As part of a series of interviews for Help Me Investigate, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism's Iain Overton gives his tips on finding information through online and offline sources
As part of a series of interviews for Help Me Investigate, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism's Iain Overton gives his tips on some of the personal qualities to develop as an investigator
One of the barriers that student journalists often come up against is their lack of contacts in a particular field. Here is a guide to building that contacts book:
Directories are the most obvious place to start looking for contacts. If you need a plumber, you look in the Yellow Pages, for example.
But general directories like the Yellow Pages don’t give you any indication of an individual’s expertise or likelihood of contributing to your investigation.
A better approach is to use specialist directories, such as the experts’ directories maintained by many universities. These give you more detail on a person’s specific interests, qualification, and what they’ve published.
Other specialist directories include Ask An Expert and Find A TV Expert sites (hit and miss – remember that many directories require people to describe themselves), OpenlyLocal’s directory of hyperlocal blogs, See if you can find directories in your own field, ideally maintained by a third party with an interest in maintaining quality and accuracy.
If someone is an expert in a particular field, chances are that they will have published something about it. That might be a book, a research paper, an opinion column, or a well respected blog.
If you are a member of a library you can use their journal search facility to find out who has written about your particular area of interest (the more specific, the better). There’s also Google Scholar.
And you can find out who’s written in newspapers by using archives and databases in your library (ask a librarian – there will be plenty of them), the British Newspaper Archive or The Paperboy to include newspapers around the world. You can also use your library ID with KnowUK.
Make a note of names but also other details such as usernames, web addresses, location, and so on. This will increase your chances of finding contact details. Once you have those you can try some of the directories mentioned above – or professional social networking sites like LinkedIn or look for profession-specific networks (this page lists a bunch for teachers, for example) and search within those.
This guide (PDF) and this post from Murray Dick gives more detail on using advanced search techniques to find individuals. And here Joanna Geary explains how she tracked down an entire family from one tweet. Neil Smith’s favourites list includes a bunch of sites for searching for people.
3. Newspaper reports
You’re likely to be reading a lot of background material as part of your investigation – make a note of any names mentioned in those articles – people who have been quoted or mentioned – and again, any contextual information.
If you can’t find those people by other means you can always try to speak to the reporter who wrote the piece. They might also be interested in reporting a potential new angle on an old story.
4. Formal reports and events
If someone is an expert in an area, or has had an interesting experience, then it’s not just journalists who will want to speak to them. Often commercial and governmental organisations will interview that person as part of a report – or they will volunteer their expertise as part of a consultation.
Look to see who has made responses to government consultations within your field (here’s an example); who gives evidence to select committees (here is a list of evidence given to one committee on education); who is mentioned in any commercial reports you read.
Also search Hansard for mentions of specific issues you’re looking into (you can also receive regular alerts). Is there a particular politician that seems very interested in the issue? Do they have constituents that are affected by it? These are all potential contacts.
And see who is submitting FOIs on your subject too.
Another useful source is events – either attending them yourself, or looking to see who did attend it. Now many events are organised online, you can search for them and find out who’s going before it even happens.
5. Social media
If you’re using social media to find contacts you need to know how to refine your searches so that you only find those who have authority in their field, or specific experiences.
For the former, stick to those who have a large following on Twitter, for example, by using FollowerWonk, or use curated directories such as Twellow and Wefollow. Search for large Facebook groups or forums and contact the admins. Use Technorati to look for the most popular blogs.
If you want to find people with experiences, imagine the page you will find and search for that. So, for example, if you want to find twins, don’t search for “twin” but search for “my twin brother” (include quotes) or “my twin”, because those are phrases which will only be written by twins themselves, and not people talking about twins.
Also try specialist search engines for forums, blogs and other social media so your results don’t include general information pages. Or use advanced search techniques to restrict your search to particular domains, such as specialist forums in your field.
Of course having a list of names is not the same as having contacts. And here is where you need to have some empathy and emotional literacy.
Ask yourself: if you were in their position, what would you be most likely to respond to? An email out of the blue is not likely to be productive – it’s easy to put off responding to, and then forgetting about.
A phonecall allows the other person to get a sense of your personality, and it’s also something they can’t put off particularly easily.
If they’re in a position where you can arrange to meet them in person (and buy them a coffee or a drink) – for example they deal with customers, or are at an open event – even better.
But what technology you use is perhaps less important than how you use it. Here are some tips on approaching contacts:
- Don’t talk about your needs, especially if it shows them that you’re disorganised and unprepared (“I’ve got a deadline tomorrow”).
- Instead, focus on what you hope to achieve with your work (provide a voice, highlight something overlooked, etc.) and, if relevant, how that connects to what they’re trying to do.
- Take it in stages – don’t throw everything at them in the first contact.
