Editor's note: This piece is part of a CNN.com eight-week series about storytelling and reporting skills called iReport Boot Camp. In this edition, CNN researchers Emily Smith and Katie Glaeser share advice on locating credible sources and fact-checking. To take part in this year's boot camp, visit the boot camp page and take part in a roundtable discussion at 2 p.m. ET Thursday with Smith and Glaeser.
(CNN) -- The Internet is both a blessing and a beast when it comes to finding sources and fact-checking. There's a lot of information out there, but it can be tricky to know what is reliable and what you should avoid. Being a researcher at CNN means regularly vetting huge amounts of information in short time spans. Having to do so has forced us to become cynical Web gurus of sorts. Allow us to share with you some tips to avoid headaches:
Sort through the Web mess
You might find information on a blog or a wiki page that looks good enough to include in your report, but the best advice we have for you is always be skeptical. Even if the blog adds the sources of its info into the post, remember that the Internet is easily manipulated. Never use Wikipedia as a source. It's fine to use the information as a starting point, but regurgitating someone else's potentially inaccurate information is not OK. The CNN standard is to verify everything independently, whether it's looking up a report yourself or making a few phone calls.
For the safest way to decide what's OK, just think FOG, or firsthand sources, organizations, government sources.
Firsthand sources: The best way to ensure information is correct is to take it from the horse's mouth. To verify names, dates, company statistics, board member bios, a nonprofit's history, etc., go directly to an organization's website if it has one. Just beware that some information on those sites may need to be verified against a third party. (For example, want to be sure an organization is truly a registered nonprofit? Check it out on a website such as Guidestar.com.) If an organization doesn't have a site, call it up directly.
On the local level -- say you're reporting on a controversial resident's blog about his or her fight with a city over an issue -- find the blog to take quotes from instead of lifting them from local news articles. Also, go to the city's website to see if it has any sort of statement. If not, pick up the phone to give officials a fair chance to comment. Most local and federal government information is public, and clerks should be willing to e-mail or fax you a copy. You might need to pay a nominal fee if they print the information out for you.
Organizations: Most organizations should have reliable information and statistics on major issues that you can use to connect the story to a local audience. For example, when doing a story on poverty, compare worldwide numbers to your city's own report.
Government sources: We like to use government websites for things such as country profiles, population estimates, statistics, policy information and to find statements in response to current news events. Think about how you could do this on a smaller scale by checking out the websites of the mayor or City Hall.
Keep it balanced and get informed
You want to present all views about a story. It's not OK to interview someone only on one side of an issue. You have to give everyone a fair chance to tell his or her point of view. Seek a response from the accused, find experts who can give authoritative reaction on a topic and most importantly do your homework before initiating an interview.
Get as much background as you can on both the story and your interview subjects. It will help you avoid pitfalls during the interview and allow you to ask informed follow-up questions.
Do a simple Web search of your experts before you make that first call. See how well-respected they are in their area of knowledge and if there are any controversies surrounding them.
The last thing you want is to be blindsided by an answer, or retrospectively wish you'd been able to ask a follow-up more intelligently. Prepare all your research well in advance and then make a list of questions based on that information. Try not to take reams of paper with you; instead, put your research highlights into one document. You can also put the information in the order of which you're asking questions. If you feel like the person you're interviewing isn't telling the whole truth, ask if you can reach out to him or her for an additional comment after you've had time to check what he or she said.
A few good sites