7 ways to follow a field you want to investigate

Here’s a part by part guide to how you can follow different ‘streams’ of information as a journalist to understand what’s going on in a particular field, and how they can inform your real-world digging. Most of them involve using an RSS reader like Google Reader to follow feeds to keep in touch with developments.

1. Prepackaged news

While much is made of the ‘exclusive’ in journalism, and students will be harangued for recycling work done by other journalists, the truth is that the first thing most journalists do every day is check out their competitors, and get a feel for the current news agenda. A journalist has to balance being ‘on top’ of developments that others are covering (“Why don’t we have something on this story?”), while also reporting information that others don’t have.

Journalisted provides feeds for most national journalists and many regional ones too. Sadly there’s no way (that I know of) to browse by specialist field, However you can use a search like “health correspondent” site:journalisted.com to get a good idea.

This will omit those whose bios don’t describe their specialism, however. So an alternative tack is to pick a particular story which you would assume most reporters in a particular field will have covered, and search for mentions of that on Journalisted.

With most journalists now on Twitter, it’s also worth looking for lists of correspondents or departments (e.g. @GdnHealthcare). You can search Twitter bios on FollowerWonk, there are Twitter list directories on Twibes, Listorious, and other sites, or you can simply search Google for the type of Twitter list you’re after.

Following specialist journalists and departments will only tell you what’s already being reported, however. You’ll need to follow a lot more feeds to move up the news food chain.

2. Corridors of power

If something is important, chances are it will end up being raised or discussed around Parliament at some point. People may write to their local MP just as readily as a local journalist, and organisations may raise issues as part of a submission to a select committee that they wouldn’t otherwise air publicly.

This applies whether you’re covering an obviously political field, like health, or something less clearly political, such as sport or the arts – both of which receive government funding and are subject to regulations and processes laid down by politicians and civil servants.

It’s important, then, to keep on top of what’s being discussed in the corridors of power – whether that is Prime Minister’s Questions, Written Answers, select committees, or one of the many other discussions and meetings that take place in Westminster and elsewhere.

TheyWorkForYou is a good first port of call on this front, as it provides email and RSS alerts for everything recorded in Parliament (for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland you should also follow your national parliament or assembly). Here are some suggestions:

  • Identify key terms, places, people and organisations in your field and subscribe to searches for those. The more specific the better: “apprenticeships” rather than “training”, for example. You can also use filters (on the right of the results page) to only show results from a particular section – for example, Scotland, or Written Answers.
  • Know who the key ministers are in your field and follow what they say. For example, Michael Gove may be the Secretary of State for Education, but universities come under BIS (the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills), and the universities minister is David Willetts. The shadow universities minister is Shabana Mahmood (more on shadow ministers here). The ministers for education in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are John O’Dowd, Michael Russell and Leighton Andrews respectively, and so on. Again you can use the filters to narrow to one person.
  • There may also be members of the House of Lords with particular professional backgrounds or interests who are relevant – try a search limited to the Lords biographies pages (site:www.parliament.uk/biographies/lords/).
  • Look for ongoing and upcoming consultations (also listed on Gov.uk’s publications page, where you can follow an RSS feed or receive email alerts). These invite people to submit their thoughts on a particular area or issue, and can lead you to people (experts in your field, people with interesting experiences), information (reports, statistics and research) and leads (problems, conflicts, unsupported claims, etc.) Again, there will be separate consultations for devolved nations, and some department may have their own pages. For example, the Department of Health has a ‘Consultation Hub’ with RSS feeds.

The European Parliament has a similar site for Parliamentary Questions. And the House of Lords has a ‘Digital Chamber’ where you can find blogs and social media accounts for members. This doesn’t list their areas of interests, but you can find them on the Parliament sitethis, for example, is a list of Lords who have policy interests in social security and pensions.

Each government department has a list of ongoing and upcoming consultations, and you can normally find links to the formal submissions. If there is a feed, subscribe. If not, make one.

Parliament also has Deposited papers page – these often include research reports, data, and correspondence. Wales‘s Assembly has a similar site, as does Northern Ireland‘s.

There are also other mailing lists you should look out for and follow. For example, Info4local is particularly useful, allowing you to select from a range of locations, bodies and topics.

At a local government level, look for your local authority’s ‘democracy’ section, or the sections for ‘diary‘, consultations and/or meetings. Some have alerts for minutes, consultations and other documents – for example, Birmingham City Council’s Democracy section has an email alert facility.

Similar pages can be found for your local police force and police authority, and health bodies.

