An investigative reporting project using public documents

Beat Reporting
Spring 2016

Due: 9:30 a.m., May 6.

The goal of this project is for students to learn about the usefulness to reporters of public documents. Searching public documents is an important tool of journalism. Some of the documents may be online, but for others, students will have to travel to the county seat or the state capitol to research. Your objective is to research a person buried in the local cemetery by examining public documents and related sources – and writing a story about the life, and death, of that person.

Conducting the project:

You’ll select a person to investigate by visiting the local cemetery and choosing a name off a gravestone. One word of caution: You may not want to pick the oldest gravestone in the cemetery as records may not exist from the 19th century.

Then, you will research historical documents. Here is a suggested order of research and where students might find some of the information:

Obituaries. Commonly found in newspapers, public libraries and historical societies. Check for other stories about the person or the person’s death.

Other printed sources. Newspapers, magazines and almanacs may contain information about the political, social and cultural context of the subject’s life.

Cemetery records. The cemetery office or historical society should have the date of death and burial, the cause of death and who owns the burial plot.

City directories. Found in the public library. In these, you’ll find names, addresses, sometimes the name of a spouse or children and the person’s profession or employer.

Census records. You may find information recorded by family name, children, who else lived in the home, the address, age and citizenship of the head of the household. Sometimes it lists married children.

School census records. Available from the superintendent of schools, the county clerk or the historical society, these records list children, ages 5-20, in households by names and ages.

Probate records. Found in county court or the historical society. Hand-written wills will be found in older records. Probate records list heirs and addresses, the will’s executor, an inventory of personal property, newspaper notices and bills. Adoption and guardianship records often are included.

Delayed birth records. Found in the county clerk’s office or the historical society, these records should help you find the legal document needed for people born before 1905 to obtain Social Security.

Marriage records. Available at the County Clerk’s office. Indexed by years, then by name of either party. Records will include the couple’s names, hometowns, ages, places of birth, parents, marriage date, witnesses at the wedding, who performed the ceremony, etc.

Military records. They usually are found at a county veterans’ office. Records become public only when a veteran dies. They include military discharge information, lists of veterans buried in the county, newspaper clippings, photographs and letters. However, Saline County rarely turns over these records, even though they are public.

Naturalization records. Older records often are available at the county historical society.

Other records:

Register of deeds can help you trace property ownership

Election commissioner


Mortuaries and churches also may have records but, since they are private, they may not provide the information to you.

Progress report:

Every student must submit an in-class progress report on Feb. 20. You must bring copies of sample documents, photos, newspaper clippings or other relevant information to show that you are researching.

In addition to the story, students must submit copies or sample documents to show that you researched the subject.

In your research, you may be surprised to find other bits of information, such as the price of food, gasoline and clothing; descriptions of local landmarks or businesses, movies and music; and stories of war. You may find out that some people led happy lives, but sadness filled the lives of others, especially a person who died young. This assignment can be a very emotional one that may bring history to life. That is part of the mystique of it. It also teaches you how to research public documents to find out more information about your subjects.

You may interview family or friends of the deceased, but you must submit copies of public records to show that you adequately researched your subject.