Where do investigative journalists go to dig up their dirt?

How do you rake through all the muck?

Alex Johnson, investigative reporter for msnbc.com, and Cheryl Phillips, Data Enterprise Editor at the Seattle Times gave us a guided tour through the vast jungle of data, telling us which plants are edible and which snakes may be poisonous (i.e. the FBI Uniform Crime Database only gives you the law enforcement side of the story).

This was the last installment of the Spring Continuing Ed series presented by the Society of Professional of Journalists – Western Washington, and it was definitely a diamond in the rough.

Alex and Cheryl are true professionals, and were very open about sharing the secrets they worked so hard to develop over the years.

In fact, Alex very kindly published his entire slideshow, it’s chock full of links that’ll get any gumshoe journalist through puberty overnight.
He also compiled a free reference dashboard that can serve as a great sidekick while you do research. (Seriously though, download the slideshow because there are wayyyy to many links to post here).

Besides the deluge of links to awesome databases, Cheryl and Alex showed off their Google-Fu and gave some tips on crawling like a ninja.

  • Google now does realtime search, so if something is trending on Twitter for example, you can see new search results appear live in real time
  • Try the Google cache if something is missing from a site that should be there, but remember that there’s probably a reason why it was taken down and it may not be accurate. There’s also the WayBack machine by the Internet Archive
  • You can search Google by file type (i.e. filetype:pdf or filetype:xls) and often get stuff you would never have found otherwise.
    • Cheryl Alex both had stories about how using this search method to find a PDF file for training manuals that disclosed the exact opposite of what the officials were saying about certain controversial programs

A few other hot tips:
•    IRS 990 forms (the one all federally tax exempt organizations are required to fill out) are the most valuable thing published by the government. Also check the audits.
⁃    Cheryl found a big story about KCTS using money that was earmarked for special programs to cover their deficit and keep the lights on by investigating a government audit which wasn’t included in the original 990 form.

•    Inspector Generals are lonely. Get on their mailing list and make friends with them, all federal agencies have an Office of the Inspector General and they like to sniff out fishy odors.

•    Sometimes the internet isn’t the first place to look. Try calling an expert on the subject

And most importantly…trust but verify! “If your mother says she loves you, check it out”

Also check out some great resources form the SPJ, such as the journalists toolbox and IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors), such as the Extra! Extra! feed of breaking investigative stories.