Publicly available databases are useful in cultivating story ideas and sources.

By Naledi Thabane

Databases can expose hidden truths that you can build a story on, said seasoned American journalist and investigative correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR), Cheryl Thompson.

The journalist has reported on issues regarding criminal justice in America, including investigating police misconduct cases. She recommended searching for police and law enforcement databases as a source and for cultivating potential sources. “They are a gold mine,” she said.

She was speaking during a master class on generating investigative news ideas during the African Investigative Journalism Conference.

In analysing databases in order to tell a human story, Thompson advised journalists to look and pay attention to patterns within data. “Investigative reporting is about patterns,” she says.

When investigating a database of closed homicide cases from the Washington DC police department, she was able to prove that the police department lied about its 67% closure rate. Only about a third of homicide cases had been closed. “The police’s duty is to make people believe that they are safe,” she said in explaining the police’s motive.

While journalists have a fundamental right to information, Thompson emphasised that you need to know how the organisations under investigation operate. This helps journalists in avoiding bureaucratic barriers to accessing administrative information such as databases. “Once you know how a system works, people tend to back off” Thompson said.

FEATURED IMAGE: Cheryl Thompson is an award-winning journalist who revealed her secrets on how she found some of her greatest stories through law enforcement documents and reports. Photo: Ortal Hadad