Have you ever wondered how news organizations can find contact information, facts, statistics and so much more with such speed and accuracy? At NBC News, we have a specialized team of library scientists and researchers at a desk called the NBC News InfoCenter.
Research Specialist Whitney Lee takes NBCU Academy behind the scenes to see how researchers help make the news. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What does the NBC News InfoCenter team do?
The InfoCenter at NBC News answers questions for the news division, MSNBC and NBC. You name it, we’ve been asked to look for it. Statistics, data analysis, photographs of people. You saw a report that was using some stat but the stat wasn’t attributed. If you’re about to interview someone and you want to see what they’ve said recently on a topic, we can go through transcripts for you.
We can also find something as basic as ‘Can you find me a phone number? I was talking to someone, I forgot to get their number,’ which has happened frequently.
What’s an example of a fun story that you did recently that demonstrates your research skills?
A reporter working on an obituary for actress Jessica Walter wanted her bio. We have a database for that, it’s specific to people in the entertainment business. You can pull their general bio, credits, things they’ve worked on. It’s pretty simple and straightforward.
But then the reporter said he’d seen some reports that her father had previously worked for the NBC Symphony, which we both had never heard of, so we started to look for ways to verify that.
We have access to Newspapers.com, a really cool database for old newspaper articles that will show you the article as it appeared in the paper, which is amazing. I was able to find a couple of interviews where Jessica Walter talked about her father and his musical career. I also found later that he had donated some of his papers to a library. There’s also a video that a student of his uploaded to YouTube about how important he was in his musical career. So you got to tick off all these different boxes for available tools for just one story.
How did you first get into the research and librarian field?
I kind of tumbled into it. I was working part-time for Newsday, a Long Island newspaper. I’d see throughout the day reporters would come over to this one section, which was the library, and would confer with the librarians, ask them to check something. There were actual stacks of reference books that people would consult. At some point, one of the librarians retired and the position became open. So I took a leap, with absolutely no background in working for a library or doing this type of research, and that’s where everything started.
How did you come to NBC News?
For most folks, you need a master’s in library sciences to be a researcher or librarian, depending on the organization you’re working for. After I left Newsday, I applied to a dual-degree program in library sciences at New York University and Long Island University.
I also started working at NYU’s library at the same time, first in their development department, and then working as a reference associate. We staffed the reference desk, we staffed the “Ask a Librarian” chat. While I was at NYU, I also worked part-time for the New York Daily News library, from 6 to 11 p.m., a couple nights a week. That position, unfortunately, was terminated when the library was shut down.
I looked for another way to keep my foot in the door at a news organization and I found a part-time posting at the NBC News InfoCenter. I thought working for a media company as large as NBC could be daunting and challenging, because my previous experience was at newspapers. But I thought, here’s an opportunity that I really can’t pass up. I’m lucky that that turned into a full-time opportunity.
What do you find fulfilling about this kind of work?
If you find yourself being really interested in different types of research while you’re in school, if you like mysteries, if you like discovering information, that’s a great aspect of this job. There’s an uptick in data journalism, for folks that are really data savvy. If you consider yourself to be an internet detective, if you’re great at going through social media, finding old posts and old pictures, that can be helpful as well.
It’s an important job. Everyone in the media that we’re working with is trying their best to find the correct information, to root out facts, to find out what’s going on behind the scenes of something, and then present that to the public so that they’re informed. We’re all working towards that goal.
Sometimes we’ll get a request where someone says, ‘Hey, this might be a long shot,’ or ‘Just hunting around in the dark here.’ If you can actually find that thing, it’s the best.