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5 Tips for Using Academic Research in Investigative Journalism

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How to use academic research for investigations.

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If more journalists incorporated academic research into their investigative reporting process, they might have been able to alert the world about the Mpox outbreak sooner.

For years, researchers studying the virus, formerly known as monkeypox, had been noting its spread in parts of the world in studies published in scholarly journals.

Academic research is a crucial tool for investigating societal problems and holding the powerful accountable. On December 15, The Journalist’s Resource held a one-hour training to explain how consulting academic studies and collaborating with researchers can strengthen news coverage and aid journalists at each stage of the investigative reporting process.

Those who attended the webinar left with practical tips and insights from Neil Bedi, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter at ProPublica, and Rachel Lovell, a criminologist at Cleveland State University who advocates for and has participated in reporter-researcher collaborations.

I shared some of my own tips for working around common challenges reporters face in incorporating peer-reviewed research — the gold standard in academia — into their work.

If you didn’t get a chance to attend the training, or want a refresher, please watch our recording. Below, I’ve spotlighted five of my favorite tips from the event.

1. Before beginning an investigative project, or in the early stages of one, seek out academic research and researchers to get a broad overview of what’s known and unknown about an issue or problem.

“At the start of any investigation, you are typically not the expert on the topic you’re looking into,” Bedi said. “Often, you might be coming at the topic completely fresh. But there are people who have been researching and looking into these topics for years as a living. And so, if you learn to tap into these people and their work early, you can get pretty good at building a foundation of sourcing, a foundation of your own expertise, through interviews, through reading their work. And that’s important because any time you’re going to do an investigation, you kind of need that expertise because you’re about to say something usually damning or negative about something and you need to know your stuff.”

Lovell noted that reporters and researchers often have the same types of questions about an issue or problem. Because researchers often have already started trying to answer those questions, they can help journalists track down data and other information.

“Especially for these big policy-type [projects], you really need a researcher to help you understand,” she said. “Talking to the individuals who are also asking similar questions I think is an important way to contribute to this, to the conversation. And [researchers] often use data, but in different ways. Researchers tend to be able to know where to find the data to answer those questions or have done their own stuff and/or can help point a reporter toward where to start looking for or where data might exist to answer some of the questions that they’re interested in.”

2. Once you’ve found relevant research and data, ask researchers for help interpreting and explaining that information in plain language. Don’t be afraid to ask a researcher to read a key document or review your data analysis and give feedback.

Researchers are passionate about their area of expertise and want the public to have correct information, Lovell said. Many would be willing to help a journalist beyond answering some questions or sharing a journal article.

Lovell suggested journalists take steps to establish trust, considering researchers usually are unfamiliar with the journalistic process and many have had negative experiences with journalists — or know someone who has. Journalists should explain what they mean when they use terms such as “on the record” and “off the record,” and whether the researcher helping them will be cited in their news stories.

Lovell said researchers might ask to review a portion of the coverage or provide input in some other way.

“If a researcher wants to go on record, sometimes it just feels better to be able to have that last ability to look at exactly how the reporter or the journalist is writing up the thing — just to kind of give [feedback] like ‘OK, you got this right’ or ‘It’s not quite right.’ Change the wording a little bit here and then it’s a correct interpretation of our research,’” she said.

Newsrooms typically prohibit reporters from sharing drafts of stories. But there are other ways researchers can help journalists double-check their work. For instance, journalists can read quotes back to their sources. Some news outlets, under certain circumstances, may allow researchers to read specific passages of a news story or review a statistical analysis to ensure accuracy.

3. If an agency you’re investigating is relying on a specific study or group of studies to guide its actions, find that research and make sure you understand it.

Government agencies and other organizations often rely on academic research to help guide their decisions. But research findings can be misunderstood and misapplied.

That’s why journalists need to confirm whether the research an agency has consulted says what the agency says it does.

“If you’re a reporter, if you’re working on an investigation, you should second-guess everything and that includes the research itself,” Bedi said.

