Going Beyond Google
By Annalisa Goode
Who’s that man?
You’ve Googled him and come up empty. What do you do next? T.J. Sullivan is an expert digger and illustrated different avenues to travel when reporters come up against a brick wall.
A reporter working at the Ventura County Star, Sullivan suggests listing all the information about the subject that is already known.
• First middle and last name?Unfortunately all you know is his name and residence, but don’t let that hold up the investigation. Ask for the rest, if not directly, then ask friends, neighbors, or colleagues. Inform the person of your intentions.
• Birth date?
• Property or business ownership?
• Friends colleagues, allies, foes, critics?
• Home town, high school, college, graduate school?
• Life history?
Sullivan warns not to cause unnecessary tension when friends call him about the reporter sniffing around. Ask for the basics: name, age, occupation, education -- but don’t conduct the interview just yet.
If the subject is fully aware of what you are up to and still unavailable or unwilling to cooperate, what do you do next?
Sullivan recommends thinking about the story like it’s a house and asking what materials are needed for a strong, resilient and fool-proof home.
"Can’t build the roof without the walls, can’t build the walls without the foundation," Sullivan said.
Collecting information in order will save time later especially if you’re on deadline.
Government is a good place to begin, such as the County Clerk’s office. Voter registration files will have:
• AddressImportant note: Birth date is a key to many things, including criminal records. Finding out what contributions he gave to candidates may be a huge undertaking, Sullivan said, if the campaign finance is not in a searchable computerized database.
• Birth date and birth state
• Voter registration date
• Party affiliation
• Campaign contributions
• Business licenses
Sullivan goes on to suggest requesting tapes of testimony, transcripts and agendas and packets from the archives from the Clerk of the Board office for commission, or city council information.
"You have a right to listen," Sullivan said.
At the County Assessor’s office you’ll learn about property ownership, whose name is on the property, (spouse, business, child), what is the size of each piece of property, Assessor’s Parcel number or APN and maps to locate where it is.
If he’s a property owner, he has a service address, which is where they send the tax bill.
The courthouse contains criminal and civil records including divorce, lawsuits as plaintiff and defendant, criminal cases (also check police and district attorney office), probate records for information on processed wills.
At the County Recorder’s office you’ll find marriage license records and death certificates. Death records which have a wealth of information, said Sullivan, including:
• father, mother’s maiden nameBut if your subject is still alive, and married or divorced, the wedding date can take you to the archives of the person’s hometown newspaper. A marriage announcement may include:
• place of burial
• date of death
• time of death
• place of death
• immediate cause of death (due to statements)
• occupation, kind of business
• mother’s maiden name, social security number
• employment"It’s easier to work forward from where they’re from, than working backward from the present," Sullivan said. "Make use of what you’ve found, ask each contact for another source."
• high school graduated from
• high school of spouse
• maiden name and parents names
• names of best man and maid of honor
If your subject was a star high school athlete then his hometown paper may have printed a story on him.
Don’t discount the subject’s high school librarian.
"Yearbooks can provide direction," Sullivan said. "Read about the names of faculty and friends, many of whom may still be in the community."
A firm believer in open records, Sullivan advocates reporters educating themselves and educating their government when necessary.
In California’s reporter handbook (it’s blue) you’ll read about California’s Public Records Act, Government Code Section 6250.
What is an open record? Paper documents, disks, photographs, maps, anything that contains information accessible under the Freedom of Information Act.
Take along the handbook or copy of the act to show the clerk, Sullivan advises. Don’t take no for an answer.
Bring a letter that cites chapter and verse…be specific about what you want…get the clock rolling as soon as possible. Avoid the phone when possible. Get out of the office. Never under estimate the value of interviewing a person in their home. Knock on doors. Write letters. Make a daily call list.
And don’t be afraid to ask for help.
"If you’re not sure of the law, seek guidance. One good source is the California First Amendment Coalition.