Monday, 15 October 2012

Reporting for beginners. 44. Finding people in the real world (part 3).

In the previous posts we looked at what factors to take in with names and use of search engines when trying to trace someone. In this one we are going to look at gathering the information - in the real world.

First off don't ignore the obvious no matter how unlikely it may be. I once tracked down a Duke by calling directory enquiries. It can still happen, although it is increasingly rare.

Again much of this depends on how much time you have and how desperate you are to find someone.

But always keep in mind many of the people you want to track down have good reasons for not wanting to be found. We also live in a very transitory age. People can move not from street to street but county to county.

Again as part of our information gathering we need to look in many different places.

At the scene of an accident look for memorials. People will go there to lay floral tributes and leave messages. Keep in mind my earlier tips regarding death knocks which can be found here and here.

The same basic rules apply. In this case give the person time and only approach when they have begun walking away. Try not to hover too closely, so keep a respectful distance but not so far that you won't be able to catch up with them once they go.

You yourself should read through the messages. Look for any clues, obviously names and nicknames, as we will see in a later post even a first name is worth checking. But keep a note also of relationships ie aunts and uncles and make a note of their details, it may come in handy later when trying to track down family members.

Bear in mind that you can't ask people if they want to talk to you if you can't find them - and they not know or even think about the newspaper being interested in their story.

Check also local businesses and nearby homes as the person may live locally and be known. Keep a note of which properties you've tried and their response - if you need to go back at a later stage it will stop knocking on the same doors.

It is also worth checking with the police although don't rely on this unless you have a very good relationship with them, thesedays there is an almost automatic assumption that the family of the deceased or a person involved in an accident will not want to talk with you and they will refuse to ask on your behalf.

Many will also be fearful that you will get in the way of any subsequent investigation, forgeting that libel and subjudice laws will still apply in the event of any criminal action.

If the person has died speak with the coroner's office. If the inquest has been opened (albeit and adjourned) the details are a matter of public record and should be available to you.

It is also worth checking the local newspaper...even if you work for it. The BMDs (Birth, Marriage, Death or Hatched, Matched and Dispatched as it is also known) column can already have a notice in it.

Knowing the timing of an accident also helps. People generally follow the same patterns returning to a scene at about the same time may help you find someone who was around and may have witnessed it.

But it is not all about trying to find the relatives of people who have died. Journalists are always trying to track people down for all sorts of reasons for good as well as for ill.

The best way to find them is to keep a good contacts book. Having their number in the first place it certainly the quickest and easiest which is why having a good, up-to-date contacts book is worth its weight in gold.

However we can't have everyone's number but we can use what we have. A good relationship with councillors, who because of their role in the community will have their ear to the ground, will help if you know the rough area the person lives in.

Also try chairmen/women of residents and tenants associations. If they do not know ask them for any long term residents who may be living in the area.

Don't be put off if someone says they moved out some years ago. Keep asking for specifics: When did they move? Any idea where they moved to? What was their job? Married, divorced, single? Any known relatives/friends? Where did they live previously? Every scrap of information helps.

If you are after a particular expert try other people in their field or call magazines/websites that deal with their specialism and ask them. They are usually very helpful.

In smaller communities ring anyone whose number you find and ask if they can help. You would be surprised how many are still willing to put you in touch or contact the person on your behalf.

If you believe they have a business try rivals or better still go to the Companies House website and check for directorships.

As always, the more detail you can collect the easier it will be. Constant cross-referencing helps narrow down searches all the time. But, as always, there are no guarantees.

To keep up to date with future tips follow @journalismtips on Twitter.

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