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More information in your database may come from paper trails. The phrase 'paper trail' is a metaphor derived from the school racing game where a leader ran through the countryside dropping bits of paper and the following group tracked him as fast as they could by following his trail. A paper trail works the same way in investigative journalism: You identify documents you need to support your hypothesis and develop a strategy to access them. The process involves using one document to lead you to the next relevant document. Then, you follow the paper trail back to look for links between your findings.

Jot down everything in these starting documents that you think may be relevant. This could, for example, include a person’s CV that says he was a security officer for a mining company in an area affected by civil war (involving conflict diamonds). It could be that the CV does not document this individual’s gaps in employment. This is where basic numeracy skills come in. By adding the number of years worked at various jobs, and the total years reflected in the employment record to see if there is any undocumented time. You may find work or company records that indicate whether a person left a position suddenly. This would lead you to look for more documents about that person’s workplace history. You might find that the human resources department recorded a complaint of theft or fraud against the person. You could follow that bit of the trail to look for police, court or prison records about that person, and so on. In other words, you use one document to lead you to another and provide confirmatory evidence.

Once you have distinguished between relevant and irrelevant documents, you will need to exercise empathy. Put yourself in the subject's shoes and picture possible scenarios: What might he or she have done? Would it make a difference if he or she chose option A or option B? This will help you avoid wild-goose chases. If after a five-year period abroad, someone was appointed to be a presidential ‘consultant’, it does not make sense to look for papers about that person's history in the president's office. The appointment probably happened behind closed doors based on a simple, short-term contract with few details. Instead, it is likely to be more productive to look for information overseas, where the person purportedly stayed or to try to track their cross-border movements.

Much of the paper trail can often be followed through public-record documents, though you may need to use creative source-cultivation skills to access privately-held papers. Many journalists think that using libraries and archives is simple. They are indexed alphabetically, so you just look for the person's name. However, it often is not as simple as that. If you work with computerised records, entering a name will pull up relevant results – often alongside a lot of irrelevant ones. But in many, especially undeveloped, countries public records are physical documents stacked in a dusty room. You have to negotiate with the gatekeeper who controls access to this room and find out how the documents are indexed and how to use the index. Doing so can save a great deal of time and energy.

Floreen Simon from the Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism explains in this video how to understand public documents:

Very often, searching for public-record documents, such as birth certificates or driver’s licences seems like the best way to start. But online news databases can also be surprisingly useful for searches about people. Most local newspapers are available online; do not ignore them. Every office has its own website; individuals have blogs and social media accounts. If a person of interest uses his or her real name, a news search can turn up court cases he/she may have been involved in or tangential information, like their attendance at a university function. News also often contains massive amounts of profiling and paper trail information, like details on local buildings (e.g., banks, companies, government offices), paid legal notices (e.g., wills, name changes, marriages, funerals, foreclosures, auctions, tenders, seized/ unclaimed properties, etc.), and arrests and convictions. Each of these fragments of information provides a piece of the jigsaw puzzle you are trying to solve.

To sum up, you follow a paper trail by:

  • >   Web-searching, visiting archives and persuading sources to speak with you until you have assembled whatever documents you can find about the person.
  • >   Mapping these documents using the data-mapping techniques and looking for gaps, contradictions and inconsistencies.
  • >   Thinking about what documents could fill the gaps or resolve the contradictions – and start investigating these.