Documents are great, but do you know how to read them?

Journalists often come across documents but miss the information these documents hold.   What looks like an innocuous piece of paper might hold valuable information. Here are some things to look for in any document you get.

  1. Actuality: A document might show that something important actually did happen.
  2. Part of a pattern: You might have an email or report that shows the occurrence of one little thing. Maybe it was a temporary closure of a bridge. Maybe it was a 911 call to police from a motel. But each of these is an actuality. It is a record of something that actually happened. If you can find more of these seemingly innocuous events, you can establish a pattern of something more serious like an unsafe bridge or families forced to live in dangerous places because of a lack of public housing.
  3. Human sources: Documents sometimes name the collector of data or the person in whose hands the data ultimately goes. A document’s only value might be in the name and contact person of someone worth talking to. That’s valuable.
  4. Dots that can be connected: If you have a budget that shows cuts to property and maintenance departments documents that show deferred maintenance needs that have risen over time, and a long backlog of repair work orders you have a picture of a university that has balanced its books at the risk of building safety.
  5. Quantifications: Documents might show how often a problem has occurred or how bad the problem is.
  6. Timeline: It migt be that the only useful thing you find in a document is when something occurred. But that might help you establish history and show how one action or lack of action led to a problem.

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