Investigative Reporters and Editors

  • More awesome search tips from Google expert Daniel Russell, with real-world examples

    Daniel Russell, research master at Google
    Daniel Russell, research master at Google

    When a research scientist at Google offers to show you how to unlock the full potential of the powerful search engine, you pay attention.

    Last year Daniel Russell spoke at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Boston. Dan showed us search techniques that can make anyone a better researcher. Some tips I already knew. Others I thought I understood but didn’t. And some I had no idea existed.

    I thought Dan’s talk was eye-opening — and others had the same reaction. My post about his presentation last year was widely shared, so there’s enormous interest to learn more about how Google works and how to use it effectively.

    You gotta know a little bit about how to make Google dance. This is all mother’s milk for investigative reporters.”

    Since that conference a year ago, Dan began offering online classes. I’ve had a year to practice many of these techniques. And about a week ago, Dan spoke again at the IRE conference in San Antonio with even more advice.

    “You gotta know a little bit about how to make Google dance,” Dan said at his panel, Digging in with Google. “This is all mother’s milk for investigative reporters.”

    I thought it’d be a good idea to compile some of the interesting new techniques, and revisit tips Dan discussed last year with some real-world examples of how journalists used them in actual news stories. Many of these methods also work on other search engines, such as Yahoo! and Bing.

    These tips are for journalists, researchers, librarians and anyone else who wants to learn new ways to find information. Google will never replace the importance of shoe-leather reporting — knocking on doors and talking to real people. But Google can help reporters find the right doors to knock on and reveal surprising details about the people you’re talking to. Knowing how to find obscure information on the Internet is a vital skill for any journalist.


  • How to solve impossible problems: Daniel Russell’s awesome Google search techniques

    Daniel Russell stood in front of a crowd of investigative journalists in Boston last week and showed us this picture of a random skyscraper in an unknown city:

    Google challenge by Daniel Russell

    Russell posed a riddle:

    What’s the phone number of the office where this picture was snapped?

    Let that sink in. He wasn’t asking for a phone number for the skyscraper in the picture, which sounds hard enough. He wanted the phone number of the precise office where the photographer was standing when the picture was taken.

    Nothing in that office was even in the photo. Yet in a few minutes, Russell, a research scientist at Google, revealed the answer by paying attention to small details and walking us through a series of smart Google searches.

    Daniel Russell, research scientist for Google“Once you know these tricks, you can solve problems that look impossible,” Russell said.

    There are plenty of Google search cheat sheets floating around. But it’s not often you get to hear advice directly from someone at Google who offers you his favorite search tools, methods and perspectives to help you find the impossible.

    Here are some of my favorite tips shared by Russell at the 2012 Investigative Reporters and Editors conference. Some of these techniques are powerful but obscure; others are well-known but not fully understood by everyone.

  • Live-blogging the IRE 2012 Conference in Boston: Resources that will help you be a better investigative journalist

    IRE 2012 Conference in BostonThe classic stereotype about journalists is that we’re all backstabbing vultures who would sell our mothers for a good story.

    Nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, we only sell our mothers for really, really good stories. But more importantly, we’re actually an amazingly friendly, collaborative bunch.

    I’m in Boston where more than 1,000 people are trading tips, offering advice and learning from the best journalists around at this year’s Investigative Reporters and Editors conference.

    This is the place to be if you’ve ever wondered, say, how Washington Post reporters figured out the complexities of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. You get to listen to the actual reporters who worked on the story. They’re essentially saying, “Here’s how we did it, and here are some tips we learned to help you work on the same kind of story.” It’s a goldmine for anyone who cares about journalism and wants to do it better.

  • How Investigative Reporters and Editors shaped my first investigative story

    logos headline

    Investigative Reporters and Editors is in the middle of a fundraising campaign. If you care about watchdog journalism, you might want to think about helping the cause.

    I first heard about IRE from Ken Dilanian, who was an investigative reporter for the San Antonio Express-News in the mid-1990s. I was a skinny dude with a flat top attending Incarnate Word College and writing for the student newspaper, the Logos. Ken suggested I read a book published by IRE called, “The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook.”

    I bought the handbook during Christmas break and devoured it. The book preached the value of tracking down key records to verify what people tell you, and to learn information that officials don’t want you to know. There’s a wide, wide world of public information out there, if you just know where to look. The book showed you how.

    I read the handbook just in time. In the Spring semester at Incarnate Word, I friend told me about problems at the school’s science hall. She said the school was doing a terrible job storing dangerous chemicals — even the San Antonio bomb squad had been called to dispose of potentially explosive substances.

    If I hadn’t read IRE’s handbook, I probably would have called the dean, been told nothing was wrong, and walked away clueless about what was really going on.

    But thanks to IRE, I thought about which government agencies might have information that could confirm the tip. I tracked down public records, such as police reports, and talked to key officials, such as fire marshals, and confirmed the story. By the time I talked to the dean, I already knew what was going on. It was liberating.

    Here’s part of my story in the Logos, published on April 4, 1996:

    Sloppy storage practices have plagued the science department for as long as employees remember — and the problem could be deadly.

    Last semester Incarnate Word called in chemical disposal specialists from Emtech Environmental Service after old acid was found that could have exploded had it been disturbed.

    Bernard Zarazua, laboratory director at the time, was cleaning a lab that hadn’t been used in over six months when he discovered crystallized picric acid in a 25-gram container.

    Stable in liquid form, picric acid solidifies over time, turning combustible and sensitive to vibration.

    “We had [Emtech] come out and dispose of it,” Zarazua says. “They did it at six in the morning so no one would be alarmed.”

    IRE is a nonprofit group that has taught countless students, bloggers and reporters better ways to practice the craft of watchdog journalism. That’s worth a few bucks.