After reading this chapter, you will be able to:
Where to Start With a Research Topic
No matter what you end up doing in the field of communications, many of your daily tasks will require you to search and re-search information about topics. Common topic categories that journalists and strategic communicators research include:
- individuals or groups of people,
- businesses and other organizations,
- behaviors or attitudes.
Finding information about topics will be fundamental to what you do, whether you work for a television news station, a public relations agency, or a corporate marketing office. Over time, you may become an expert on some topics that you research regularly. You also may be called upon to learn about topics in which you have little background. Our goal in this chapter is to help you think about research topics and how to begin figuring out what a topic is about, regardless of what the topic is.
There are two ways to enter the search and re-search process: with a topic that someone has assigned to you or with a topic that you identify for yourself. In the workplace, it may be more likely that you will have topics assigned to you by news directors, editors, or managers. While you’re in school, in some classes you will have more leeway to identify research topics, while in other classes you will have topics assigned to you.
It may seem easier to research topics that you identify yourself, ones that aren’t imposed on you. This is because your motivation may be higher to find information in which you are intrinsically interested than information that others ask you to research and understand. Regardless of how motivated you are initially to research a specific topic, keep in mind that your credibility as a communications professional depends on the quality of the information you find and communicate. The credibility of the information you find, in turn, is shaped by the quality of your research process, so it’s important to begin with sound research.
In this chapter, we discuss a number of expectations to keep in mind as you initially explore a research topic. It may be worthwhile for you to have a preliminary research topic in mind as you work your way through these expectations.
In the following paragraphs, we discuss several expectations about the research process that novice researchers sometimes miss. Having these expectations at the forefront of your mind will help you navigate and persevere in the research process.
This is the wheel. Don’t reinvent it.
Whenever we are struck by a good idea, including when we come up with an interesting research topic, it feels like we are inventing something new. Most of the time, however, our ideas are only original to us. Chances are that there already is information out there on whatever topic we come up with or whatever topic is handed to us. This means that we don’t have to start from scratch: Don’t invent information that already exists. Instead, every researcher’s first goal is to figure out what information on the topic is out there already.
Come up with an initial search phrase. Refine it. Refine it again.
To know what has been written already about a topic, a researcher first needs to identify the most precise search phrase, that is, the words others have used to write about this topic. You probably have noticed that sometimes when you Google something, you get results that are on point to what you’re looking for, while at other times it takes a few tries to get the most appropriate results. The difference is the search phrase you used in Google. Sometimes the search phrase is straightforward because everyone uses the same vocabulary to name the thing that interests us. At other times, this is not the case.
For example, several years ago one of our students was interested in researching why some college basketball players only played with their college teams for one season before declaring for the NBA draft. The student called this the “one-and-done rule,” and used this expression as his initial search phrase. He wanted to learn about why this phenomenon existed but was frustrated with his search results. All he kept coming up with were news reports and speculative articles about which players were going to be one-and-done players in any given year.
It wasn’t until he changed his search phrase to “NBA draft eligibility,” that he was able to find more informative documents about this “rule.” Through these results he learned, in fact, that this wasn’t so much a rule, but the result of eligibility requirements for the NBA draft. The one-and-done phenomenon developed because players only can declare for the draft a year after finishing high school. He also learned that these requirements were governed by the collective bargaining agreement between the NBA players’ union and the NBA. The second search phrase led the student to the primary document on his topic, and commentary on the appropriateness and implications of the eligibility requirements. The refined search resulted in credible sources that helped this student understand his topic in a deeper way than from the information he initially found.
This example illustrates that the words you use in a search matter. Any search engine or database will try to exactly match your search terms to terms that appear in documents or websites. It is important to be open to new search terms and phrases, and to keep track of them as they evolve throughout the research process.
The circle of research
The following video reinforces the practice of refining a search term, while also putting this practice in the context of a circular process that all research entails.
What are this video’s key takeaway points?
One takeaway is that the research process is not linear. Good research rarely proceeds from beginning to end the way we initially imagine it will go. As researchers, we need to be open to our research results leading us in directions we do not initially plan on going.
Another takeaway is that research sometimes can feel like we are running in a hamster wheel. The circular process this video outlines, of doing exploratory research, refining the initial idea, and then doing more research, can appear like it could go around and around without end. Student researchers sometimes are tempted to short-circuit this process by writing their research reports or papers before they explore fully where the search and re-search process leads them. Again, it’s important to be open to the unexpected directions in which research takes us.
Based on these takeaways, an important expectation to have about any research is that it will take longer than we initially anticipate it to take. This has implications for how you plan your research in this class and beyond.
If the one source doesn’t exist, stitch together a bunch of sources.
The next video addresses another set of expectations that novice researchers often have: that there exists an information source that perfectly fits their topics.
What are this video’s key takeaway points?
The video’s main point is that an information topic may be too specific for there to be good sources that discuss it exactly. Even if this is the case, however, there likely are good sources that address parts of a topic. The strategy that this video discusses consists of breaking down the original topic into subtopics and searching for combinations of these subtopics.
The video also suggests finding a variety of sources on these subtopics, including news articles and academic articles. We will discuss the different types of sources available, and where to find them, in later chapters.
Peer Tutorial: Chapter Summary
In this video, Julia Bosco and Laura Richey (JOUR 302, Fall 2018) review the key points of this chapter.
Activity 1: Topics and Topic Categories
Activity 2: Search Phrases
Using your topic or developing one of the proposed topic areas above, develop a list of search phrases.