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Surprising sources for business stories

June 13, 2017

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Even genealogical records can provide great clues for business stories. ("Jenkins Genealogy 1939-40, A Sketch of Forebears" by John M. via Flicker, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Even genealogical records can provide great clues for business stories. ("Jenkins Genealogy 1939-40, A Sketch of Forebears" by John M. via Flicker, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Finding a new source of information is always good for business journalists. There are plenty of obvious ones, including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Hoovers and Google Finance. To advance your reporting, you’ll want to go beyond what other reporters use.

Whether you’re looking for facts on a company or an individual, a single information source is unlikely to give you everything you’re looking for. Instead, you get data from multiple sources, triangulate it and pull the pieces together. Some sources, such as government agency compliance websites, quickly come to mind. Others might not. Here are some more unusual yet useful information sources.

WikiLeaks

You may think of WikiLeaks solely as a politically motivated organization that releases data provided by whistleblowers or hackers. But the leaked data may mention companies on your beat. For example, a long-running lawsuit in Nigeria alleged a pharmaceutical company had enlisted children in a drug trial without proper consent; some of those children subsequently died or were severely disabled. About eight months before a less-than-spectacular settlement was reached with the children’s parents, a news story suggested the drug company had attempted to pressure the Nigerian attorney general to undermine the suit. That story was based on U.S. diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks. The WikiLeaks site allows you to search for a company or an individual’s name.

Instagram

This example from AP is about the misuse of taxpayer campaign funds. Reporters Jack Gillum and Stephan Braun were investigating Illinois Rep. Aaron Schrock who, in early 2015, already faced an ethics investigation. The reporters alleged that he had “spent taxpayer and campaign funds on flights aboard private planes owned by some of his key donors.” One of their tools was Instagram. The AP tracked Schock’s reliance on the donors’ aircraft partly through the congressman’s penchant for uploading pictures and videos of himself to his Instagram account. The AP extracted location data associated with each image,  then correlated it with flight records showing airport stopovers and expenses later billed for air travel against Schock’s office and campaign records.

Genealogy sites

Soon after I joined a major genealogy site in order to research my family, I realized that the amount of public information available in the central repository was stunning. You could check for births, marriages, divorces, children, immigration, previous addresses and even some military and criminal records. The results can be hit or miss, but what you might learn can be surprising and useful in helping to verify records from other sources. I did a test run focused on someone I knew through business, and learned about a previous marriage he had kept hidden. A web search with his name, city and the year of the marriage then tied him to serious legal investigations.

Political contribution databases

By getting a person’s full name and addresses, you can help identify political contributions found through OpenSecrets.org or Federal Election Commission records. Knowing political leanings can be useful in covering business, but there are also some unexpected types of information that can turn up. For example, contribution records often mention business affiliations. Back to the test run I conducted on the genealogy site. I checked my subject’s recent addresses against a database of political contributions in order to confirm which were from him and not someone with the same name. Those records then showed a number of business affiliations, including a silent partnership in one company that would have otherwise been difficult to uncover.

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