8.11 Contributors of Information and Database Searching

The five different contributors of information generate their own types of database resources that communications professionals can search.

Public-sector Institutions: Databases of licensing information, lawsuits, nursing home inspection reports – all of the kinds of public records documents that government agencies generate are housed in specific databases. (More information about public records will be found in Lesson 13.) To find appropriate databases that might contain information you need, you have to go to the agency that would have generated the information – but that requires thinking about the topic you are researching and determining the type of agency at different levels of government that might deal with that topic. From there, you need to go to the website for the agency and locate where and what kind of databases they maintain. Public-sector institutional documents are also searchable through databases produced by private-sector commercial firms such as Accurint or Westlaw.

Key resources for finding public-sector institutional databases:

  • USA.gov: This resource provides a comprehensive database of information from federal, state, local and tribal agencies that generate public-sector information
  • Government Databases by Subject : This compilation provides an interesting sampling of public-sector institutional databases

Private-sector Institutions: While most commercial databases are products of private-sector institutions (for example, Lexis-Nexis, Academic Search Premier, Factiva), here we are talking about the kinds of databases that private-sector institutions might make directly available to researchers. Searching within a private-sector institution’s website is a type of database containing the contents they want to share with the public. Corporations will also create databases to support their commercial enterprises. For example, General Mills’ product locator http://www.generalmills.com/ProductLocator.aspx is a database for consumers looking for local availability. Ford Motor Company has created a database to allow owners to see if their specific vehicle is subject to a recall – you search by your car’s VIN (vehicle identification number.) http://owner.ford.com/servlet/ContentServer?pagename=Owner/Page/RecallsPage The use of databases to compile large sets of private-sector institutional information is widespread and researchers need to be clever to find and use appropriate information.

Several alert or filter services that are especially useful for advertising and public relations professionals to monitor for-profit and non-profit institutions include Business Wire and PR Newswire. Both services allow you to customize your search preferences so that you automatically receive information (news releases, stock price information, analysts’ reports, alerts of news stories about those companies or organizations you are interested in) every time something important happens.

Many for-profit and non-profit institutions have also created their own information services. For instance, the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, a division of the beverage company, produces sports and nutrition information and publishes materials in bulletins and newsletters that are sent to thousands of sports medicine professionals in print and via email.

Scholarly Sources: Although Google is a private-sector institution, when talking about databases which contain information generated by scholarly contributors, you must consider Google Scholar. This database indexes the articles in thousands of scholarly publications and websites. In addition, the information that is written by scholars can be found in the individual databases of the journals that the private non-profit association or organization might publish. For example, the Journal of Public Relations Research has a searchable database of articles from the journal on its website. You can search within the current issue or over all the past issues. http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/hprr20/current#.U7HPao1dX3B

Scholarly source information is also located through hundreds of databases produced by private-sector institutional sources who are in the business of selling subscriptions to their services. These databases are most often accessed through a library.

Journalistic Sources: Databases of the stories and articles generated by journalistic contributors usually consist of two different types. On a news organization’s website you will find a search function that retrieves material that has been published on the news organization’s website. There is usually another, separate search function as well – one that will search a different database containing the stories that were published in the newsprint newspaper (and it usually contains material going back several decades.) Searching news databases is a good example of the need to understand the “scope” of the database’s contents so that you go fishing in the datahole most likely to help you catch what you need. For an example of two search engines on a news website look at the Star Tribune:

Again, journalistic sources are also accessible through databases produced by private-sector institutional sources and found in library collections.

Informal Sources: Informal sources don’t create databases, per se, but the material / photos / postings they generate become part of databases. If you search for photos of cute cats in Pinterest, you’ll find pages that have been compiled by informal sources, for instance. Using the search function on social networking sites allows you to identify informal source information that has made its way into these private-sector institutional sources’ databases.