (CAIRS) is a database of requests from 1989 to 2008 (the government recently announced it would stop updating the database).

For a handy and thorough reference book to public records beg, borrow or buy a copy of Digging Deeper: A Canadian Reporter’s Research Guide by Robert Cribb, Dean Jobb, David McKie and Fred Vallance-Jones, (Oxford University Press).

According to whom? Finding experts
Where better to turn for help on understanding an issue than to another researcher – someone who has spent years reading, writing and thinking about the very topic you’re investigating? Canada has a rich research community and most of its members are willing to share their knowledge with journalists free of charge. They not only provide insight, perspective and information, they can be invaluable leads to further contacts. 

The global information commons
The United Nations houses numerous departments and agencies that conduct studies on everything from the world food crisis to international tourism.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development allows you to browse by topic or country, maintains a mountain of statistics, and includes a “resources for journalists” page.

And check out the International page on J-Source for sources following links:

  • Guide to the United Nations’ Website and Resources
  • Free Translation of Text and Websites
  • Online TV Stations Around the World
  • International Education In and Outside of Canada

Learning the Library
Online library resources are a researcher’s treasure trove. But it helps if you speak the language, and can recognize the signposts directing you through the system.  

Librarian lingo: Boolean (the use of AND, OR, and other capitalized terms to limit searches) and Truncation (or “wild cards,” asterisks or other symbols used to expand searches) are explained on the Collections Canada site  (Search Tips).

Database central: From your library web site you can access tons of journal articles, news and magazine stories, reference material and much more. These are organized through numerous databases. The following list gives you a taste of what some popular and some of the more esoteric databases have to offer. (Links are to websites with further information about the databases, not to the databases themselves. For these, you need to go through a library website.)

  • News and magazines:

Canadian Business & Current Affairs Complete: articles from scholarly, popular and trade publications published in Canada, including daily news sources.
Canadian Newsstand: nearly 200 Canadian newspapers, large and small, with full text access to articles in some cases dating back to the late 1970s.
Factiva:draws from 14,000 news and periodical sources in some 160 countries, and in 22 languages. Holdings include 400 regularly updated newswires.
Lexis Nexis: includes US and some Canadian print news and news transcripts, company reports, legal documents, medical reports and American patents among other things.

  • Reference materials:

Access Science: articles, images, graphics and videos from McGraw Hill’s extensive science collection, including its fully searchable Encyclopedia of Science and Technology.
Associations Canada Almanac and Directory
: an annually updated index of 20,000 regional, national and international organizations covering both the private and public sectors.
Books In Print: literally millions of references to books that have been published in the past century, some reviews and electronic texts of out-of-print classics to boot.
Grove Art: popular and scholarly articles about the art world, biographies of artists, images and links to museums around the world.   
Virtual Reference Library: the Toronto Public Library’s amazingly comprehensive guide to librarian-selected websites and research support focussing on Ontario and Canada information; includes a Quick Answer section with subject lines such as Calculators and Converters, Government Forms, Maps, and Weather. 

  • Scholarly journals:

Academic ASAP: includes full text articles from 2,500 journals in the humanities, sciences and social sciences .
MedLine: a US-based service with information on pharmaceuticals and health-related topics, as well as a medical dictionary and encyclopedia.

Be search savvy
Using a search engine is simple. But its simplicity is what makes both powerful and a potential waste of time. To get the most from your searching, scroll down J-Source’s pages on Web Searching and Tracking to find:  

  • How Search Engines Rank Results
  • Getting More From a Search Engine: Searching by Format
  • Web Searching: A Tutorial on Search Strategy and Syntax
  • Whose Site is It?

Also see . . .
Power Searching for Anyone
The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: or, Why it’s a Good Idea to Evaluate Web Sources
Thinking Critically About World Wide Web Resources

Other reference resources online . . .
The Canadian Encyclopedia
Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
Bartleby.com
Canada Newswire Group
NewsLink
Refdesk’s Facts Subject Index
Library of Congress
The Internet Public Library

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