Journalism Basics: How to Use the Internet as a Reporting Tool

It makes research easier, but you have to know how to use it propertly

College students studying at desk
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At the risk of sounding like an old fogey, let me explain what it was like to be a reporter in the days before "googling" was a verb.

Back then, reporters were expected to find their own sources and interview them, either in person or over the phone (remember, before the internet, we didn't even have email). And if you needed background material for a story, you checked the newspaper's morgue, where clips from past issues were kept in filing cabinets.

Or you consulted things like encyclopedias.

Nowadays, of course, that's all ancient history. With the click of a mouse or a tap on a smartphone, journalists have access to virtually unlimited amounts of information online. But the strange thing is that many of the aspiring reporters I see in my journalism classes don't seem to know how to appropriately use the internet as a reporting tool. Here are three main problems I see:

Relying Too Heavily on Material From the Web

This is probably the most common Internet-related reporting problem I see. I require students in my journalism courses to produce articles that are at least 500 words, and every semester a few submit stories that simply rehash information from a variety of websites.

But there are at least two problems that arise from this. First, you're not doing any of your own original reporting, so you're not getting important training in conducting interviews.

Second, you run the risk of committing plagiarism, the cardinal sin in journalism.

Information taken from the internet should be a complement to, but not a substitute for, your own original reporting. Any time a student journalist puts his byline on an article being submitted to his professor or the student newspaper, the assumption is that the story is based mostly on his own work.

By turning in something that's largely copied off the internet or not attributed properly, you are cheating yourself out of important lessons and running the risk of getting an "F" for plagiarism.

Using the Internet Too Little

Then there are students who have the opposite problem — they fail to use the internet when it could provide useful background information for their stories.

Let's say a student reporter is doing an article about how rising gas prices are affecting commuters at her college. She interviews plenty of students, getting lots of anecdotal information about how the price rise impacts them.

But a story like this also cries out for context and background information. For instance, what is happening in global oil markets that are causing the price increase? What is the average price of gas across the country, or in your state? That's the kind of information that can easily be found online and would be perfectly appropriate to use. It's laudable that this reporter is relying mostly on her own interviews, but she's short-changing herself by ignoring information from the web that could make her article more well-rounded.

Failing to Properly Attribute Information Taken From the Web

Whether you are using online sources a lot or just a little, it's crucial you always properly attribute the information you use from any website.

Any data, statistics, background information or quotes that you haven't gathered yourself must be credited to the website it came from.

Fortunately, there's nothing complicated about proper attribution. For instance, if you are using some information taken from The New York Times, simply write something like, "according to The New York Times," or "The New York Times reported…"

This introduces another issue: Which websites are reliable enough for a reporter to use, and which sites should she steer clear of? Fortunately, I've written an article on that very topic, which you can find here.

The moral of this story? The bulk of any article you do should be based on your own reporting and interviewing. But any time you are doing a story that could be improved with background information on the web, then, by all means, use such information.

Just make sure to properly attribute it.