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Using the Internet as a journalistic resource

<b>Sreenath Sreenivasan</b>, an associate professor of journalism at Columbia´s Graduate School of Journalism, shares his expertise with editors and advisers at the Summer Journalism Workshop.
Media Credit: Joe Piniero
Sreenath Sreenivasan, an associate professor of journalism at Columbia´s Graduate School of Journalism, shares his expertise with editors and advisers at the Summer Journalism Workshop.
"Has anyone seen this?" Sreenath Sreenivasan asked as he brought up a web page on his laptop.

The page, entitled "Reactions of Felines to Bearded Men," is a research report, complete with data, analysis, and names of researchers from major universities. The page looked credible, but it's a hoax.

Sreenivasan, an associate professor of Journalism at Columbia University, spoke Friday, June 29, to members of the Newspaper Management course at the summer workshop about using the Internet for in-depth research.

"The web is not the way the press portrays it," Sreenivasan said. "They
portray the web as containing three things: NeoNazis, child pornography and scammers. But the vast majority of websites are full of information that is entertaining and fun."

For someone who has not done much research on the Internet, it can be an intimidating and confusing place, with millions of articles, links to pages that don't exist and enough conjecture to fill a library of books.

The sheer volume of content on the Internet is its most valuable asset and its most daunting obstacle. Sifting through this avalanche of information is the key to productive research, Sreenivasan said.

Search engines

"Search engines are the most frustrating things on the Internet because they don't live up to their name," Sreenivasan said.

Using search engines exclusively to search for information can cause many headaches. Results are often inaccurate and misleading, he said. It doesn't help that some websites pay search engines to give them the top position. Of the countless number of search engines on the Internet, which ones really work?

Sreenivasan recommended the Google search engine (http://www.google.com/). It is one of the most powerful search engines on the net because of the method by which it ranks web pages. Instead of ranking merely by "hits," the number of visits to the website, Google ranks also by "link popularity," Sreenivasan said.

Link popularity assumes that a web page with useful content will have many other websites linking to it. More pages linking to the web page will result in a higher rank in the Google search engine. On the other hand, if the web page does not provide much content, fewer people will want to link to the web page, and it will rank much lower. This system puts websites on a qualitative measuring stick instead of the quantitative one used by other search engines.

Another way to improve the chances of finding what you need is to learn the advanced functions of your favorite search engine, Sreenivasan said. For example, using Google, if you were looking for a chocolate chip cookie recipe, but you only wanted to search on cooking.com, you would type in the Google search engine: chocolate chip cookie recipe site:cooking.com.

The "site:" phrase instructs the Google search engine to search for
chocolate chip cookie recipes within the cooking.com Web site. This type of tool is just one of the many to be found on the help pages of virtually any engine, Screenivasan said.

Although search engines are getting better, every day millions of web pages are added and search engines simply cannot keep up, he said. Even within the material search engines have cataloged, there are still limitations to their ability to find keywords and match them to your search query.

Finding general information on a topic is easy, but delving deeper into the subject matter may require more than a search engine, Sreenivasan said.

There is a multitude of reference sites on the Internet devoted entirely to
a specific topic: population, legal terms, maps, unit conversion,
translation and even moon phase on any given day in the next 2000 years. But the chances of stumbling across such a web page in every day browsing are slim.

Research portals

A solution? Research portals, a large collective of information-oriented
websites all linked from one page, Screenivasan said.

Refdesk (http://www.refdesk.com/) is one such research portal. On the front page, there are links to maps, legal/medical/scientific dictionaries, encyclopedias, statistics, newspapers, magazines and nearly anything else on a topic of interest.

These portals are a good basis for projects because they contain so much information concentrated in an organized, easy to use page, Sreenivasan said.

Web directories

Similar to research portals are web directories, Sreenivasan said. People
sometimes refer to web directories as the Yellow Pages of the Internet. Web directories start with broad categories, such as sports, and become more specific as you descend through the hierarchy of sub-categories.
Human assessment is the primary difference between a search engine and a web directory. Search engines use computers to find and rank web pages. But human beings have found and ranked pages in web directories. This method of ranking allows researchers to visit pages that others have found useful.

Another benefit of a web directory is its ability to show many spin-offs of
one topic.

For example, descending into the Space category of the Yahoo.com directory, you can find web pages on space medicine, microgravity, and other topics you might not have thought to search for. Of course, no search engine or web page can absolutely guarantee the validity of its data, but the more sources you can gather, the better the chances that the data you collected is accurate.

Shawn Lin is a co-editor in chief of the Warrior's Word, the newspaper of Wausau West High School in Wausau, Wisc.

Useful websites

RefDesk http://www.refdesk.com/ (Research Portal)
Google http://www.google.com/ (Search Engine)
Yahoo! http://www.yahoo.com/ (Web Directory)
Nile's Guide to the internet http://nilesonline.com/ (Statistics)
Findsame http://www.findsame.com/ (Plagarism Detector)
How Stuff Works http://www.howstuffworks.com/ (Excellent resource about how things work)
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