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There’s nothing that I enjoy more than conducting a full scale, no-holds-barred investigation into the background of an intriguing news story. One of the largest that I ever personally conducted was one in 2005 where I worked with a team of 4 or 5 fellow citizen journalists investigating a major scam artist. The research required email tracking and analysis, deep data mining, as well as in-depth interviews. It was one of the most exciting and exhilarating experiences in my life, and led to a continued passion with investigative journalism.
Over the next few years, those early experiences as well as the investigations that followed led me to accumulate a personal library of valued online resources for journalists. These are resources that are now extremely valuable to me. They represent the core of my online research, and they are the places I immediately turn to first when it’s time to conduct another deep investigation for another news article.
As the Internet expands, the community of citizen journalists continues to grow. Along with that growth comes a sort of collaborative network where you can excel in your research more from networking than you can from competing. Unlike blogging where a lot of the work is private and independent, citizen journalism demands a very wide network of contacts, resources and leads. Therefore, in the spirit of that collaboration, I would like to offer the list of resources for journalists that I personally find invaluable to serious citizen news writers. I also welcome contact with, and collaboration with, fellow online researchers and writers.
Top 5 Resources for Citizen Journalists
One of the most significant effects of the Internet evolution into the world of “Web 2.0” was the maturing of the journalist blogger. Early on, bloggers were scorned by mainstream journalists. However, as the years passed and citizen journalists started releasing significant news stories on blogs even earlier than the mainstream media, even major corporate news entities started accepting the reality and the legitimacy of citizen journalism. At the same time, the old-school media folks were terribly concerned about maintaining the integrity and sanctity of journalism.
It appeared that they were terrified that if just any citizen could take up investigative journalism, that journalistic ethics would go out the window. In fact, this did happen in a fair number of cases, but I would say that there were enough impressive journalistic works produced by the top bloggers, that in time the entire arena of citizen journalism was eventually acknowledged and respected. One of the products of that early concern for journalistic integrity is also my first favorite resource for journalistic writing – Journalism.org.
This project was founded as a collaborative mission between Columbia University and the Committee of Concerned Journalists (CCJ) in 2003. In 2006, the Pew Research Center took control of the project and now provides valuable information about journalism and data about the press.
Today, the site is a tremendous resource for anyone who intends to get involved in journalism, not so much as a resource to conduct the research itself, but as a place to go when you’re unsure exactly what to do with the information you’ve uncovered. This website lays out the core principles of journalism in a way that’s accessible and understandable to the entire public. My favorite page is the Principles of Journalism list of legal and ethical guidelines. Number 1 is the most important – “Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.”
The next few resources are those that I turn to when I need to find some good, hard data. These are the places that you’ll want to go to initially to launch your investigation. The first resource is a website that’s actually somewhat poorly designed. I mean, the background is something out of the 1990’s, and the entire layout is terribly outdated, but the information contained on this website more than makes up for its aesthetics.
A Journalist’s Guide to the Internet is an online resource created and published by Christopher Callahan, who (at least as of 2003) was the dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University (now that’s a mouthful).
This website might feature cheesy icons, but if you need a launch point where you can access U.S. Federal Government agencies and resources, public records and FOIA information, business and non-profit stats and data, law and justice system information and much, much more – then this is the place for you.
The next resource, my friends, is RefDesk. It is the single, most amazing online collection of facts, resources and figures stuffed into one website that I’ve ever had the pleasure of using. Like the previous website, it is clearly not created with pretty formatting or bells and whistles in mind. It is outlined in such a way that as much useful information can be organized and stuffed into one place. I could spend an entire article reviewing this resource, but I’ll try to do it in just a few photos. In the pic above, you can see the left pane with the top Internet search engines that you can use to launch an Internet search.
As you travel down the page, you’ll see featured new stories in the center pane, and then important resources like the ability to click on and view all major news sources in the right pane, or conduct a business or people search in the left pane.
Just beyond halfway down the page you’ll find the “Fact” section where you can conduct searches in various reference sources, or in the left pane you can look up statistics and figures, or in the right pane you can locate a list of “how-to” sites. This one page is like having the entire Internet at your fingertips – it’s amazing!
Research Social Media
The last two resources for citizen journalists that I’d like to cover are not specific sites but actually categories of sites that we’ve covered here at MakeUseOf very often.
An important part of being a good journalist is knowing what’s relevant and important to the general public. Not only are social networks excellent for gauging public sentiment or buzz, but if you need information about someone, they obviously make a fantastic research tool for that as well. Charnita wrote about 3 excellent social search engines that you can use to find people. Abhijeet hit on Snitch.Name, another very cool resource to do the same sort of digging. Of course, recently Mahendra covered how to search people using alternative search engines, so I’d say MUO has this area pretty well covered.
Another useful area is determining what’s hot at the moment – the current Internet buzz. Leon covered 5 great buzz and viral video websites, and John covered how to capture breaking news on Twitter. However, one of the coolest resources for news enthusiasts to capture the latest news while gauging public reaction to it is .
Newscri.be lets you not only choose the category and major news source to receive your latest headlines, but you can also choose which headlines you feel should be at the top of your list, remove those you don’t want, and comment on those that remain (and read the comments of other users). It’s like a huge community of news fans redefining “top news,” rather than the corporate run news media doing so.
Local Information and Public Records
Probably the most valuable references for a journalist are public records. Many historical records for your local community, you can discover on archive if you hook up a membership with your local University library. For example, the University of Berkeley allows the public (as most library’s do) to come in and conduct research in person, even though the online resource is not available to the general public.
University libraries are always a treasure trove of local, state and federal government information as well as a plethora of scholarly journals. Every good citizen journalist owns a trusty library card.
And when you need to conduct a criminal records search or background check on someone, make sure to review Israel’s post on how to conduct a background check with your iPhone.
When you’re finished your research and you have a premium example of journalism that you’d like to submit for publication, check out the resources that mainstream news organizations now offer to citizen journalists, such as MSN’s story submission area or CNN’s iReport. Of course, if you’d like to remain avant garde, then you can always join forces with other citizen journalists over at . Whichever path you choose, if you stay true to the principles of journalism, you’ll do just fine.
Do you have any experience with citizen journalism? Do you have any additional resources that other researchers might find useful? Please share them in the comments section below.