My theme has been collecting information because, as I see from the outside looking in, journalists have lost focus under danger of losing information. The primary effort is collecting, filtering, and reporting. Just like military members in zones collecting for military value, reporters covering sensitive stories collect for story value. And for that reason they need to research sources prior to questioning them.
There are a few categories of information relevant to potential sources. This is not a final list, and reporters should privilege certain categories depending on source, budget, and time. I summarize these points from the U.S. Army Human Intelligence Field Manual and apply them to U.S.-based and foreign reporting, namely, for trafficking organization coverage, which may yield former captives, paid informants, and prisoners.
I determine that source research is done in advance and done thoroughly before questioning the source. Outside of walk-ins and accidental one-time meetings, these research topics will serve the journalist prepping for meetings with a properly-vetted source, and proper vetting is a separate topic.
-Geographic Area: This research is about the source’s basic biography: ethnicity, political affiliation, religion, family, legal status, social status, and residence. A locale will have registries and databases of pubic information. Get a sense of the source’s personal statuses. How long has he lived at the current address? Where are his children enrolled in school? Is it public or private school?
-Languages: This may not apply as much in the U.S., but know the source’s native language and secondary languages. Especially for Asian, Indian, and African sources, get the dialects right, background of home villages and tribes if needed, determine social status. In the right circumstances, you may need an interpreter.
-Political Group: Expand on political affillation from geographic area. You want to study his desires, beliefs, and goals. Has he affiliated with any groups or organizations? What kind of groups are these—subversive, mainstream, charity, military? You then study those groups, their activities, and recent controversies if any. Does he vote liberal or conservative? Has he donated to a campaign?
-Religion: Again, expanding from geographic area, we want insight into the source’s motivation, moral codes and values, vices, and motivation to do what he does for work and in private life. What better way to profile than asking Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, or other? Does he drink alcohol? Does he give to charities? What are his thoughts on social issues? Pin down a major religion and where on the spectrum he falls.
-Employment: This is a big topic. Employment information includes background information in formal and informal schooling, including degrees, training, and private study. Research employment history. We want job titles, income, and reasons for leaving. How long has he worked at current job? Is this entry level, mid-level, or management? Was he recently promoted? Is it team or individual work?
-Education: Expand on employment background and research level of education, areas of study, areas of interest, any special projects. What did he study? Did his seminars require papers or tests? Did he get good grades? Did he have academic advisors? This information helps in preparing questions to meet his level, but also have some control questions.
-Social Status: Here we want to research the source’s social status to approach him in the most favorable light. Is he wealthy, poor, middle class? Is he a drug or alcohol abuser? Who is his family and what do they do? Is he a member of exclusive clubs? Has he ever been divorced or separated? In essence, we want to know how this person is normally treated in society and design a good approach.
-Criminal Records: This area is vital to mapping out the source’s network. Resumes, employment data, and family do not reveal much about underground affiliations. Finding criminal records will reveal possible groups or organizations he may have knowledge about. Has he been arrested? When and for what? Did he plea? Did he serve time in jail or prison? Is the crime one involving dishonesty or violence? A prior charge of armed robbery indicates different traits than embezzlement. A prior domestic abuse charge versus a DUI or criminal trespass.
-Other Reports: This category includes other documents and reports about the source, other stories that mention or quote him, authored papers, and any other data found in open source records. Particularly, we may search insurance claims, local 5k race times, or Facebook groups with comments from the source. Twitter feeds, Instagram pictures, Facebook reviews, etc. reveal a lot of information, and people do not realize that even when their Facebook accounts are private, their comments and reviews of businesses and events still appear, showing times, dates, and locations. Having a first name and city of residence is enough to build a pretty extensive list of daily activities, associations, and interests.
Any entry-level researcher should know where to go for marriage licenses, civil and criminal complaints, civic organization member lists, county taxes, real estate holdings, public school records, and political activity records. In addition, the persistent researcher will expand to the more invasive areas online: social media, Tracers reports, LexusNexus reports, Accurint, IRB research, license plate recognition databases, such as TransUnion TLOxp. Remember that private scanners are in play nationwide, and TransUnion claims 2 billion records with 50 million sightings added monthly. You get the time, date, and exact location of license plate sighting. However, I hold the traditional view that there’s no better equipment than a pair of walking shoes. Get out in the streets and find information on foot. Send out people to talk to family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, supervisors, colleagues, and shop owners.
To summarize, interviewers need questioning approaches for the interview, and to have good approaches one must know the subject well. That demands adequate research and investigation. We want to estimate what information the source might have that we need and how to get it directly from him. Working with his background information, we can more easily narrow our questions and ask more appropriate questions. The goal is production. He needs to produce accurate information, and we need to approach him in ways that solicit accurate information.