Researchers say information's there for the asking That's a fact


Knowledge is power, right? You bet. Who doesn't want all the answers -- from such mundane trivia as how to remove candle wax from tablecloths to larger issues, like figuring out whether your salary is commensurate with your skills or if a proposed landfill will endanger your water supply. Most of us have the energy and curiosity needed to track down elusive data bits but just don't know where to start.

We decided to ask some prominent journalists for help. Their fundamental principle of investigative reporting? People love to talk.

And, the most willing sources are often little-known experts in arcane fields, or government researchers who compile massive reports that no one outside their departments is likely to read. "Think of all those people on the staff of the congressman who's on the 6 o'clock news, who wrote every word he says," says Scott Shuger, a contributing editor at the Washington Monthly. "Those faceless, nameless people, if prompted correctly, would love to be a little less faceless and a little less nameless."

Of course, it doesn't do much good to find an expert who's willing -- nay, determined -- to tell you all about electrical defibrillation when what you're really interested in is electrolytic depilation. So the first step is simple: Do your homework.

Your first stop is a reference library, either in person or via computer modem. (If your local public library lacks a good reference department, most colleges and universities allow public access to research collections.)

"When I want to investigate something I know nothing about, I try to find written information -- newspapers and magazines," says Kukula Glastris, a reporter for U.S. News & World Report and a former researcher for Ralph Nader's Center for the Study of Responsive Law. "I'll read it, and then I'll start calling the people who seem to know the most about that subject."

We assume you're familiar with the basics: the card catalog, the dictionary, the atlas, the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. But those high-school reference standbys are just kid stuff. If you know where to look, your library can provide astonishing reservoirs of unexpected information.

Among the basic reportorial tools is the city directory, which gives a recent name and phone number for every address in town. If you know an address, you can find out the resident's name and telephone number, and those of his neighbors as well. (If you have a telephone number and need a name and address, call 411 and ask for the number of the reverse directory in your area.)

Depending on your request, the librarian may direct you to some lesser-known research bibles. Want to investigate your company's solvency? Check out the "Encyclopedia of Business Information Sources." To learn the number of school-bus accidents in 1987, consult the Congressional Information Service's "American Statistics Index," a guide to just about every statistic available in the United States.

For digging up government information, Scott Shuger swears by "The Capital Source," a listing of "all the numbers you'd ever want in the Federal government," plus think tanks and policy groups. There's also "Lesko's Info-Power" (Information USA) by Matthew Lesko, a gold mine of government information.

Most good libraries also offer computer databases, some free, some not. Don't be shy about asking for help in searching efficiently, particularly when confronted with Nexis, the most comprehensive (and expensive) service.

Human contacts

Now you're ready to track down some live humans. And the best human-tracking device is: "The Encyclopedia of Associations."

This three-volume guide to trade associations, interest groups and clubs is "the best source of information that I've ever found," says Pat Clinton, a Northwestern University journalism professor and former magazine editor. "The associations have people who do nothing but answer dumb questions every day. They publish newsletters. They publish pamphlets. They know who the active experts are in the field. Andit's not just scholarly and trade organizations. There are 25 Elvis fan clubs in the most recent edition I looked at."

Suppose toxic wastes from the dump site next door are bubbling merrily up through your basement drain. Through the "Encyclopedia of Associations," you can find support groups for waste-dump neighbors -- or toxic-victims' rights associations -- that can relay your plight to the local newspaper.

When you're trying to find experts, remember: The enemy of your enemy is your friend.

If you're having trouble getting information from a high-handed bank or a low-profile company, "find somebody who hates them," advises New York City journalist Larry Doyle. "They'd just love to give you the lowdown."

Even the friend of your enemy can be helpful. For example, your doctor has prescribed a baseline mammogram even though you're only 30 and have no family history of breast cancer. Call up the American Cancer Society. Just tell them you're interested in knowing more about how mammography affects breast-cancer survival rates. They'll overwhelm you with


Looking close to home

When searching for experts, don't overlook the ones in your own back yard. After all, it's not what you know, it's who you know.

Your friends and family may possess a wealth of information. Let's say you need help deciphering a financial statement. Sure, the public-affairs office of the nearest MBA program can help you track down an accounting expert. But a friend who's taken an accounting course or two will probably do just as well.

