Posted on February 12, 2013.
Jack Styczynski is a researcher at The New York Times and NBC, and a research adjunct at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He received his M.L.S. from the University at Albany in 1995.
In 2001, I wrote an article about training employees at NBC to efficiently use the Internet for their own research. The overall tenor was that such training was a wise thing for corporate librarians to do.
Was I wrong?
|“I don’t believe there can be good journalism without essential library research behind it.”
Similar—albeit evolved—research training sessions continue to this day at NBC and other major news media outlets. At the same time, it’s no secret that the number of librarians (i.e. professional researchers) at these companies has been slashed dramatically over the past decade.
Have we shot ourselves in the foot?
And no less importantly, has journalism suffered as a result?
The recent story about Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o and his fake dead girlfriend provides food for thought. The media mythologized the tragic tale without properly confirming the woman’s death, let alone her existence. Among the myth perpetuators, Sports Illustrated reporter Pete Thamel said he did look for an obituary and search Nexis for public records on the “deceased,” but upon finding nothing concluded that it was probably because young people often have no public records footprint online. While that’s true, it’s rare that there would be no obituary or death notice published anywhere. A huge red flag missed, and perhaps a prime example of research in the wrong hands.
That’s not necessarily to say Thamel couldn’t have gotten professional research help at Sports Illustrated. Pete and I worked together for several years at The New York Times and I know he understands the value of a good researcher. But he declined to be interviewed for this article.
Former Times research director Barbara Gray did agree to talk, however. She may have put it best in a December Reporters’ Lab article when she said, “No one’s ever going to be a news research professional unless they’re a news research professional. We have people who have done this for 25 years. This is what they do and this is what they do really well.”
In our conversation, she expanded on that thought.
“Researchers can see around corners. Researchers know how to find things and it seems almost like a miracle, but it’s not. It’s because it’s what we do all day long and we just know how to get to the next level because we’re not worrying about writing, we’re not worrying about interviewing people, we’re not worrying about turning in copy.”
Taking that to the next logical step, Gray suggested that reporters could always use professional research help.
“It’s good to have someone to bounce things off of, someone that you know when you hit a wall, you can rely on.”
But looking at the reality of the situation, Gray also called past and future news research job cuts “inevitable” and added, “Reporters have to be trained. Whether or not anybody’s shooting their foot off, reporters have to be trained.” She is now the chief librarian and a lecturer at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Although she left her position at the Times by choice, she recommends laid off news researchers get into academia to help train journalists.
I too teach at the CUNY J-school and continue to do corporate training sessions, but given the research job slashing, I wonder if I’m doing the right thing.
Should I really be giving companies an excuse to cut professional research jobs? While I might be doing the only thing possible to keep even a flicker of good research alive, it may also make me complicit in the slashing, and as an extension, the gradual decline of research in journalism.
Training could be an excuse, and an insidious one, could it not?
“I think ‘excuse’ is the exact word, because I don’t think it is a logical cause for getting rid of researchers,” said NBC Information Resources manager Polly DeFrank of a common management sentiment that training journalists is the ultimate panacea for news media research. “They genuinely think that we can teach (journalists) the equivalent of an M.L.S. and they can just take it over in addition to their other job and start researching to the degree that we are, and it’s not the case.
“On the other hand, I don’t think you can refuse to train because that’s what the corporations want and it does make sense to a certain degree. I think we’re shooting ourselves in the foot by agreeing to do it, but I don’t think we have a choice.
“I wish there was a way that reporters could be trained and we could make management understand that is a step in the right direction for them—it can only help them—but it does not replace us is any way, shape or form.”
DeFrank noted that she’ll often encounter journalists who’ve received some basic Nexis training and think they’re adept at using the database, but when they come for refresher lessons, she sees otherwise.
“I’m always shocked at how little they know,” she said.
To get anywhere close to making a news media research department obsolete, DeFrank believes journalists would need a course similar to what a library school student takes. “If you’re not going to have a research group, I think you have to have your journalists take the equivalent of what we did—a semester of searching,” she said.
Assuming few would have taken such a class before being hired, the time and cost required for companies to provide it would be unrealistic.
Of course, newsroom staff decisions always come down to money, and Gray lamented so many job cuts in research.
“I think this is what the news media feels that they have to do, weighing the options,” she said. “Do I think it’s necessarily a good idea? I don’t, but I’m not the one controlling the purse strings, having to make the big decisions about people and quality.”
In the last edition of ChapterNews, National Public Radio reference librarian Kee Malesky also addressed the topic of squeezed newsroom budgets.
“In an economic crisis, I understand if a news organization is cutting editors and reporters, and cutting beats, and not covering foreign events anymore and running wire copy instead, of course they had to cut the librarians too, but I want it all to come back,” said Malesky.
“I don’t believe there can be good journalism without essential library research behind it.”