Background research for your in-depth story

Photo: National Park Service

by Leah Samuel

Typically, news stories should answer questions that start with who, what, where, when, why and how. Many of those answers will come from sources — the human beings who liven up stories by bringing their own points of view.

When I’m starting an in-depth story, I do background research first to find possible sources. This also helps me learn more about my topic, so that I can ask intelligent questions when I interview my sources. So, even if you have already interviewed one or two people for your story, let’s take a few steps back.

First, others have already written about your subject, or some part of it, before. Find those articles by searching through all types of media. Use a news aggregator, which is what you get when you go to a search engine and click the “news” category under the search window.

Of course, you’ve probably done searches before without using the “news” category. That does work, but by focusing on finding written articles, you’re more likely to come across information that has already been validated. At the very least, published media will often include where their facts or quotes come from, making it easier to check them out for yourself, which you should still do, always.

As you start your news search, it helps to keep an open mind. Even if you definitely know what your story is about, it’s a good idea to think about the topic more broadly. Come up with phrases to search by considering how your subject might be written about on a news site.

For example, when I wanted to write a story about adults who still see their pediatricians, I wasn’t sure where to find information. So, I pulled up a news search engine and typed in general phrases like “adult pediatric patients” and “pediatricians treating grownup patients.” But I also included narrative phrases like, “patients growing up” and “still sees a pediatrician.”

So, if you’re writing about teens taking their Juuls into the restrooms at school, you might search general phrases like “Juul and teens”  or “e-cigarettes and teenagers.” But you should also search narrative phrases like “vapes at school,” “teens vaping,” “Juuling in school” or “teachers find Juul.”

Read through the lists of articles that come up. Click on one that seems relevant to your story. Read the first few paragraphs. Pay attention to quotes, especially long ones. Are they coming from people you might want to interview? Get their names and where they work, as mentioned in the story. Later, you can look up their contact information and get interviews with them.

As you read through the articles, you’ll probably come across the names of organizations or companies as well. No matter what your subject is, there is probably an organization, government agency, interest group or company somewhere that is involved with that subject in some way. Looking into them will help you find facts and the names of experts to interview for your story.

But you also want to find ordinary, everyday people who might have something to say Social media is great for this. Do a search on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram with hashtags on important words for your story. I did this for a story I wrote about young people who had died of opioid overdoses. With hashtags like #overdose, #opioid, #heroin, #RIP and #drugdeaths I found the friends and family members of people who had died this way, and interviewed them for the story.

You might also come across facts or statistics about your subject that you didn’t know before. Write them down, and don’t forget to include where those came from as well, so you can look them up, read them yourself and maybe put them in your story. Maybe you’ll see that there is a government report you could use. Find out how to get those here.

Meanwhile, you should have a pretty strong list of names for interviews. Each entry includes the source’s name, contact information and how they are connected to the issue or story. You probably have more potential sources than you will interview, but reach out to as many of them as possible. After all, some people you won’t reach, and you’ll still need quotes for your story. You should interview most if not all of them, asking some of the same questions. Maybe one source will answer a question in a more thought-provoking way than another source. Or one source might have newer information.

The point here is simple: More people, more quotes, more options, better story.