The Web as a Reporting and Research Tool

Reporting & Research

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By Chris Harvey, lead lecturer, Online Journalism
University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

Research takes time and patience. And while there is a lot of important information on the Internet, there’s also a lot of junk and spoof and sound-alike sites. (Check out "Feline Reactions to Bearded Men" for one example.) So approach your search results with a critical eye.

To get better search results:

If you’re making an important search, I recommend using more than one search engine (such as those on Google, Yahoo! or exalead, or search directory (such as the Librarians' Internet Index (compiled by public librarians), Infomine (compiled by academic librarians) or (compiled by "guides.") Yahoo! also maintains a large directory.

(Search engines rely on computer robot programs called spiders to search out information on the Internet; search directories or indexes rely on people to categorize information.)

Remember, no single search engine indexes everything on the Web -- not even Google, which has one of the largest databases of Web pages, according to the UC Berkeley Library.

Remember search engines try to rank responses by relevancy. But they measure relevancy differently--some by the frequency that search terms appear in the body or the title of the text, for instance, others by the numbers of visitors to a Web site.

Google ranks by "link relevancy"--the number of times other sites link to that Internet document. The assumption is that the more times other sites link to a page, the more useful it is likely to be.

Sometimes you can shortcut a search by going to a specific directory or site. For instance, and google maps can get you directions from your home to somewhere else, and they will map the route for you. 

To learn how to best structure a query for a particular search engine or directory, check out the “help” page on the search engine or directory you’re using for advanced searching strategies.

Remember that using “and” in a search (or a plus sign) will narrow the search. (In a Venn diagram, it’s the intersection of A & B. Example: If A is blueberry and B is pie recipes, the intersection is blueberry pie recipes.)

Using “or” in a search will broaden it. Example: If A is vehicles and B is trucks, A or B will give you both, plus any intersections.

Evaluating Web sites and pages

Stephen C. Miller, an assistant to the technology editor at The New York Times, in 1997 came up with a strategy for evaluating Internet information. The Freedom Forum Online initially posted his strategy for handy reference. Despite the proliferation in 2001 and 2002 of new Web address endings (including .biz, .info and .name), Miller's guide is still helpful as a starting point in thinking about the usefulness of specific types of Web pages.

To sum up his strategy:

  • government Web sites have the most reliable info in the United States (All U.S. federal government Web domain names end in .gov, along with some state sites; all U.S. military sites end in .mil.
  • university studies—especially peer-reviewed ones--are the next most reliable. (University Web sites end in .edu. But be careful! Students post Web sites with .edu endings, too, because universities give them free server space. A tip-off of such a personal Web page posting is the tilda ~ in the URL.)
  • Special-interest groups, many which post pages ending in .org, often post good information. But remember: The groups are biased. They have an agenda. And remember that although .org URLs were intended for nonprofits, commercial companies or individuals can buy sites ending in .org, too.
  • Other types of pages should be eyed with a reporter's caution. This goes for commercial sites ending in .com, .net and now .biz, and any personal home pages (such as those now ending in .name). However, most U.S. news sites end in .com, and their Web information is generally as reliable as that published in their more traditional print or broadcast sister publications.

When evaluating Web pages, check to see:

  • Who’s authoring and publishing them. Is the publisher a scholar on that topic--or someone simply putting forth opinions with no substantiation?
  • If the writer unbiased, or someone with an agenda?
  • If the writer list a bibliography or source or Web links list, so you can do further research on your own, or independently verify information?
  • When the site was last updated. A credible site should tell you this on the home page. Currency is important!

Credible sites should also prominently list a contact phone number and/or e-mail address. If they don't, be suspicious of the information. If they do, call or e-mail the listed contacts to verify the information or to ask additional questions, just as you would when reporting for print or broadcast outlets.

If there is no apparent contact info, click on the ending of the Web address area in your browser, and backspace and delete up to the domain address—the address before the first single slash. Often, this will give you the home page for the site and will tell you who created the site.

If neither of these tactics works, try a Web look-up service. Initially, most commercial publishers in the United States had to register with Network Solutions and pay a small fee to buy a .com, .net or .org location on the Internet. Viewers could go to:, and type in a domain name, such as, to find out information about that site--including key contacts, a mailing address and when the Web site address was purchased.

Today, numerous domain name service providers are providing registration services. lets you search all the new registration services for information on site authors, as does InterNIC.

InterNIC lists the service providers in a directory, at, and lets you search for information on its WhoIs service, at It also lists the international two-letter codes for other countries, as does

Remember to look at all information on the Internet with a critical eye, just as you would when evaluating information handed to you anonymously!

Some useful sites for reporters and editors:

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Created February 2001. Last updated: Sept. 31, 2012. Copyright © 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 Chris Harvey. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited. Feel free to link to this resource page in full. But do not cut and paste it onto your own site.

Reporting & Research