Friday, April 8, 2011

Finding news topics and sources

There are many ways to find original sources for news stories. often, these sources will also provide breaking news tips that let you get information at the same time as it becomes available to newspaper and television news reporters.

If you have a particular news niche in which you write regularly, think about the organizations that generate news in that area. For example, if you like to write about the latest medical breakthroughs, epidemics, food poisoning outbreaks, and other health news, there are a variety of very authoritative original sources available to you as a reporter.

You can start with the Centers for Disease Control's Press Room page. This page provides in-depth and authoritative information on current outbreaks of things like salmonella, bird flu, measles, and other public health concerns. You can find symptoms, statistics, prevention, and loads of other relevant information. Perhaps, just as important for some publishers is the availability of high quality, public domain images for use by journalists. These images fall into the category of an online press kit and include pictures not only specific to individual news stories, but images suitable for general medical news use. Don't forget that each one must be properly credited. The image below is an example of a CDC microbiologist inoculating an embryonic chicken egg against the bird flu.

Another useful source for medical news stories is the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). By registering for media access, you can get a weekly email summary of available news releases, including many that are embargoed to the general public. Here you'll find the latest medical studies, research, and other breaking medical news. Whereas you might use CDC for background information or general statistics, the JAMA releases might be the focus of your news article.

For example, on this page there's a summary and link to a full article which might lend itself to this title: "Study lists controlling behaviors linked to domestic violence." That's hard news which is of interest to a large segment of the population and which has some evergreen potential depending upon your specific angle and title. This story could be written up in a variety of ways to match the preferences of your intended publisher. If you have first hand experience with domestic violence, can call and interview a staff member at a local women's shelter, or add a brief list of domestic violence resources in your area, the story can be very effectively personalized and/or localized. It can even be written as a non-news article with an angle like "Controlling behaviors linked to spousal abuse, what to watch for." (That's not a great title, but I wanted to communicate the angle for the purposes of this example.)

By adding statistics on domestic violence from the CDC and other sources, you can strengthen your story and make it more than a simple recap of the JAMA release. Furthermore, because this story was embargoed when first made available, you have time to get all that background information in order, write and proofread your article and still be among the very first to get the story online as soon as the embargo is lifted.

Embargoed means that the organization is releasing information only to authorized journalists so that they can write their story in advance and be ready to publish the instant the embargo is lifted. Be careful to always follow the terms of the embargo and do not submit your story for publication before the time and date stated in the embargo. These kinds of restricted access sources can put the online news writer on an equal footing with any news agency in the world in terms of being first to print.

Government agencies with many different areas of interest make information available to the public and reporters regularly. The Department of Health and Human Services covers a wide range of health issues. A partial list of the web sites on which they make information available is found here. Most government agencies will also allow members of the media to subscribe for email alerts for timely press releases. Often you can sign up very selectively by region or specific topic, depending upon the agency involved. Many have public domain photos available for journalistic use, too. Just be sure to check and follow the terms of use outlined at each site.

More general information sources like PR Newswire or Newswise have sections dedicated to medical topics and registered journalists can received daily email updates of breaking news from those sources as well. It is up to you as a working journalist to separate PR hype from objective news and to treat each accordingly. That's not to say you can't report on Best Pharmaceutical's high expectations for a new drug undergoing preliminary clinical trials, but examine in-depth their claims and make clear the source of the information. If possible, call up a third party expert and get an objective and knowledgeable opinion  on the specific claims.

Other sources might be the press pages of major research hospitals and medical schools. These are primary sources which often include contact information for the actual researcher who wrote and conducted the study who may be available for a telephone interview or to answer a few emailed questions. When you can get original quotes directly from a source, you are further separating your article from the pack and adding a higher layer of quality.

A reporter may or may not be an expert in the field about which they write. It certainly helps. For example, a doctor writing about breaking medical news can use their own expertise to dissect claims, talk about  risks, and provide other detailed analysis. On the other hand, a good journalist investigates the topics about which they write. They report facts and rely on qualified third party opinions to verify those facts or provide explanations, implications, and other pertinent expert analysis. In cases where the reporter is not an expert in the field, they rely on some other source to make sure they fully understand what they are writing about.

In general, if you don't understand a press release and can't find someone to explain it fully, you shouldn't write about it.  Some publishers require the writer to be an expert in certain fields before allowing them to publish on specific topics. Medical news is often one such category. To be a Yahoo! Contributor Network (Y!CN) Featured Contributor, for example, writers are expected to either be a qualified health professional or have some other quantifiable expertise on the topic and must undergo an exacting approval process before excepted in that category.

If you start using these types of sources for your online news articles, and especially if you use several of them for each story to provide richer background detail and demonstrate a thorough understanding of the issue at hand, you'll be among the top tier of news writers. Try it and then compare your articles to those of traditional, respected news outlets. You'll find yourself noticing the deficiencies in many standard news articles which are little more than restatements of publicly available press releases. You'll also start to notice when the reporter didn't understand the nature of the topic. The difference between and association and causation in medical studies, for example, is often misreported by mainstream reporters and can be another angle for your news comparison article.

By using multiple primary sources, online news writers can write with a level of quality that is competitive with, and in some cases, better than any other breaking news publication.


  1. Love this post. Thanks for the help!

  2. Great info Brad! I'm subscribed to my primary sources for my food news beat. I've tried twice to subscribe to media alerts from my governor's office. Apparently, somebody doesn't like what I've had to say because for some reason I'm still not getting any. ;)