February 14th, 2012
Start here when conducting a background check
By David Sheets
This may be difficult for budding journalists to believe, but there was a time when shoe leather was a reporter’s best research tool.
Every pertinent document sat in a file viewable only in person, unless a dependable source slipped it in the mail as a favor. And news editors were suspicious of journalists who spent too much time on the phone or loitering in the news room; they believed gathering news meant getting out of the office and returning only when it was time to write.
Of course, it’s still a good idea to go where the news is; however, a majority of the document searches formerly conducted by rooting through a dusty filing cabinet somewhere can be done at reporters’ desks — or if they’re truly savvy, on their smart phones.
But where to start? The Web has a wealth of valuable digital data tangled in it, yet the extent of that data is daunting. Thus, new and veteran journalists alike look at the lot of it, their eyes glaze, their palms turn sweaty and potentially good stories are bypassed for easier fare, all because the Internet intimidated them.
Relax. Just like building a house starts with a plan, so too does digital research. Once the seed of a story idea becomes clear, reporters need to settle on a strategy for making it grow: figure out what questions must be asked and where to go for answers.
For help with answers when researching people, try these websites:
* Naturally, start with Google. The “advanced search” feature can be particularly useful. But don’t forget other engines such as Bing, Dogpile, Twingine and Yahoo. Also, the site Zoominfo pairs people with their relationship to businesses.
* BirthDatabase matches people by birth date.
* Portico compiles numerous websites containing public information. It’s a good place for quick link searches on such subjects as real estate holdings, aircraft and boat registrations, even horse ownership. Additionally, BRB Publications lists links to public records by state and by county. And Coordinated Legal Technologies can help trace a person’s corporate trail.
David Sheets is a sports content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and STLtoday.com, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.