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Research 101: Knowing Where to Start

Research 101: Knowing Where to Start

By now you’ve probably seen Professor Jacobson’s welcome message about my arrival to Legal Insurrection.  I’m excited to be here, as I’ve always regarded this site as a place to come for thoughtful analyses on the news of the day, and original articles that delve deeper into the issues that are important to so many of us.  I think that’s something that’s made Legal Insurrection such a quality blog, and I am very much looking forward to being a part of that.

One of the things that the Professor mentioned in his earlier post today was that I would be writing a “Research 101” series to help empower you to become investigators and researchers.  I address the first in the series below – but first, a little bit about my background so that you’ll understand my philosophy on how I approach research.

About My Background

Many of you know my writing for my coverage on topics like the institutional left and protest movements, and hacking and other cyber-related activity.  As the political landscape has grown more complex and sophisticated over the years, it’s been fascinating to me to observe how so many of these things actually now intersect with one another.

My background outside of blogging has been invaluable to me in my writing and research endeavors.  I spent several years working for LexisNexis, a company that provides research databases and tools to law firms, law enforcement, and other legal organizations, as well as to companies and news outlets.  Prior to that, I worked for AT&T, where I was a technical project manager in a data warehousing division.  I’ve also worked for other companies in legal technology and marketing, among other places.  Along the way, my corporate background has provided me with many skills that have helped me, not only in becoming a good researcher, but in interpreting many of the technical issues that apply to so many of the stories that are making headlines today (the NSA flap being the latest!).

The Art of Research: Knowing Where to Start

Research is something that, for some writers and activists, can be an overwhelming thing.  We live in the information age today, and information is everywhere, in many forms, and in plentiful form.  Sometimes, just getting to the information you need is the hardest part.

I thought that a good place to start in this series might be just a simple overview on where to start.  And that is – knowing where to look.


A few years ago, I noticed that many activists were contacting me to ask about how to search for this or that – where do I find out about what labor unions are spending money on, how do I look for who’s donating money to this organization, or where do I look for information about government grants.  There was a pattern to what folks were asking.

It made me think at the time, why not just share my research sources with all the activists and bloggers out there?  And so I did.

I created a page at my blog a few years back that contains a list of databases, websites and other sources that are a helpful starting point in knowing where to look.  Consider it a table of contents to a research library.  It’s not the end-all be-all, but as I said, it’s a starting point.

There are also two presentations at that page from BlogCon panels on which I was a speaker in 2013 and 2012, both available as PDFs.  They will be very helpful background on understanding the kind of information – most of it through free, public sources – that is available to you as activists and bloggers, as well as how to put your research into context of a useful story.

One example I often give is the story of a group of SEIU protesters that were protesting on the front lawn of a Bank of America executive’s home in 2010.  The son of that executive was home alone and frightened by all the protesters.  While the story itself received a good deal of deserved attention, I had remembered an important relevant detail because I had previously been looking through the labor union’s LM2 reports at the Department of Labor website.  (LM2 reports are submitted by labor unions to report their spending and receipt of money, and other relevant activities).  It turns out, the union owed a significant loan amount to Bank of America.  Because of my habit of perusing the Department of Labor’s union reports, that became a relevant story.  (See the 2012 BlogCon presentation I mention above for the full slide).


Once you learn more about where to start, you’ll see that the possibilities are endless.  Knowing the available sources will help spur story ideas for you, and it will make you notice things in other stories you see in the news that might be missing an angle that’s relevant to the issues we care about in our movement.

I hope you’ll find the information helpful.  Next up in the series will be customizing news feeds and lists to bring the information right to your inbox and your fingertips.

Also, don’t hesitate to send us tips at Legal Insurrection about what you want to learn about most – I’ll do my best to include it in the Research 101 series.  You can also contact Professor Jacobson through the contact page, or you can contact me directly via email at libertychickblog [at] (email address written to avoid automated spam – use the @ when you send it).


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franciscodanconia | June 19, 2013 at 6:28 pm

Welcome ahoard, Mandy!

This is a great idea, Mandy (and Professor Jacobson ;). Arming regular concerned citizens with the skills we need to do the job that the tabloid media won’t do . . . I love it!

Great idea, indeed. Welcome!

Welcome and thank you Mandy.

Very good, Mandy. Thanks.

This is great! I will copy and study later.

Thanks for the tips.

I enjoy following stories here and look forward to reading your posts.

I find this blog post heavy on self-promotion and light on function.

I’m weary of Mandy.

Trust, is what the Professor has earned.

I’ll not glad clap just yet for Mandy.

[…] Great tips on Research 101. […]

[…] Nagy, now digging and writing and teaching people how to dig at Legal Insurrection, saw immediately where this was headed, posting a piece called "Michael Hastings and […]

Welcome Liberty Chick – er, Mandy, and thanks for the tips and link.