For more on finding information from parliamentary sources, see this video of Jon Walker, a Westminster correspondent for the Birmingham Post & Mail:

3. Events

Events provide a number of useful pieces of information to the network journalist. Firstly, they provide an indication of talking points within a particular field, and their perceived importance: what is the keynote about? The panel discussions? If attendees choose threads of discussion, or elect to go to one over another, what do they choose?

Secondly, they provide a list of potential contacts: the speakers, certainly, but also those attending if the list is published on an Eventbrite page, for example. Even if the list is not published, you can make a note to search for “going to X” on social networks, and to look for mentions while the event is taking place (which will also direct you to people within the field who are not attending but who are talking about the event anyway).

Obviously you want to attend the event yourself: making contacts in person is invariably more effective than online approaches, and just listening to the chatter between people can give you insights you won’t otherwise get.

It also makes it easier to find people talking about the location ‘near you’ using social media apps that incorporate search by location (e.g. Osfoora or Flickr’s map).

If that’s not possible you can still pick up a lot of information from following the event from afar, where you can also use geolocation to find people in that area.

Once the event has taken place there are other sources of information you might look for. For example, did anyone blog about it? Post any audio, video or photos to media sharing sites such as YouTube, Vimeo, Audioboo, or Flickr? Are any of the presentations online (try adding filetype:ppt or filetype:pdf to a Google search, or searching platforms like Slideshare or Scribd)

Subscribe to Google Alerts for any mentions of the event in future, too – someone might only write about it or mention it weeks after the event itself, or when the next year’s starts to loom.

4. Reluctant disclosures

Alongside the formal recording of government business represented by Hansard and TheyWorkForYou (TWFY), there are the disclosures made through Freedom of Information (FOI) and other requests.

WhatDoTheyKnow (WDTK) – created by the same people who built TWFY – allows you to follow FOI requests made by people using the site in much the same way you can follow Hansard: through RSS feeds and email alerts based on keywords and phrases, people or organisations.

Needless to say, then, you should be subscribing to alerts on the same basis:

Look at the key terms, places, people and organisations in your field that you are already following on TWFY and subscribe to searches for those. Again, the more specific the better.

Know who the key organisations are in your field and follow FOI requests sent to them. Some general searches, e.g. “crime”, will bring up some you won’t have thought of. For example, would you have thought of the Port of Bristol Police? Remember that responsibility for an area will often be spread between specialist agencies and more general bodies, and at both local and national level. For example, an FOI relating to health spending might go to an individual GP (not covered by WDTK, by the way), a Primary Care Trust (PCT), the local authority, or the Department of Health, or any number of other bodies.

Look to see who’s making requests on particular subjects. If they’re interested in similar things to you, follow the feed for all their requests too. If you can ever add a helpful comment to their requests, do so: you can post comments on FOI requests on WDTK, and that might count for a lot in future if you need a favour back.

Around 10% of FOI requests are made through WhatDoTheyKnow, which means there are another 90% you can’t find through this site.

To try to catch those, search for ‘disclosure log’ for bodies in your field. These are pages where the body declares FOI requests received, their status and, in some cases, publishes the responses to them. If there’s a feed for the logs, subscribe to it. Otherwise, create one.

Even if the body does not publish responses, you can use the descriptions and the reference number to request a copy. You can also follow up on others’ FOI requests to ask for extra detail or documentation.

A final thing to do is to create a Google Alert for any mentions of “freedom of information” or “freedom of information request”. This will pick up mentions in news articles based on or “following a freedom of information request”, as well as press releases by campaigning groups using FOI.

Note that it will also pick up mentions from the US and other countries where the phrase “freedom of information” is used, so you’ll have to tweak your alert to omit results from US and other non-UK news organisations.

Occasionally the journalist or group will publish the full data. They might also be willing to supply it to you, particularly if you can add more analysis. Failing that you might, again, request a copy from the body that it was addressed to (this is harder if the request was sent to dozens of bodies across the country).

5. Reports, research and consultations

Reports, research and consultations are a useful source of leads, contacts, and background information. These might come from academic or research institutions, thinktanks, charities, campaigning groups, government departments, political parties, or anyone else.

Some of these get more coverage than others, but it’s always best to have access to the original document and data, especially if the group behind it is pushing an agenda. And you should always assume that they are.

Google Alerts comes in handy again here. You can take two tacks here: alerts for the reports themselves; and alerts for articles referring to them.