Your friends also can start you on a series of handshakes that reach around the world, says Arlene Hershman, a business writer and editor in New York City. "The whole point of the movie "Six Degrees of Separation" is that we're all separated by only six phone calls," Ms. Hershman says. "It's remarkably true. Getting an introduction is often two-thirds of the battle."

When you're expert hunting, your best friend may be the dulcet-toned 800 Directory. So, reach out and call someone.

When Heloise of "Hints from" fame wants to know how to get fat-free chocolate ice cream off a washable silk blouse, she calls the blouse manufacturer and the ice cream maker. "I believe in going straight to the manufacturer if I have a question with a

product, no matter how bizarre. And most have toll-free numbers," she says.

There are 800 numbers for the Olive Oil Hotline ([800] 232-6548), the Butterball Turkey Talkline for Thanksgiving emergencies ([800] 323-4848) and the Nutrition Hotline ([800] 366-1655). Heloise recommends them all. "You can ask questions like, 'The expiration date on the milk carton was yesterday. Is it safe to drink today?' and you don't have to feel stupid." (To get a copy ZTC of the AT&T; Toll-Free National 800 Directory, call [800] 426-8686.)

If there's no 800 number that provides the information you need, you might investigate the tricks of the trades.

When you read the mainstream press, you find out how the experts talk to the public. When you read trade publications, you find out how they talk to each other.

No matter what you're investigating, there's probably a trade publication that covers it. If you're wondering what sort of incinerator they're building down the street, "I'm sure there is Incinerator World," says Pat Clinton. "There's a phenomenal array of business publications, from hosiery and underwear to space technology. And they're always months ahead of the newspapers in terms of issues."

To track down a specific trade magazine, look through the Standard Rate and Data Service directory, then call and ask to talk to the reporter who covers your specific interest.

When putting together your list of experts, don't be shy -- aim high.

Obviously, you're not going to sit down and chat with President Clinton about Burger King's new breakfast burrito. But if your question can only be answered by the mayor, call and ask for an appointment. Often, highly placed officials and international 0' experts are more patient and approachable than their underlings.

When someone refuses to talk, don't give up. "If somebody has said no to me, I simply ask them, 'What would it take to get you to talk to me?'" Ms. Hershman says. "It's amazing how often it may be something you can do.

"No question too silly

Once you find your expert, feel free to ask a silly question.

L If you weren't ignorant, you wouldn't be calling, would you?

When you're researching a controversial topic, you may end up talking to some of the bad guys. Try to structure those interviews "from kind to cruel," Jessica Mitford advises in her book "Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking."

Kind questions are designed to lull your quarry into a conversational mood: "How did you first get interested in funeral directing as a career?" By the time you work your way up to the cruel questions ("What is the wholesale cost of your casket retailing for $3,000?"), your subject may find himself a captured butterfly, skewered by your charm and unable to flutter away.

Try going out on a limb. If you think they have information they're not revealing, make a guess and see what happens. The question isn't "Do you happen to have a file on this?"; it's "I'd like to see the statistics on this for the last three years."

No matter what you're researching, a good final question is "Is there anything I should have asked that I didn't?" You'll be astonished at how often you'll find that you've missed a critical piece of information just because you didn't ask for it.

No matter whom you're interviewing, mind your manners. Forget all those old movies where the reporter bullies the recalcitrant source into spilling the beans. They reflect the manners of Hollywood scriptwriters, not journalists. "If you're persistent and polite, you're more likely to talk somebody into doing something that ultimately may be against their self-interest," says Kukula Glastris.

Blazing the paper trail

If your interpersonal skills aren't up to snuff, try blazing the paper trail. Many county and some federal records are open to the public. These include marriage records, divorce-court files, lawsuit filings, deeds and wills -- documents that can say a great deal about someone and are available at most county courthouses.

If you run into trouble while tracking down public records, you have the right to make a formal request for information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Just make sure your request is narrowly focused, warns David Jackson, an investigative reporter at the Chicago Tribune. "You're not allowed to put an undue burden on the government, like if you asked, 'Show me every document kept by the City of Chicago.' " If, for example, you want the EPA records about a neighborhood landfill, a local environmental group can probably tell you what to look for. Most agencies have FOIA specialists to help with requests.

Once you've gathered all that information, don't just leave it in a pile on your bedroom floor, do something.

Having experienced the thrill of the chase, you may be unable to stop talking about what you've learned. So try a little public dissemination. Call a radio talk show, join an interest group -- or start one of your own. Publish a newsletter or ask your local community college if you could present a seminar.

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