In 2021, Bedi won a Pulitzer Prize for his investigation into a predictive policing program that a county sheriff’s office in Florida used to harass residents and profile schoolchildren. Law enforcement officials told him and the Tampa Bay Times reporter who worked with him on the series, Kathleen McGrory, that the project was based on research suggesting youth who experience childhood trauma are more likely to commit violent crimes later in life.

Bedi and McGrory contacted criminal justice scholars, who confirmed the sheriff’s office had misinterpreted the research. Renowned criminologist David Kennedy told them making predictions about someone’s future behavior based on childhood experiences “flies in the face of the science.”

Researchers’ responses to the sheriff’s office program became a major component of the investigative series.

“As we started calling these researchers, who [sheriff’s office officials] were citing over and over and over again, they were saying, ‘What do you mean my work is being used this way? That’s a terrible program. My work should never be used this way. They are going way off of our conclusions and creating a program that is harassing children,’” Bedi said. “I think one researcher equated it to child abuse.”

4. Don’t ignore studies just because they rely on older data. Ask the authors to explain whether and why their findings are or aren’t still relevant.

There are lots of reasons the data in journal articles can seem outdated to a daily news reporter. For one, some types of information can take years to collect. Even after a paper is finished, it can take months to a year or more for it to complete the peer-review process and get published in an academic journal.

By the time a journalist reads a study, the data and statistics in it can be several years old, prompting questions about whether the research is “too old” and its findings remain relevant.

My advice: Reach out to the study’s authors — or other scholars in the same field — and ask them those questions. They can explain whether the trends and patterns they discovered likely still exist today. They can also discuss how any major events occurring after the data was first collected could influence those trends and patterns. Such context is probably worth including in your coverage.

Lovell noted that some data doesn’t change much over time. In that case, “having data that’s a couple years old isn’t changing your findings really in any meaningful way,” she added.

Journalists might need to help newsroom editors who are opposed to relying on older data understand that.

“I would just push back and say, ‘Is there a logical reason to think that data from a couple years ago, that the pattern no longer holds now?’ she said.

5. No matter how broad or narrow the subject you’re investigating, remember that researchers somewhere have probably been studying it for years.

“I can say with almost 100% certainty that whatever the topic is going to be, especially as it relates to policy work and investigative journalism, that there is a researcher out there who is studying that topic,” Lovell said.

Bedi said he typically begins searching for researchers by reading studies that examine the issue he’s interested in.

“I’ll go in and start reading academic papers even if half of it is completely confusing to me and doesn’t make any sense,” he told webinar attendees. “You should make it part of your process to try to read the papers, understand what you can understand and notice the authors on the papers. If you find papers that seem very relevant, start building a list of the authors on those papers. Reach out to them. Talk to the ones who are willing to talk.”

Both Bedi and Lovell suggested reaching out via email first. Bedi said he typically asks the researchers he contacts to recommend other experts who might be helpful.

He stressed that finding the right researcher or researchers can take time. And once you find them, you’ll want to cultivate that relationship over the course of your investigation.

“If this is a months-long investigation, you don’t make it just one phone call and then never talk to them again,” he said. “It is a process. Early on, you are learning a lot about a topic and you are asking them to explain complicated things as if you were five years old — because that is important and you need that as journalists, because you’re going to have to explain it to your readers who know nothing about this topic. But then, as you begin to hit difficult questions that they’ve probably hit and you’re going really deep into this investigative reporting process, you’re reaching back out to them to start discussing stuff that they love talking about. And [through] those conversations over time, you build a really good relationship with these people.”

This article was originally published by The Journalist’s Resource and is reprinted here with permission.

Additional Resources

The Research Desk: Tips on Digging into Scholarly Research Journals

How a Canadian Reporting Lab Is Pioneering Academic-Journalist Collaboration 

New Models: How Academics, Nonprofit News and Government are Collaborating

joined The Journalist’s Resource in 2015 after working as a reporter for newspapers and radio stations in the US and Central America, including the Orlando Sentinel and Philadelphia Inquirer. Her work also has appeared in publications such as USA TODAY, The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Washington Post. 


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