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Research Foundations: The Information Timeline

The Information Timeline

When an event or something noteworthy happens, the information about that occurrence goes through a progression of stages where it transforms into different types of information. This is the information timeline, or information cycle. As facts are revealed and discussed, the story about that event becomes richer and often more clear. Information usually starts out on informal channels or through mass media. As time progresses, popular sources of information cover the event. Months and years later, scholarly sources of information may address the event as well.

While this is the general timeline from event to recorded knowledge, not all events will merit scholarly research. In addition, at any time, information can return to the beginning stages of the timeline if related events happen to bring it to public attention.

Information Timeline Stages

Event Occurs

  • eyewitness accounts
  • social media updates

Same Day

  • television broadcasts
  • radio broadcasts
  • online newspapers
  • online magazines
  • online news sites

Weeks After

  • print magazines
  • print newspapers

Months After

  • academic journals
  • trade publications

One Year After

  • books
  • government reports
  • academic journals

 Multiple Years After 

  • specialized books
  • encyclopedias

Real-World Example

The following example follows an actual event as it progresses through the stages of the information timeline. The event is the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, commonly referred to as the BP oil disaster, in the Gulf of Mexico.

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Event Occurs

At approximately 9:45 pm on April 20, 2010 an explosion and fire are reported on the BP Deepwater Horizon oil facility located in the Gulf of Mexico. At this exact moment, the only witnesses with potential information are those unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity.

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Same Day

That same evening, reports begin to appear online and on television and radio programs like New York Times online, CNN, and NPR. The only information available at this time is from a few eyewitnesses, local responders, and company representatives.

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Within weeks, popular print and online magazines like Time and Newsweek have compiled reports that are slightly more complete for a general audience. There are few technical details, and while some verification has taken place, it is still too early to have a complete picture of the spill or its eventual magnitude.

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After a few months have passed, more information has been gathered and scrutinized. Trade magazines and academic journals have begun publishing analyses of the event from credible authors. Systematic studies and reviews appear in publications like the Journal of Coastal Research. Many of these will spawn new areas to research in future months and years. 

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One Year

After a year, full-length books and government reports are available through print and electronic sources. The books and reports contain in-depth coverage about the event and are for popular or scholarly reading. For example, the book A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea was published within a year of the spill.

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Multiple Years

As years pass, the oil spill and its aftereffects are included in reference and scholarly books. General and specialized encyclopedias include an overview and basic information about the event. An example would be the entry about the spill that appears in the Encyclopedia of Environmental Disasters.