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Home > Publications > Quill > Getting personal


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Monday, April 2, 2007
Getting personal

Get ahold of these documents for thorough background information

By David Cuillier, SPJ Freedom of Information committee vice-chairman

No matter what beat you cover or media organization you work for, chances are you will need to find information about a person. Below are dozens of public records any journalist or citizen can tap into to get background information. Check with your state SPJ Sunshine chairman (www.spj.org/sunshine-chairs.asp) or the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press open government guide to find out whether the records are open in your state.

Where they live

In addition to the good old phone book or city directory, try these documents:

* In many states, property tax records are now online, searchable by name. Check with your county assessor or treasurer’s office.

* Check voter registration records at your county election office to look up a person’s address and whether he or she voted in the last election.

* Pet licenses typically include address and phone number. Contact your city or county animal control agency.

* Driver’s licenses, hunting licenses, gun permits and other similar types of licensing are often closed because of the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act and state restrictions. However, such records are still available to journalists in some cases. Check in your state.

What they own

* Uniform Commercial Code filings at your county recorder of deeds or secretary of state’s office provide information about loans for yachts, cars or other goods.

* If the person is a public employee, request to see the person’s payroll payments and expenses. In some states, complaints and disciplinary proceedings also are available.

* Vehicle and boat registration information is still public for journalists in some states.

Who they know

* Marriage licenses and birth certificates, available at county recorder or state health departments, provide a bead on relatives.

* For public employees, request to see e-mail correspondence.

* By checking campaign contributions, you can find out whether the person gives to candidates or causes. You can get this info at your county elections office or secretary of state’s office. Some information is online (www.opensecrets.org)

* College degree, classmates and dates of attendance can be found online for free at www.classmates.com, but registration is required.

What they do

* School directory information is still public, despite the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Unless the student or parent opts out, you are entitled to find out whether a student attends a school, date of birth, address, telephone number and other basic directory information. See the U.S. Department of Education Web site for more details.

* Information about licensed professionals is public, including details about lawyers (www.martindale.com), doctors (webapps.ama-assn.org/doctorfinder/home.html) and pilots (www.landings.com?). Check with state licensing agencies to find information on a myriad of professions, including cosmetologists, contractors and even professional athletes.

* If the person is an officer for a nonprofit group, examine public IRS 990 forms online at www.guidestar.com.

What they do wrong

* Every journalist should tap into court documents at their county courthouses when getting background on a person, including criminal and civil records. Divorce records can be particularly telling, although — as with every document — verify the information. In many states, civil and criminal records are now available online, including PDF files of the documents.

LexisNexis can provide a wealth of information about people and searches of newspaper articles. Tap into it for free at your public library or university library.

For more on finding background information on sources, check out the Web site by New York Times investigative reporter Duff Wilson at www.reporter.org/desktop. Also, Bill Dedman’s www.powerreporting.com is great for beat-specific resources.

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