Let’s say you’re on deadline with a story about a crime committed in your community but officials are releasing only basic details: a few facts about the crime and the name and birth date of a person alleged to be involved. Your audience — and your editor — will want to know as much about this individual as possible, as quickly as possible. How do you report on someone when you have so little to go on? Where do you go to find personal information and other details?
Below, I’ve listed the steps I used while working in the newsroom to track down large amounts of information on deadline. While these strategies come in handy when covering crime stories, you can also use them to gather public and private details about someone for other stories on other newsroom beats.
It’s worth pointing out that before starting any fact-finding mission, journalists should be familiar with public-record laws in their states. You need to know what records are available, which are accessible by the public and the formats in which they are available. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press provides a state-by-state guide to public records on its website.
Here’s how to find information about a person connected to a crime on deadline:
In the field
- Go to the crime scene. Make notes about what you see and hear. Knock on doors in the neighborhood. Talk to people standing around and walking by. Ask everyone you can find what they have seen, heard and know about the incident and anyone believed to be involved. Don’t make assumptions about what someone does or does not know.
- Chat with authorities at the scene. If it’s a major crime scene, law enforcement officers will remain at the property for a while. Some will be assigned to keep the media and others away so detectives can do their work.
- If you eventually get a street address for the person you’re researching, go to that location and talk to anyone who is there. Talk to neighbors, too.
- Go to the places in these neighborhoods where community members gather. Coffee shops, barber shops and hair salons are great places to find people sharing stories and information.
- If you can identify former or current employers, visit these places of work and talk to people there. In fact, try to talk to people in any place this person is known to frequent.
- If you can identify one or more of the schools or colleges this person attended, call a campus administrator or visit the campus. Many elementary, middle and high schools post contact information for their teachers, administrators and other employees on their websites. Colleges and universities typically provide that information online also.
- If the person you’re researching has been taken to a hospital or is being held at a detention center or jail, go there. Talk to the people entering and leaving. You might find someone who is going to visit this person or has just seen him or her.
Government records, data
- Do a criminal background check on the person, if you are able. In at least some states, law enforcement agencies allow the public to request a search of their databases to see if someone has ever been charged with a crime. There often is a fee for the search. In some cases, you only need a person’s name to do a criminal background check. Some agencies require additional information, such as a date of birth or partial social security number.
- Search court records. Some courts put basic information online about their criminal and civil cases, including bankruptcy and divorce cases. You’ll likely need to go to the courthouse to read case details, including transcripts of witnesses’ sworn, out-of-court testimonies.
- Ask local law enforcement officials how often they have received complaints about this person or complaints related to the address of the crime scene. Depending on public-record laws and your relationship with authorities, they may provide a report or share anecdotal information.
- Look at property records, which could offer information about the person you’re researching or other people involved in the incident. Property records can contain details such as who owns a property, when the owner acquired it, its assessed value and contact information for the property owner.
Your news organization
- Search your newsroom’s archive. You’ll want to know what your news organization already has reported about this person, if anything. This might provide a basis for your coverage and generate leads.
- Search LexisNexis, a paid service available in many newsrooms, to see what has been published about this person in other parts of the state and nation.
- Do a national records search using a paid service such as LexisNexis Accurint. An Accurint report offers a variety of personal information, including corporate affiliations, possible family members, current and previous residential addresses, motor vehicle registries and professional licenses.
- Let your audience know you’d like to hear from anyone who has information about the person or incident being investigated. Offer the audience multiple ways to reach you.
- Read the comments audience members leave online — on your story and on stories about this person that your news outlet and other news outlets have posted online. The public often shares tips and useful details in their comments.
- Search the social media accounts of this individual. Facebook pages can be particularly helpful as people often share a great deal of personal information there, including birth dates, schools they attended and current and former employers. Try reaching out to the people this person is connected to through social media.
- If you know where this person went to school or college, look for the institution’s Facebook page or a Facebook page frequented by alumni. This might help you reach other people who know this person.
- Find out what people are saying on social media about this person or the crime. Monitor the conversation throughout the day as new people join in and new details emerge.
- Look at who other news outlets covering the story are reaching out to on social media. Read those public messages and conversations.
Other online resources
- Do a general online search for this person’s name and any addresses affiliated with this individual. This could generate additional details and leads.
- Visit websites where high school and college alumni gather such as Classmates.com.
- If you have a photo of the person you’re researching, use a reverse image search tool such as TinEye to see whether and where that photo is being used online.
- Read what other newsrooms are reporting. They might have details you don’t.
More things to try
- Reach out to experts such as criminal justice and psychology researchers. Even if an expert is not willing to speak to journalists about a specific event or individual, the expert might answer broad questions that will provide contextual information for your story. Ask experts what they know about similar situations. Ask about related trends and research.
- Read academic research to better understand the type of crime you’re covering. Having a deeper understanding of an issue can help you ask more probing questions.
- Find out whether there have been local efforts to stop this type of crime in this area. If so, find the people involved in those efforts and interview them. Check with the mayor, the local police chief and community leaders, including the head of the local Neighborhood Watch program.
- Seek out crime data to help you explain how often this type of crime is committed locally, statewide and nationwide. Point out trends.
We hope you find this list useful. As you gather information, be sure to discuss with your editors whether and how you’ll report on details you haven’t yet been able to fully confirm. You’ll also want to explain to your audience which important details remain unknown or unclear.