When you research a story, you become an information hunter. You aim to find the best quotes and highest-quality facts specific to your story in the shortest time. You use all the avenues available to you to source the people, stats and figures your article needs. Research is fun.
How to find sources
Work your network. When you’re looking for leads (such as interviewees and case studies) a useful first step is to send out a group email or message to the people you know. If you’ve organised your email address book into groups (say, psychology contacts, environmental contacts or entertainment contacts), send your email to the appropriate people. Outline the story you’re writing, and describe the sources you’re looking for.
Call PR and publicity companies. At the mere drop of a magazine title, publicity people will rush off, get on the phone and try their hardest to get one of their clients into your story. It’s their job, but still, you’ve got to love them for it.
Ask experts to recommend other experts, professionals and case studies. Whether it’s that friendly lawyer you interviewed for a previous story, your friend’s genius financial consultant or your nice family doctor, call these people up and they’ll often direct you towards sizzling sources for your story.
Call companies. Writing a story on how to prevent a party from going horribly wrong? Phone a party planning business and chat to the receptionist for the horror stories, then ask to speak to a consultant to hear about the successes. Need a photogenic cancer survivor in a hurry? Phone a wigmaker to find out whether they have a client who may be interested in sharing her story.
Call organisations. Support groups, non-governmental organisations, societies of professionals and trade associations are often happy to recommend sources and even find suitable case studies on your behalf. Email them a summary of your article, detailing who you’re writing for and the type of information or source you need.
Call book publishers. Experts, from social commentators to award-winning psychologists, often publish books. Forge relationships with the PR people at publishing houses, and phone them to find out whether they can recommend authors for you to interview.
Consult the Yellow Pages. Simple, fast and often overlooked, this method of research can yield surprisingly good sources in narrow fields. Check the subject index at the front first.
Scan the Internet. Hunt for possible sources by profession and city. Add ‘email’ and your search may even yield an email address. Easy or what?
Ask an editor: Why are strong research skills important?
‘We’re a service magazine, and that means we require strong, credible research to back up everything we publish, whether it’s on pasta or the prostate. Experts make us experts, and readers are looking for great advice in bite-sized chunks they can use immediately. Research skills include the ability to find stats in manuals, medical journals and scientific databases, and interviewing and finding resources that go beyond the first person you speak to. Anyone with a PC can find information, but a good writer should go beyond the obvious and not only find something surprising, but be able to back it up with a report, study or expert.’
Jason Brown, editor, Best Life
Ask a writer: What are the benefits in having good relationships with experts?
‘No matter how good a journalist and writer you are, if you don’t have the right facts and figures, the story is dead. For any journalist working in a specialist field, it’s imperative to have a strong network of experts in that field who know and trust you, people who will feed you information, who will take your call when you’re on deadline and will give you their time and expertise. For a freelance journalist, who earns by the word rather than drawing a salary, to have a source withhold critical information has bread-and-butter implications.’
Leonie Joubert, freelance science journalist and author
Choose the right sources
Sources need to be appropriate for each story. A cancer survivor may offer brilliant personal anecdotes for a cancer feature, but shouldn’t be relied upon for the facts about cancer. Information about the disease itself should come from a recognised authority on the subject – an eminent medical professor at a top university; an oncologist who’s won a major award for her research and treatment of cancer; the head of a national non-profit cancer association. Learn to tell the difference.
When quoting sources, say clearly who they are and which organisations or companies (if any) they are affiliated to – for example, ‘Angela Roberts, 32, a financial analyst who was diagnosed with breast cancer last year’ or ‘Dr Basil February, head of the oncology unit at Parklands Hospital’, or ‘John Roberts, 36, Angela’s husband of five years’. Once this information has been supplied, it’s up to the reader to decide how much of an authority your source is.
The type of research varies for each story. When writing a profile, for instance, it would make sense to use the following research tools:
Clippings: previously published articles, interviews and profiles on or by the person you’re writing about.
Records, if you’re writing an investigative piece: title deeds, court transcripts from legal proceedings, minutes from corporate meetings.
An interview with the person. Before the interview, research your interviewee and write down a list of questions to ask. Instead of close-ended questions, requiring just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer (‘Did you have a good relationship with your father?’ ‘Were you happy in your previous job?’), ask open-ended questions or prompts, which give your interviewee ample space in which to explain and elaborate: for example, ‘Wow! I’m wondering what made you decide to move from accountancy to TV presenting’; ‘Tell me about growing up with a famous father in a small town,’ or ‘Why do you think people react so strongly to your work?’
Interviews with some of his or her friends and enemies. This will produce a rounded view of the character, and hopefully a few spicy comments to add zest to your story, such as, ‘Of my three sons, he’s the richest – and the laziest. Did you know that?’, or ‘I had to stop working for Thando; her standards were way too high.’