In Chapter 2, I stressed the importance of asking more questions. Whether you’re asking so you can be better informed or so you can inform others, the digital world gives us nearly infinite tools for reporting, defined here as the gathering of information or just plain learning about various things. But none of these tools can replace old-fashioned methods such as making phone calls, conducting in-person interviews and visiting libraries. People can do shoddy research online or off, but the learning opportunities provided today by online communications and resources remove almost any excuse for lack of background knowledge.
You can’t know everything, but good professional reporters serve as a good model: They try to learn as much as they can about whatever topic they’re working on. It’s better to know much more than you publish than to leave big holes in your story. The best reporters always want to make one more phone call, to check with one more source.
I had a rule of thumb as a reporter. I felt confident that I’d done enough reporting if my story used roughly 10 percent of what I knew. That is, I preferred to be so overloaded with facts and information that I had to be extremely selective, not to hide things but to write only what really mattered.
The Web offers all sorts of excellent material about how to do research. I’ll list a bunch of these resources on the Mediactive website (mediactive.com), but take a look, for starters, at the University of Washington Libraries’ “Research 101” site and the excellent News University collection at the Poynter Institute.
Online, we can take our research in amazing new directions, in particular by inviting others to be part of the discovery process. We can tell people what we’re working on and ask them for help. “Crowdsourcing,” which in journalism takes the form of asking the audience for help, has bolstered journalists’ research on many levels, but it’s only one of a number of ways to improve our reporting.
Let’s spend a minute on the in-person interview. It’s not easy to ask a stranger for information (at least, not for most people). It’s even harder to ask probing questions. There are only two questions you should always ask, right at the end: 1) Is there anyone else I should talk to about this?, and 2) What didn’t I ask that I should have asked, and what’s the answer?
It’s also important to remember that a lot of what we need to understand about the world can only be found in libraries, county courthouses and the like, and we should remember that those dusty paper stacks and files have plenty of value. Google can’t digitize everything—not yet, anyway.
New facts and nuances often emerge after articles are published. One of Wikipedia’s best characteristics is its recognition that we can liberate ourselves from the publication or broadcast metaphors made familiar during the age of literally manufactured media, where the paper product or tape for broadcasting was the end of the process. We may not get it totally right collectively—in fact, humans almost never get anything entirely right—but we can get closer as we assemble new data and nuances. I’ll discuss this further in Chapter 7.