Investigative Reporting: Databases and Interviews

By Carolyn VanBrocklin

Pretty much everyone these days carries around a computer, and it has become a staple in our lives. As journalists, computers offer a wealth of easily accessible information, including databases. Databases have information that can be used for almost any story idea, since governments have been using them for decades. Journalists can find databases through several different websites.Top Ten Tips of the Week

When working with databases, it is important to check for paper copies, and then match the paper copies to the computer records. This ensures that journalists have double-checked all their sources and have multiple points of access to sources in case of computer glitches.

There are many different types of databases that exist in many different categories. Voter registration databases show voter records, federal and state governments have economic records, there are property and tax records, FBI criminal report records, accident and environmental records that host a slew of information that can be available to journalists.

Besides paper trails reporters must follow “people trails.” When working with people and interviews, it is best to start with background research. In this way, the reporter isn’t stepping in blindly; she knows what specific questions to ask. This also brings a point of reference for initial chat that occurs before and interview starts. Genuinely curious questions about up front information let the interviewee know that the journalist has a real personal interest besides just getting the story.

There are four main kinds of sources. The first two are “currents” and “formers”: people who either hold a current position or used to be in that position. It is important to get both sides of the story so the reporter can see if there have been changes or if things have remained the same. In addition, since formers are removed from their previous positions, they may feel more at liberty to discuss things they would have been leery of before. They may also have some hindsight on an issue the reporter is interested in. Currents provide up-to-date information that reporters use to see what is happening presently.

A third source is the whistleblower. These individuals know of wrongdoing and find themselves in the spotlight, either because they wish to draw attention or because they must. These people seek to make changes and have not been able to do so through other channels, so they turn to journalists. In contrast, others simply seek attention or monetary compensation. A final source is the outside expert. These people have studied what the reporter is looking into and have drawn professional, informed conclusions from conducted research and evaluations.

There are many ways to contact sources, but some of the most efficient are through telephone calls and emails. These let sources know why the reporter is interested in speaking to them and how they can benefit from speaking with the reporter. Once an interview is established, the reporter must ask questions to get answers that contribute to the story.

Interviews can be structured in many different ways; it depends on the preferences of the reporter. Sometimes they can be chronological, other times they can start with general questions and work down to specific questions. It depends on the situation and the story.

In journalism there is a code of ethics, and journalists must follow the law. At the same time, what is legal may not be ethical. Journalists have to make a lot of personal calls when it comes to ethical reporting since it is hard to peg it down to strict guidelines.

Some particular dilemmas in reporting involve seeking information in a covert manner. Before doing something undercover that could be ethically questionable, journalists should seek information in other areas and weigh how much the results of such actions will contribute to the story.

Another ethical act of reporting is to constantly check what information has been gathered. In this way, the reporter ensures that all facts are accurate. In addition, when reviewing a story, the reporter can take steps to make sure all information is true by going over the story line by line and comparing each line to notes from interviews and investigations.

In keeping with the Guantanamo bay theme from last week, while searching through the washingtonpost.com articles about detainees who turned suicide bombers I found a database they had compiled of the names and countries of origin about detainees at Guantanamo. I’m pretty sure this article used databases in the research. Im also pretty sure this article was updated between the time I first read it and now.

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