- Have a specific reason for contacting them. Having a blog gives you a great excuse: say you want to interview them for it; or would like their opinion on something you’re reporting on (even if only a document or data). If you can explain that succinctly then they understand your demands will have a clear limit.
- Be interested in them. Follow them and reply to them on social media platforms when you can, comment on their blogs or forum posts if you have something to contribute. Take that curiosity into your conversation too.
- Know something about their life and work if you can. That also shows you’re interested.
- Let them talk – cutting them off because it’s not relevant to what you’re doing suggests that you’re not interested in them.
- And listen – they know more than you do, and it’s easy to miss things if you’re only looking for something else.
Do you have any advice on finding or making contacts?
Following up on our post about new FOI guidelines, Cleland Thom has compiled a list of excuses sometimes used by officials to refuse an FOI request, and how to use the guidelines to get past those. Some of the highlights:
- “Your request was sent to the wrong department.
WRONG: it just has to be sent to the authority concerned, not to any individual or department.
- “You haven’t told us which documents you want.
WRONG: the Act says you can ask for information. You don’t have to name specific documents. It’s up to the authority to find all the information you want. In fact, if you ask for specific documents, you may just get those, and miss other things.
- Sorry, but it’s not my job to help you.
WRONG: authorities have a legal duty to explain your rights and help you submit an FOIA request.
- My job’s just to provide information – not to answer questions or explain it.
WRONG: the guidelines tell staff: … ‘This doesn’t prevent you providing answers or explanations as well, as a matter of normal customer service’.
- “Sorry, we ignored your request because we couldn’t understand it.
WRONG: Staff can contact you and ask for clarification.
- “I’m not answering that – I don’t like your tone.
WRONG: Staff must ignore the tone of your request.
- “Sorry, but your request wasn’t clear enough. We didn’t deal with it.
WRONG: the authority should contact you ASAP to get clarification, and maybe offer help.
- “We don’t have this information – and I don’t know who does.
POSSIBLY: the authority will usually tell you if it does not hold the information you asked for. But it does not have to tell you who holds it, though they might point you to someone else if they know.
- “I can’t tell you whether or not we hold this information.
POSSIBLY: in some circumstances, an authority can issue a ‘neither confirm nor deny’ (NCND) response.
- “We can’t give you the information, and I’m not going to tell you if we hold it or not.
WRONG: staff should tell you if they hold information that they have refused to give you, but they don’t have to explain it. See 20 above, though.
- “We can’t give you this information – it’s full of errors.
WRONG: staff still have to give you the information, even if it contains inaccuracies or is out of date. But they should tell you, and may offer additional information to put it in context.
- “We can’t give you this, it’s marked for deletion.
WRONG: staff have been told it’s not good practice to continue with a scheduled deletion if someone has requested the information. It’s a criminal offence for them to delete information because it could create embarrassment or bad publicity.
- “Sorry, you can’t have this information in printed format.
WRONG: you can state format you want at the time you make your request.
- “I’m not going to help you – you’re a pain in the neck.
WRONG: Authorities can reject requests that are ‘vexatious’. But this applies to the request, not the person asking it. A request can be vexatious if:
- it creates too much work
- your tone or manner is discourteous
- the request is obsessive
- there’s no value in the request.”
For 35 years Paul Dale reported on Birmingham City Council for the local press. As this first interview for Help Me Investigate, he gives his tips on starting to investigate local government, and the importance of human contacts.
“[Ian Hislop] made a striking point, for me at least, when asked to define investigative journalism. In part, he answered, it is saying the same true thing again and again and again and again until the penny drops. It is not just that Private Eye runs a story, its influence comes from repeating it over and over again.
“There is an important lesson here. What matters is not revealing something that is wrong. The ice soon closes over. What matters – and what of course costs time and money – is continuous, informed, accurate repetition so that exposé of the wrongdoing will not go away. Hackgate can be seen as a classic vindication of this analysis. It did not just explode with the Milly Dowler revelation. Had the Guardian, or any other paper, run that story out of the blue, there would have been shock but no other consequences, certainly not the closure of the News of the World and the Levenson Inquiry. Without Nick Davies’s (who gave evidence alongside Sambrook) utterly dedicated (for years ignored) persistence and the Guardian’s commitment to him, there would have been no explosion.
“This led me to reflect on the impact of Clare Sambrook’s coverage of child detention. It was backed by a campaign: just over two years ago Clare and five friends working unpaid and unfunded launched End Child Detention Now. OurKingdom was able to open its doors and let the campaign publish repeatedly and at will. We didn’t say, “Oh, we have already ‘covered’ that”. And boy did Clare and her ECDN colleagues invest their time. In the process OurKingdom learnt how to combine ‘investigative comment’ with openness. I had not fully understood the importance of repetition as part of effective exposure.”