Backgrounding people, businesses and non-profits

March 9th, 2018 by Jack Styczynski

Of all the research topics we teach here at the J-school, backgrounding is among the most important. Certainly, not doing proper backgrounding has great potential to make you look bad. You don’t want to do a friendly story on someone, only to be burned by not doing proper backgrounding.

My rather glib definition of backgrounding is “searching for information about people they don’t want you to know.” I do it as a matter of course in my job as a news researcher, but reporters should be able to do for themselves too.

You’ve already learned of some resources that will help you do backgrounding. For starters, you can do general article searches on people, businesses or non-profits in Nexis, Factiva or Access World News, as there will often be something written about controversial (or criminal) topics. Furthermore, you can search court databases for civil and criminal cases, using the resources in the Research Center guides for court records and criminal histories at both the federal and state level. (This blog has similar guides for both court and crime research, albeit somewhat dated.)

For this lesson, I want to point you to the Research Center’s public records guide and review some of the resources I think are most useful.

For people:

  • Accurint and TLO are undoubtedly the top resources for backgrounding individuals, as each provides a comprehensive compilation of public records (including criminal), contact and family information on a person. Both are available by subscription only and we do not have access to TLO here at the J-school, but you can visit Barbara Gray in the Research Center to have an Accurint report run.
  • Although there are other kinds of records you might seek on a person, checking for criminal records is the most common type of “backgrounding.” For the incarcerated, you can check inmate locators at the federal, New York State and New York City level. (For other state and county jurisdictions, check here, here and here.) In New York State, you can also check WebCriminal for court information on criminal cases with future appearance dates in many jurisdictions.
  • There are separate databases for sex offenders. You can do a National Sex Offender Search or search at the state level, including New York. One useful secondary source is Family Watchdog, where you can search for registered sex offenders in a neighborhood by address.
  • For more resources, this blog has a backgrounding handout, although again, it’s somewhat dated.

For businesses:

For non-profits:

Bonus tip: While a 990 filing is a good way to find salaries for non-profit executives, public employee salaries are also often available through sites such as the New York City civil list and SeeThroughNY. You can find similar databases around the nation at PIbuzz, including Congressional staff salaries.

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