Good research is the single most important thing that a reporter can do to get a great story. It encompasses everything from Internet-based research of primary sources, to being on the scene, to interviews, to making inquiring phone calls, to deciphering data, to attending an event, to reading what other media have already covered on the topic. There are many, many aspects to research that go far beyond sitting behind your computer. Your research is the backbone of your story, whether you have done it well or poorly.
A photojournalist who had seen former NYTimes reporter Dexter Filkins in action in Iraq during the war told me that Dexter would get extremely close to the story (physically) when reporting. He noticed that particular reporter because photographers have to get up close to do their job, but it’s increasingly easy for reporters to work at a “safe distance” from the story. Nowhere would this be more evident in a war zone, but Dexter is known for physically gravitating to the epicenter of the story. There’s a reason he is known as one of the pre-eminent war journalists of our time.
Another lesson that Dexter’s style of reporting (which is decidedly old-school) elicits is that of the value of the notebook. I don’t know whether he sometimes records interviews, but I do know that he always uses a notebook to write down interviews, names, dates, places, and events. In his book, “The Forever War,” he mentions his notebooks and the critical role they play in his research (which includes reporting) for a story. During his book tour a couple of years ago, Dexter said that he has kept every single notebook he has ever used.
Old-fashioned and overly cautious? Some people might think so. But try keeping a record of all of your interviews, names, dates, phone numbers, email addresses, and other random thoughts on a digital recorder. The first time someone challenges a quote you used from an interview, a name you cited, or some other critical fact from your research, try to go back and verify your research from a massive collection of digital recordings. You will find it impossible at best–at worst it will be a huge waste of time and you won’t be able to clear the issue.
The general guideline for research is that you need about 2-3 primary sources for about every 500 words of story that you write. Copying research from other media, in part or wholesale, is never right. You wouldn’t walk into someone’s house and steal whatever caught your eye, would you?
If you’re just starting as a reporter, try asking more experienced people around you about how they research. Or find a journalist you admire (there are several great examples on the menu of this blog), and decipher how they put their stories together, including how they use research and sources.