Archive for the ‘Lessons/handouts’ Category

Court research

April 5th, 2013 by Jack Styczynski

Points of emphasis for critical thinking:

  1. With many courts at the federal, state and local levels, there is no “one stop shopping” for court research.  In most cases, you’ll need to know the jurisdiction before you can find anything.
  2. In many jurisdictions, particularly at the local levels, case information isn’t online at all.  For those cases, you have no choice but to visit the courthouse or contact the court clerk to get info (unless you can get it from participating lawyers).
  3. Of the courts that do have case information online, there’s no uniformity.  Some post full case documents.  Others provide only basic docket information.  And many times, you’ll have to use a fee-based service to get the info.
  4. For federal cases, PACER is the best place to go.  Although fee-based, it’s relatively inexpensive.  It has both docket information and (most) case documents.  (Note: The Supreme Court has its own no-cost site separate from the PACER system.  Historical SCOTUS info can be found here, here, here and here.) FindLaw is another good site to search Supreme and Circuit Court decisions. USCourts.gov also publishes the very useful Journalist’s Guide to the Federal Courts and Understanding the Federal Courts.
  5. LexisNexis has case information for the most jurisdictions–federal, state and local–but not all of it is available in the academic version universally accessible to CUNY students.  See Barbara Gray in the Research Center for access to the professional version.
  6. Beyond PACER and LexisNexis, you should check individual court sites, such as the New York State Unified Court System’s eCourtsSlip Decisions or SCROLL (for Manhattan Supreme) pages, to find out what is and isn’t available online.  (Note: The Bronx County Clerk’s Office has a Law Case Search page, including access to court documents for anyone who registers.)
  7. For higher-profile cases, you can sometimes find court documents posted at sites such as MoreLaw or The Smoking Gun.
  8. You’ll probably need to talk to them for your story anyway, so if all else fails, lawyers might provide case information.  My favorite sites to find lawyer contacts are LegalDockets and Martindale.com.

For more tips on court research, see Barbara Gray’s guide.

Finding statistical trends: Census tools and polls

March 11th, 2013 by Jack Styczynski

The Census Bureau has one of the most valuable and densely-packed web sites you’ll encounter.  You’ll constantly find new information there that will amaze you with its obscurity and level of detail.  Below are some of my favorite Census Bureau pages.

  • First and foremost is American FactFinder, which includes annual American Community Survey data.  It’s the best place to get estimates since the last decennial census was undertaken.  You definitely should familiarize yourself with how to navigate this!
  • State and County QuickFacts provides easy access via a map for a quick look at some broad statistics for states, counties and cities.
  • Facts for Features & Special Editions consist of collections of statistics from the Census Bureau’s demographic and economic subject areas intended to commemorate anniversaries or observances or to provide background information for topics in the news.

Additionally, some excellent “third party” sites aggregate Census Bureau data.  Below are a few of my favorites in that category.

  • The New York City Department of City Planning’s population page has some useful resources, including American Community Survey data and a map delineating Community Districts and Census Bureau PUMAs.  (Baruch College’s NYCdata site also has New York statistics beyond just those from the Census Bureau.)
  • Infoshare Online and Social Explorer are two subscription sources we have.  Take advantage of CUNY access!
  • The University of Virginia Library has a great Historical Census Browser with data from 1790 to 1960.  Need slave and slaveholder statistics?  (Ugh.)  This is one place to easily find them.
  • Last but not least, check out the All Things Census blog from the Pew Research Center.

Bonus tip: Barbara Gray has compiled a handout on Mining Census data for reporting that does an especially good job explaining the differences between the decennial census and the American Community Survey.

Opinion polls are also a great way to detect trends in the population.  When most people think of polls, they think of political polling, but there’s much more to be found.

Warnings about polls: Many times there are concerns about the credibility or methodology of a pollster, so be cautious of sources.  Also remember that polls always have a margin of error, which you should cite.  Here are 20 questions journalists should ask about poll results.

Finding video and graphical archives

March 4th, 2013 by Jack Styczynski

Looking for video online?  Of course, there’s YouTube and the like, but what about professional databases with substantial broadcast archives?  The J-school has subscriptions to such databases, which also feature superior search functionality.

  • Critical Mention was introduced in this semester’s first lesson when I mentioned getting closed captioning of programming as an alternative when transcripts are not available in Nexis and Factiva.  (I’m also aware of two similar services called ShadowTV and ITV, which we don’t have.)
  • Whereas the services above allow viewing of recent broadcasts, the Vanderbilt Television News Archive is a deeper archive of news broadcasts from major national sources–with streaming video available from CNN and NBC, and DVD ordering available from all sources.  Also, keep in mind that a broadcast operation will usually have its own internal archive.  At NBC, the searchable database is known as Ardome.
  • Although they don’t qualify as a professional subscription databases, the Internet Archive also has useful TV News and “moving image” collections that you might explore.

Regarding graphical print archives, there are many more places to go.

