25 questions you should ask any government document

Filing cabinet picture by Jennifer George and released on Flickr under Creative Commons

How to find the stories behind official documents

The investigative journalist never takes things at face value. They probe and question to get to the truth. Some journalists accept official documents without question; not so the investigative journalist. If you are to uncover the story you need to keep asking questions.


1: Who’s your daddy?

Find out who created the document and why. Somebody had to have a reason to create a form or document. Figure out which person or agency went to the trouble of making a form.

2: When were you born?

Find out the issue date and ask about updates. In most bureaucracies, the form will change to adapt to conditions the makers never anticipated. There are times when earlier versions of the same form asked for different information.

3: What language do you speak?

Make sure you understand the terms. Agencies and departments and ministries love jargon, acronyms and codes. If you don’t understand what everything means, you’re missing out.

4: Where do you live?

You might need to make another visit. If you didn’t get the document from its regular source, it’s important to know where it resides. Sometimes you can meet its family.

5: Who else is in your family?

Find out what other documents may be on file. Government agencies are never content with just one form. When you learn everything about the function of the form, you’ll find others with even more information.

6: Are you married?

Is there another document that is wed to this one? Purchase orders always lead to bills of lading and receipts. When you know to look for the related documents, you will always discover more details and new leads.

7: Why are you here?

Figure out the need for the document at the time of issuing. Usually it came about because of some need - maybe a crisis. Sometimes it’s a law or regulation that required it. Get to the bottom of why someone conceived it.

8: Just what is your job anyway?

Understand its purpose today. As crazy as bureaucrats are, they still wouldn’t make a form or document that has no purpose. When you understand what it’s supposed to accomplish, you will figure out the system - and that’s the key to knowing what’s really going on.

9: What information do you have?

Ask about every piece of information. Make sure you understand what every speck of ink on the document means. This applies to what was on the blank form as well as the information someone filled in.

10: Who told you this stuff?

It had to learn the information from someone. Did someone actually weigh the person getting the driver's license or did they rely on what the applicant told them? If you don’t know how they came up with the information in a form or document, you leave yourself open to making errors.

11: Who else are you allowed to talk to?

Find out if it’s a public record. The more personal or sensitive a document is, the more restrictions there may be on who is allowed to possess it, read it or process it. Always find out who’s allowed to see it and, even more important, who’s not allowed to see it and why.

12: Did you verify the information?

People can write whatever they want on a form. Forms are, in essence, questionnaires. Find out what systems are in place to ensure that the information is incorrect. If the agency or department is lazy in this situation, it could be an invitation for corruption and misuse.

13: How do I know you’re telling me the truth?

Yes, documents can also lie to you. Think about your own resume. Do you really know how to use those machines and systems you claim you’re efficient at operating? Just because it’s in print doesn’t mean that it’s true. Be suspicious. Verify the information independently.

14: What other secrets are you keeping?

Look for codes and fine print. Too many investigative people look only at what’s filled in on a document, and not what the document is specifically asking for. Some journalists request blank copies of every document or form an agencies uses. Then, they ask for the documents or regulations that explain the encoded information.

15: Who else have you been talking to?

Maybe there’s a log of who’s seen the file. Some documents are so important or sensitive that anyone who looks at it, copies it or checks it out must sign a register of some sort. Get that register.

16: If you don’t know the answer, who might?

See if it leads you somewhere else. So the document provides someone’s date of birth but not the place of birth. Figure out which related document (documents are often members of families) might have the missing information. Maybe even an earlier version of the same one.

17: Are you legal?

Make sure you don’t have a fake or altered document. Never trust someone who introduces you to a document. Interrogate the document and be alert to answers that just don’t sound (or look) right. Sure, you want to believe that someone gave you an official document, but don’t get lazy. Find its twin and look for things that don’t match.

18: How did you get here?

Find out how a document gets from A to B. If you ask the officially recorded death certificate how it got to that file cabinet, you might learn that it spent a month or so being processed somewhere else. Next time, you can look for newer documents while they’re in transit.

19: Are you retired?

Some documents have become obsolete. Bureaucrats love to redo documents. Always check to ensure that the information in one document hasn’t been superseded by a newer version. Sometimes the issue date of the document is at the bottom of the form.

20: What’s your life expectancy?

Check records-retention policy. It’ll happen to you for sure, unless you’re careful. You look at documents in some public office and later decide you want copies. But when you get there, you discover that someone decided to put it in the bin or the shredder. Know how long they’re allowed to exist.

21: Who have you been intimate with?

Find out who has processed or handled it. Signatures, check boxes, initials, rubber stamps and even metadata will give you clues as to who had reason to have contact with the document. Be suspicious of the signatures of top-level officials. They hardly ever sign documents themselves. Find out who really signed or initialed it.

22: Are you really a blonde?

Make sure someone hasn’t altered the document. Many a journalist has lost his or her credibility because they didn’t verify every piece of information in a document. Sometimes the changes are obvious to the eye if you examine it closely enough. Don’t trust them.

23: Do you have any twin brothers or sisters?

There may be copies in other offices. Before computers, people made a fortune selling carbon paper to government agencies. It seems that they want everyone to have a copy of just about every document. If the distribution list isn’t printed on the form, look to the laws, policies or directives to find out where all those copies go.

24: Would you be willing to testify in court?

A certified copy will save court time. When you can get a government official to certify that the copy is true and correct, you’ll prevent a lot of potential problems. If it turns out that something is not correct, the burden falls on the official who certified it.

25: You’re not planning on leaving town, are you?

Put your copies in a safe place. There’s nothing more devastating than to lose the actual evidence you had that proved the corruption. Always scan your documents and keep digital copies in various safe places. There are forces out there who don’t want you to be able to share the evidence you’ve found.

Picture by Jennifer George and released under Creative Commons

Don RayDon Ray is a seasoned broadcast and print investigative reporter. He has worked worldwide for IREX and many other training and consulting organisations. All his tips, techniques and modules can be reused under the terms of Creative Commons BY-NC 4.0. You can This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if you want his help.



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