Online research and verification

Ideally all good journalism is based on original interviews and original research, but with so much information available online, journalist often turn to the internet to fill in the missing details of their stories.

After all, when you are looking for facts about someone or something, the internet is a wonderful source of seemingly infinite information on almost anything.

But this leads to a problem for many novice journalists — determining when it’s okay to use facts and information published by others online, and when researching becomes copying or even plagiarism.

By definition journalism — and by this I mean good journalism — is original writing and reporting based on your own interviews, observations, and those gathered by your colleagues in your newsroom.

If you are not basing your stories on original research and interviews, then you are not really doing journalism.

And by definition plagiarism — which comes from the Latin word for kidnapping — means to steal someone else’s writing and attempting to pass it off as your own.

So, a general rule, that means you should avoid re-publishing quotes, opinions, and eyewitness accounts from other news outlets. Not only can this be plagiarism, it will also harm your reputation as a journalist.

Background research raises questions

The other tricky situation for novice journalists is researching background information, such as biographical details about a person or the history of a place.

For instance, when a politician or celebrity dies or retires, you might search old stories from several news outlet and other sources to put together a short summary of their life and career.

Or if a plane crashes  in your region. you might look up stories about the same kind of plane crashing in parts of the country and around the world, and put the details in your story.

As a rule of thumb, if a past event is widely reported in several media outlets, you can consider it a historical fact, and you don’t need to attribute the basic information.

But if your background information is only coming from one source, you should always be transparent about this and attribute the information to any specific sources.

You can use lines like “According to a story in the Vancouver Sun…” to do this, but it should only be done when you have no other choices.

‘According to reports’

But like all rules, there are exceptions to this.

For instance, in reports from war zones, you’ll often hear or read journalists say things like “there are reports of gun fire” or “Unconfirmed reports say six people were killed.”

In these cases, we understand as readers or listeners that the dangerous nature of the situation makes it impossible for a journalist to confirm everything firsthand, but if the journalist has a good reputation, we will trust her judgement on how accurate the information might be.

Closer to home, if a major public emergency is taking place in another city, like the recent helicopter crash in Seattle, journalists will often summarize the information from reliable news outlets on the scene in their stories if they can’t get there themselves.

When this helicopter crashed in Seattle a few years ago, I actually sat and watched the live broadcast on KOMO TV News as they reported on the crash of their own helicopter, and reported on what they were saying, while embedding tweets from their journalists on the scene.

We felt the story was important enough, that it was worth doing that to get the information online.

What was also important was that we attributed the information to KOMO, and the other sources, until we were able to get our own reporter down to Seattle for a first-hand report.

We made it clear in the story that we were relying those sources, and gave them credit throughout the story. It is not great reporting, but gets the information out in quick and transparent manner.

But if the crash had been in Vancouver, basing our reports on our local competitors  would have been unacceptable. As a local news agency, we would be expected by our readers to have our own reporters on the scene, giving their own accounts.

The bottom line is whenever your are forced to use new information from other media, it should be transparent about where you got it and properly attributed.

Can you really trust the interwebs?

Frequently, when you are researching a story, you won’t just be looking at other media outlets for information online. Journalists will commonly use sources like Wikipedia to get historical, biographic, scientific details.

While some online sources might be commonly recognized as trustworthy, other times you’ll be looking at entirely unfamiliar websites and sources and wondering if you should trust the information.

So before you publish, you need to first evaluate the credibility and reliability of the information and the source.

The first thing to check is where is your source is getting their information from? Are they quoting or referencing someone else, or not even providing a source for the information.

You should generally avoid republishing any information from sources that are already republishing it.

If they are attributing the information to another source then you should look that up and read it yourself, particularly if it is contentious.

It is surprising how often journalists make mistakes –and you don’t want to replicate them.

This is particularly important when doing online research, because many websites republish a lot of material without ever fact-checking it.

For background material, it is acceptable to summarize material from other media, but you need to first evaluate the credibility and reliability of the information and the source.

Keys for evaluating online sources:

  • Credibility: Who is the author and what credentials do they have?  Green tea
  • If you don’t recognize the author, are they quoted on other reputable websites or linked by other websites? Green Tea
  • Do they provide sources for their information. Do they back up their claims. Does the information appear to be accurate? Green tea
  • What is the tone of the writing? Does the publisher has clear or hidden political or commercial agenda that might bias the information.
  • Who is the publisher of the information? Is it a recognized media outlet or major institution? Green Tea
  • Check the URL – does it come from somewhere you know? How recently was the site updated?

Warning signs of poor sources:

  • Undated or outdated information
  • Vague or sweeping generalizations.
  • One-sided or biased viewpoints.
  • Outraged or intemperate language (calling others stupid)
  • Wild or exaggerated claims.
  • Clear conflicts of interest.

Class exercise

Check each sites’ credibility based on its author’s credentials, sources, agenda, accuracy, and tone.

Which of them would you use as a source for a story about climate change and how?

Group: 1

Group 2:

Group 3:

Further reading

Here are some more detail guidelines for evaluating sources

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About Mike Laanela

Mike Laanela is journalist, photographer and instructor based in Vancouver, B.C.
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