  • We have access to PDF archives of the New York Times, Amsterdam News and Village Voice  through the J-school’s subscription to ProQuest.  The titles have varying dates of coverage.  In addition, the Brooklyn Public Library also has scanned archives of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle from 1841 to 1902.  On a national scale, the Library of Congress has a collection of newspapers from selected states (including New York), ranging from 1836 to 1922.
  • You can get PDFs of current newspaper front pages around the world from the Newseum.  Only front pages, though.
  • We have access to many magazine and journal PDF archives through the J-school’s subscriptions to EBSCO MasterFILE Premier and JSTOR, which are aggregator databases similar to Nexis and Factiva, but are not limited to text only.  Also, CUNY and the J-school maintain lists of where you can obtain articles by publication name, many of which are in PDF format.
  • You can get PDF archives of the Economist, JAMA, Nature, the New England Journal of Medicine and Science via separate web sites courtesy of J-school subscriptions.  Again, varying dates of coverage.
  • Google Books has scanned archives of many magazines, popular and otherwise.  Billboard, Ebony, Jet, Life, New York, Spin and Vibe might be especially useful, but there are plenty more.  These aren’t completely up to date, but do have deep archives.  On screen images only, though.  No downloads.  Similarly, Google News has scanned archives of many newspapers, including the Village Voice.  Same deal with the lack of downloads.

This is the warning NBC uses for the sites above:  THESE SITES ARE FOR REFERENCE ONLY.  You will be connecting to external sites and all images must be cleared for on-air use, regardless of source. If you have questions, please contact the Rights & Clearances Department.

Bonus tip: Looking for photos?  The J-school has a subscription to AP Images and the New York City Department of Records Municipal Archives has an online photo gallery.

Backgrounding & fact-checking, a.k.a. due diligence

February 13th, 2013 by Jack Styczynski

Backgrounding and fact-checking are related in the sense that they both fall under the umbrella of “due diligence” or “doing your homework.”  Of all the research topics we teach here at the J-school, this is probably the most important.  Certainly, not doing proper backgrounding and fact-checking has the most potential to make you look bad.  As I said in my introductory backgrounding lesson in Craft I, you don’t want to do a friendly story on someone, only to be burned by not doing proper backgrounding.  We already saw an example in class.

My rather glib definition of backgrounding is “finding out information about people they don’t want you to know.”  I do it as a matter of course in my job as a news researcher, but reporters should be able to do for themselves too.

In the same vein, 100% factual accuracy in stories is a goal worth pursuing, no matter how tough it may be to achieve.  Among the most common kinds of facts that need to be checked and double-checked (and triple-checked!) in any story are statistics, names, dates, ages, quotations, locations, titles and degrees.  Preferably, you want to verify them via primary sources–as opposed to secondary–and then cite these sources, where appropriate.  Fact-checking really boils down to answering two basic questions…

  1. Are you sure?
  2. Says who?

If you crave a little more detail on fact-checking, a few good accuracy tip sheets can be found herehere, here, here and here.  And here is an example of what can happen if your fact-checking is lax.

What specific sources do I suggest?  (Wikipedia?  Ha ha.  No!)  While Accurint is undoubtedly my favorite backgrounding resource, there are plenty more you can use on my backgrounding handout, many (but not all) of which are also suitable for fact-checking.  I particularly recommend government resources, and premium subscription databases like we have through the Research Center.  One such database good for fact-checking is Facts on File, especially useful for finding dates and details of major events going back to 1940.

Then there are a whole host of court resources not on my backgrounding handout.

Again, keep in mind that primary sources are generally preferable to secondary sources, but that’s not to imply there aren’t unreliable primary sources or very reliable secondary ones.  For example, people could easily lie, exaggerate or make errors on their (primary) Facebook pages, while Facts on File is a strong secondary source.  And the more reliable sources you have for any fact, the better.  Relying on a single source is asking for trouble. 

Bonus fact-checking tip: Superlatives such as “only,” “never,” “first,” or “most” are often misleading and/or difficult to verify.  Use them judiciously.

Double bonus: Barbara Gray has her own backgrounding research guide with more resources.

Mining the web like a pro: Google and beyond

December 3rd, 2012 by Jack Styczynski

Points of emphasis for critical thinking:

  1. There’s more to search engines than just plugging in words.  The best searchers use the advanced features.  There are many places to find Google tips.
  2. No mainstream search engines, even Google, search anywhere close to the entire web.  They don’t index every page or database result, nor the entirety of many longer documents.  What’s not retrievable via these engines is known as the “deep web” or “invisible web.”  That’s why you need to familiarize yourself with many of the sources I’ve reviewed this semester.  You can’t rely on Google exclusively.
  3. Web sites are not all created equalEvaluate, and trust primary sources FIRST.  Sometimes you’ll want to check who owns a web site.
  4. Web pages don’t die easily.  Old pages can be treasure troves.
  5. The first breakout web search tool was a subject guide.  They are still around and still useful.
  6. In addition to the “general” search tools, there are great “specialty” engines too.  Among the best known are Google NewsGoogle Books and YouTube.

For more, see Barbara Gray’s guide.

