You landed a plum assignment! Fantastic! Now it’s time to research and write it. Essay writing is comparatively easy when pretty much the only source you’re relying on is you.
But with a reported story, it’s the experts you quote and the research you cite that will make your story compelling and credible.
That’s what I’m going to focus on here. I’m going to talk about reporting health stories because that’s the kind of articles I wrote for many years, but the basic principles apply to any kind of reported article you’re working on.
What makes a good expert?
I’ll state the obvious: an expert is someone who’s recognized as tops in their field. So, let’s say you’re writing an article about women and heart disease. Your cousin Murray’s next door neighbor may be a cardiologist, but he/she’s not going to pass muster with your editor. Private practice docs just aren’t considered high-profile or authoritative enough to quote. So who is?
Well, the appropriateness of an expert can be in the eye of the beholder, er …. editor. When I was an editor at Vegetarian Times, I often called on the physician director of an advocacy group in Washington, DC. He was an MD, had written several books about nutrition and health, he was absolutely perfect for the Vegetarian Times point of view. But when I tapped him for a story I was writing for Food & Wine, I was told he was too “radical” and to find a more “mainstream” physician. His credentials didn’t change; the audience (and the editor) did. That said, you really cannot go wrong approaching an author who’s written books (published by a major publisher) on the topic you’re writing about, researchers who’ve published papers on the topic in peer-reviewed journals, and university professors.
If you’re writing for a national magazine, like Glamour or Good Housekeeping, you can pretty much tap sources from any top university, like Yale, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, University of Chicago, UC Berkeley, etc. If you can find someone connected to a university who also has a book out, so much the better. That source will likely be very enthusiastic about doing an interview that helps them promote their book.
If you’re writing for a local newspaper or local website, you’ll want to use local sources. That was always the rule when I wrote for the Orange County Register in California. (That paper was competing with the Los Angeles Times, and as the scrappy underdog going head to head with the national behemoth, its strategy was always to find the local angle on all stories.) Fortunately, with two California State University campuses and one University of California campus in Orange County, there was a big pool of experts to tap. But even if you don’t have a university nearby, you can still find expert sources. Just about every medical condition or group of professionals has an association or advocacy group behind it. In health, you’ll find organizations like these: American Heart Association, American Dietetics Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Cancer Society, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Whatever topic you’re writing about, there’s probably an organization behind it that does education, advocacy and outreach. These organizations have legions of spokespeople throughout the country whose jobs are to talk with the media. Contact their “media relations” staff and they should be able to hook you up with someone nearby.How to Report A Story Your Editor Will Love! Click To Tweet
Beyond universities and medical associations, there are still more resources for ferreting out experts. Scroll through Amazon — who has a new book out or coming out soon? The publisher’s publicity department will be able to connect you with the author — at least for the few months of the book’s launch. After that, you may have to track down the author through their website’s Contact Me page.
Flip through women’s magazines and note who their writers are interviewing and quoting. This serves a couple of purposes. First, it’s the perfect excuse for sitting poolside with a stack of magazines and legit calling it “research.” Second, you’re finding experts who enjoy talking to the media and do it well — not all do. The best experts are the ones who can communicate complex ideas in an accessible and entertaining manner. A few years ago, I was reporting on rising rates of gout in women for More magazine. Gout was long considered a man’s disease and as I’d just gotten diagnosed myself, I was writing a reported personal essay about my experience and how it fit into this larger health trend. (Those are always my favorite stories to write!) I needed a rheumatologist to weigh in, but because I had a somewhat humorous take on this, I needed a rheumatologist with a sense of humor to play off my schtick. As it happened, a health writer friend of mine knew the perfect doc. But if she hadn’t come through, I would have posted some queries for experts on two services designed to connect writers with experts in an array of fields — Profnet (profnet.com) and HARO (stands for Help A Reporter Out).
Owned by the same company, Cision, the two services essentially work the same way. You fill out a query form detailing the expertise you’re seeking and then the Profnet and HARO send out queries to their databases of experts. Those who are interested contact you directly and you choose who to follow up with.
Using research studies
The most important tip I can give here is to always use primary sources. So what constitutes a primary source: any interviews you do with people; a study in a peer-reviewed journal, information you get directly from a book (though it’s still best to interview the author). What’s not a primary source: a press release about a study; news reports about a study in another publication, even a reputable one like the New York Times. (If you’re doing a news story or profile and want to quote something that ran in another publication, it’s okay to use the quote with attribution and/or link to the original news source: for instance, “as Dr. Jane Smith said in The New York Times …” It’s not okay to lift the quote and use it in your story without attributing the original source.)
Why the big deal? Because secondary sources, even university press releases about study results, even other magazines can get the details wrong. I remember chasing a statistic I’d seen reported in Prevention and wanted to use in a story for a different magazine. Prevention is famously compulsive about getting its facts right — which is what makes it such a credible read. But in this case, someone goofed — the university that Prevention credited with doing this particular research had not in fact done the research, something I discovered only after many keyword searches, calls to universities and a deep dive into the scientific literature. A big hint that something was amiss: my keyword searches kept bringing up references to the same Prevention article in other publications, but not the primary source for the study. As much as I trust Prevention to get things right, this was a case where they had the source wrong and it somehow slipped through their very careful fact checking process. Because I kept digging, the sourcing was correct when I cited the study in my article — and the right university got the credit for their research.
Putting together your fact-checking material
Magazines call this the “backup” since it’s all the information that will back up that what you’ve written in your article is factual — and an actual fact-checker will comb through your story and your backup material to verify it. Not every publication or website will require this material — but national magazines will for sure, and payment almost always hinges on turning this in. Often the first time you write for a magazine, the editor will send you writer’s guidelines and guidelines for putting together your backup material, but the basic rule is to annotate your final edited story, providing a study, fact sheet or interview source for every fact, figure or statistic you cite. You’ll also be asked to provide a list of interview sources, their titles, emails and phone numbers, and some publications may request recordings of your interviews as well. You will absolutely endear yourself to the fact-checker and your editor by providing complete, well-organized backup material.