By Chris Harvey, lead lecturer, Online Journalism
Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism
Research takes time and
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,
search directory (such as the Librarians' Internet Index (compiled by public librarians), Infomine (compiled by academic librarians) or About.com (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
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.
you can shortcut a search by going to a specific directory or site. For
instance, mapquest.com 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.
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.)
“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:
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
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.)
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
- When the site was last updated. A credible site should tell you this on the home page. Currency
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: http://www.networksolutions.com/cgi-bin/whois/whois,
and type in a domain name, such as www.washingtonpost.com,
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
Better-Who-Is.com 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 http://www.internic.net/regist.html, and lets you search for information on
its WhoIs service, at
It also lists the international two-letter codes for other countries, as does DomainSearch.com.
Remember to look at all information on the Internet with a
critical eye, just as you would when evaluating information handed to you anonymously!
sites for reporters and editors:
A good directory of names and phone numbers for people and
businesses in the United States. Also provides mapping and driving directions.
Provides U.S. home and
business phone listings and a limited crisscross directory, or reverse
lookup. (With this crisscross
directory, if you know someone’s phone number, you can get their name and
address. Or if you know their address, you can get their name and phone
number. It also allows you to search for businesses or homes located near
another address.) This could help when covering accidents or tragedies by
phone—when you know the address of the tragedy but need a name and phone number.
Also provides residential phone and business listings in the United States
and a limited reverse lookup
that allows you to search for a person or business by phone number.
Numberway.com offers international white and yellow page
- http://www3.profnet.com/profnet_home/index.html: ProfNet’s Experts Database gives contact information for more than 4,000 individuals
identified by ProfNet members as experts in their fields. This is great for finding
sources for unfamiliar beats on deadline. The database
relies mostly on North American sources and only supports searches in English,
but it’s developing more European experts and a multilingual capability. It
requires you to register before using.
- www.dictionary.com/: Has links to
various dictionaries in about 40 languages and a translator tool to help you make sense of phrases or paragraphs written
in another language.
- www.robertniles.com: Robert Niles,
senior producer for the Los Angeles Times’ Web site, now publishes
community-driven Web sites for journalists, theme park fans and musicians. He’s compiled some great
tips on finding data on the Internet—along with crib sheets on math and
He'll link you to sources for
federal government statistics and much more.
Links to search engines for at least 195 countries and 46 territories.
- http://www.lii.org/: The Librarian’s Index to the
Internet. It’s a searchable, annotated subject directory of thousands of
Internet resources selected and evaluated by librarians for their usefulness.
It's meant to be used by both librarians and the general public.
http://reporter.umd.edu/: "A Journalist’s
Guide to the Internet," from Christopher Callahan, dean of the Walter
Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University
and former associate dean at the
University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Find links to federal and state
government sites, court opinions and records, businesses and their regulatory
agencies, nonprofits and more--including details on how to write requests for federal information under the Freedom of Information Act.
Other sites of particular interest to reporters covering the U.S. government
include: The Library of Congress' "Thomas" for tracking the text and progress of congressional
bills; reports from the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm
of Congress; and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's searchable databases.
- www.templetons.com/brad/copymyths.html: Unsure about whether something on the Web is copyrighted? Brad Templeton's "10 Big Myths About Copyright" is a primer written in plain English.
- http://www.spj.org/ethics_code.asp: The Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics. Search the American Society of Newspaper Editors for other media outlets' codes. And the Poynter Institute offers a wealth of information about media ethics.
Poynter's MediaWire curates/aggregates/links to summaries of U.S. newspaper stories on media criticism.
- http://ajr.org: Stories from the American Journalism Review, plus links to newspapers, magazines,
television networks and affiliates, radio stations and news and wire services.
- The Way Back Machine on the Internet Archive allows you to
find previously published pages of some Web sites. It's great for tracking the
evolution of a site, or for finding what stories were on a site's home page on
the day of a tragedy.
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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.
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