Court research

December 2nd, 2012 by Jack Styczynski

Points of emphasis for critical thinking:

  1. With many courts at the federal, state and local levels, there is no “one stop shopping” for court research.  In most cases, you’ll need to know the jurisdiction before you can find anything.
  2. In many jurisdictions, particularly at the local levels, case information isn’t online at all.  For those cases, you have no choice but to visit the courthouse or contact the court clerk to get info (unless you can get it from participating lawyers).
  3. Of the courts that do have case information online, there’s no uniformity.  Some post full case documents.  Others provide only basic docket information.  And many times, you’ll have to use a fee-based service to get the info.
  4. For federal cases, PACER is the best place to go.  Although fee-based, it’s relatively inexpensive.  It has both docket information and (most) case documents.  (Note: The Supreme Court has its own no-cost site separate from the PACER system.  Historical SCOTUS info can be found here, here, here and here.) FindLaw is another good site to search Supreme and Circuit Court decisions. USCourts.gov also publishes the very useful Journalist’s Guide to the Federal Courts and Understanding the Federal Courts.
  5. LexisNexis has case information for the most jurisdictions–federal, state and local–but not all of it is available in the academic version universally accessible to CUNY students.  See Barbara Gray in the Research Center for access to the professional version.
  6. Beyond PACER and LexisNexis, you should check individual court sites, such as the New York State Unified Court System’s eCourtsSlip Decisions or SCROLL (for Manhattan Supreme) pages, to find out what is and isn’t available online.  (Note: The Bronx County Clerk’s Office has a Law Case Search page, including access to court documents for anyone who registers.)
  7. For higher-profile cases, you can sometimes find court documents posted at sites such as MoreLaw or The Smoking Gun.
  8. You’ll probably need to talk to them for your story anyway, so if all else fails, lawyers might provide case information.  My favorite sites to find lawyer contacts are LegalDockets and Martindale.com.

For more tips on court research, see Barbara Gray’s guide.

Finding sources for stories

November 12th, 2012 by Jack Styczynski

Points of emphasis for critical thinking:

  • Experts should be one of your first thoughts as a source of information on any subject.  They can lend authority, accuracy, balance and credibility to your stories.  They may also refer you to other sources.
  • One good way to find experts is to do a Nexis or Factiva search on your story subject and see who has spoken on the topic in the past.
  • Another way is to seek out local or national organizations related to the topic.  One of my favorite tools is the Encyclopedia of Associations, an “old-fashioned” print resource available in our Research Center.  Online, you can use the school’s related Associations Unlimited account or the universally accessible Gateway to Associations.
  • Also worth checking is the school’s Leadership Library subscription, an online version of the well-known “Yellow Books.”  You can find contact information for the leaders of major United States government, business, professional, and non-profit organizations.
  • Government employees can often be of help.  Any New York City reporter should have the latest copy of the Green Book.
  • Many colleges and universities provide access to faculty and staff experts via their web sites, including CUNY and other local schools.   There are also web sites specifically devoted to connecting journalists with experts, such as ProfNet and the Yearbook of Experts.
  • Sources need not always be subject experts.  Acquaintances of people or witnesses to events would be prime examples.  ReferenceUSA is a great tool to find such sources.

For more ideas on finding experts, see Barbara Gray’s guide.

Cops and crime

October 7th, 2012 by Jack Styczynski

Handout highlights:

  1. Crime statistics at the local, state and national levels
  2. Inmate statistics and lookup/locator tools (plus parole and probation stats)
  3. Most wanted criminals
  4. Sex offender registries
  5. Criminal court information  
  6. Gun violence timelines
  7. Death penalty information
  8. District Attorneys and lawyers

People finding and backgrounding

October 1st, 2012 by Jack Styczynski

Points of emphasis for critical thinking:

  1. People—whether witnesses to an incident or experts on a subject—should be one of your first thoughts as a source of information on ANYTHING.
  2. That said, never trust any person—no matter who it is—as your sole source of information, even about him or her self…and sometimes ESPECIALLY about him or her self (e.g. people lying about their age).  Always verify!
  3. Backgrounding people is crucial.  For example, you never want to write a friendly story about someone, only to be burned by not doing proper backgrounding.
  4. Last but not least: there’s some information generated about people that won’t be available.  As an example, consider Presidential candidates.  What information about them is released only at their discretion?

The bonus: Accurint is an amazing resource that Barbara Gray has access to in the Research Center.

Community Districts and NYC.gov

September 1st, 2012 by Jack Styczynski

Points of emphasis for critical thinking:

  1. NYC.gov is going to be a (if not the) primary research source for your Community District.
  2. Like almost all government web sites, the bulk of “the good stuff” is buried deep within NYC.gov.  Never think the home page of a government web site is going to be intuitive.  You need to dig.
  3. Do you necessarily trust every piece of information released by the government?

Along with NYC.gov, the following resources may also help you compile information for your beat memo:

My colleague Barbara Gray also has also compiled a CD resource guide that will help with your beat memo (CUNY WordPress login required).