When looking for great documents to support your stories, be sure to reap the benefits of freedom of information advocates who have already acquired government records and posted them online for everyone to view.
These document vaults are rich with information and story ideas: wrongdoing by local companies; complaints against television shows; investigations into prominent newsmakers.
As a reporter, I wouldn’t actually use these records without requesting them myself and verifying the information, but they can help the reporting process in several ways.
First, some of the records might provide the impetus for a story. Most of the sites post federal documents that can be localized to just about any community.
Second, these posted government records were acquired through public records requests, not by the government proactively posting them online. These aren’t official government sites, such as EDGAR for SEC records, PACER for court records, federal depository libraries, etc. These are the records the government didn’t want to make accessible. It’s inspiring to see what can be acquired through freedom of information requests.
Third, records lead to records. Within these documents you will get ideas for other files, some mentioned within the posted documents that will yield more stories. A lot of these documents are federal, but think of the equivalent records that would be generated at city hall that you might cover.
Check these out:
The National Security Archive (www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv)
This independent nongovernmental research institute is not to be confused with the federal government’s National Archives. The center, which accepts no government dollars, collects and publishes declassified documents obtained through FOIA.
The Government’s Attic (www.governmentattic.org)
This Web site, launched in 2007, is unique because it specializes in FOIA logs, so you can see what kinds of records have been requested of federal agencies, and by whom.
The Memory Hole (www.thememoryhole.org)
This Web site has been around since 2002, dedicated to gathering important government documents and posting them for the public. In 2004, The Memory Hole obtained and posted 288 photos of war dead coming to Dover Air Force Base in flag-draped coffins, which caused a stir over military photo release policy that is still being argued about today.