An alert for the reports themselves is likely to focus on domain extension and file type. Reports tend to be published in PDF format, and by organisations with a web address ending in ‘.ac.uk’ or ‘.org.uk’ (or ‘.gov.uk’). So try “report OR research olympics filetype:pdf site:ac.uk” – or customise based on your own field (e.g. in health add ‘site:nhs.uk’).

An alert for any news articles should aim to pick up anything not picked up by the above alert. It would limit itself to results from Google News and the key words, e.g. “report OR research olympics

Note that undertaking a survey or releasing ‘research’ is one of the basic tricks of PR workers seeking coverage. Sometimes they will lack any methodological rigour, and if you cannot get information on the raw data, the sample size, methods and other key details, then you should be very suspicious (and report your suspicions).

UPDATE: The Research Councils data portal is another useful source of information on research – not just in academic institutions: organisations listed under results for ‘Birmingham‘ include projects at Birmingham City Council, museums and art galleries, hospitals, and business agencies.

6. Affected communities

All of the above will only give you a bird’s eye view of the field you’re covering. You will also need to follow those experiencing the issues and processes being discussed in the reports, debates and the events, and recorded in the data.

A good way to approach this is to map out the process that a ‘service user’ in your field has to go through. For example, a student’s work is marked by lecturers, and moderated by external advisers, all of whom might be working within limits or guidelines set by accreditation bodies, regulators, funding bodies, and internal university working groups. They might access welfare services with different staff and other guidelines, etc.
In health, a patient might see their local GP, a specialist, access patient groups, get support from the local authority and from their own family, and from a charity. Each of those will be working within different regulations, laws, and requirements to report results and other details.

An ‘affected’ community could be anyone at any stage of that process. For example:

  • The patient might suffer from poor care
  • Their family has to take time off to fill the gaps in care or pursue complaints
  • Their GP lacks support or funds
  • The charity worker (or private sector worker) is overworked and frustrated at money being spent on marketing and bids which could be spent on care, or frustrated by some service users exploiting the system
  • The private sector company (or charity) is suffering from high turnover of staff because of the demands of local government contracts

The more perspectives you can follow, the better you can understand the picture

Finding feeds for these individuals often takes a bit of rooting around in various social networks, but once you have found one individual, that often leads to others. Here are some avenues to explore:

  • Twitter lists and bios – again, see FollowerWonk, Listorious, etc.
  • Related Facebook groups – look for wall updates posted by people with direct experience
  • LinkedIn – search by industry or employer
  • Blogs – use a specialist search engine like IceRocket. Once you’ve found a blog, look for ‘blogrolls’ with links to other blogs covering the same topic
  • Forums – BoardReader is useful for searching forum posts (and provides an RSS feed). Also try forums on specialist media, such as the BMJ’s doc2doc for health, TES forums for education, and so on.
  • Specialist social networks – many professions have their own social networks.

7. Experts and observers

This refers to those who study a particular field, rather than those ‘at the coalface’ within it – but there will inevitably be some overlap with the previous category. Typical types of expert include the following:

  • Insider ‘experts’ who are employed within the industry full time, part time, or on secondment
  • Academic experts who research and/or teach the field. These may also work within the industry on a part time, consultancy or secondment basis, and have probably done so in the past.
  • ‘Observers’ – individuals who have an interest in monitoring how a particular industry operates, either because they are concerned about its impact on themselves or their loved ones, or because they see commercial or professional opportunities. This also includes…
  • Issue campaigners – people who are interested in an issue which relates to the field. They may be nationally focused, or tackling how an issue plays out locally.
  • Retirees – people who have retired from any of the above positions. One journalistic trick is to follow who leaves the industry, because they will have insider insights without, necessarily, the concern over keeping their job that often comes with that.
  • Students – at the other end of the spectrum are those who wish to enter a field or industry and are studying it. Occasionally individuals in this category will have unique insights through their research, internships, or contacts.
  • Bystanders. This is slightly different to those listed above, as their role as ‘observer’ is generally accidental, and not informed by expertise. However, they also have less reason to skew their description of a particular event.

The same avenues listed above can be used to find experts and observers. In addition, this post on building contacts lists other approaches, such as looking at press cuttings, academic journals and university experts directories.

For bystanders, you may want to look at geolocated media (e.g. searching Twitter by location).

2 thoughts on “7 ways to follow a field you want to investigate

  1. George

    Being a PhD students, attempting to launch freedom of information requests and get information through various online sources for my research, your site never fails to impress me regarding the variety of techniques presented and the broadness of topics covered. I would like to thank you for the ideas you have shared and please keep up the excellent work.

  2. Pingback: How to keep track of welfare issues part 2: case studies and context | Help Me Investigate Welfare

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