Investigative Reporting: Databases, Sources, Ethics

By Megan WannerTop 10 Tips databases

An important aspect of investigative reporting is learning to use computer-assisted reporting to supplement your investigation. A reporter should always assume there is at least one database, if not more, to use to research information for any potential stories. Included in these databases are workplace directories and government records among others.


When starting to look into identifying sources for your story, it is important to consider both “currents,” those currently involved, and “formers,” those who used to be involved but have moved on. “Currents” are important to get a feel for the current situation in a business, neighborhood, etc. “Formers” are more likely to talk about their previous job and how the company functioned.

Once sources have been identified, they must be located. There are currently a variety of internet searches that will reveal e-mail addresses, mailing addresses, phone numbers and other identifying information. You can also use government records, voting registrations, drivers’ license records and other types of public information to locate anyone you might need to interview.

Finding a source who is avoiding you can prove challenging. If this is the case, you can research their workplace, hobbies, favorite places to eat and other places you could potentially find them for an interview.

When interviewing sources, it is important to build a trust and relationship with each person. Before interviewing, research the person’s life and look for connections between your life and theirs such as their granddaughter graduating from the same high school you attended. People love it when they can connect to others. After the article is published, you should contact the source to inform them where they can acquire a copy. Then you should routinely keep up with your sources to maintain a relationship in case you need to use them in a later story especially if you know there will be more than one on a certain business.

Respect is also an essential aspect of interviewing. If you respect a source, their space and their privacy, they will respect you and be more willing to talk to you.

Determine a source’s motivation for speaking to you. Are they bitter about a company who fired them? Or do are they looking to give a company a good reputation? Use these motivations to shape your interview questions for the maximum amount of useful information. In addition to using these motivations to acquire information, you must take these into consideration some of the information provided may be tainted with these motivations.

Some people will not want to be revealed as a source in your story, as was the case with “Deep Throat” in the Watergate investigation. In this case, if at all possible, find other sources who do not mind being named for direct quotes and use the unnamed source’s information as research. If other sources with the same information are not available, use the source’s quotes attributed anonymously.

Ethical Dilemmas

Ethics is an imperative factor in investigative reporting. As “The Investigator’s Handbook” reveals, just because something is legal, does not mean it is ethical. This presents many dilemmas while reporting investigative stories. For example, was it ethical for newspaper journalist Nellie Bly to admit herself into the Women’s Lunatic Asylum to prove their treatment of patients was brutal and neglectful? These types of predicaments are left up to the journalist to determine their personal convictions about the aspects of a story that might be questionably ethical.


One response to “Investigative Reporting: Databases, Sources, Ethics

  1. Hey, you pulled out some good information here. The graphic is important, because your audience is going to gravitate to it. You spelled the word “you” as “yo” in the first point. Also, in several points you are missing out on the noun-pronoun agreement. If you refer to a source – just one person – that person does not take a plural pronoun (they) but instead would take a singular pronoun (he or she). You definitely want to get the grammar correct in a portfolio, so go through ALL of your graphics and be sure you have the noun-pronoun/singular-plural correct and also check your spelling. I will not be giving you any input on any of the rest; just check through every point of every one of them and remember how important it is to get it right the first time so you don’t have to do “do-overs”!

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