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Deadspin reporting of Manti Te'o girlfriend hoax highlights need for backgrounding story subjects

The ability to background a person  is an essential tool for journalists regardless of beat, as shown by news of Lennay Kekua, the deceased girlfriend of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o who never existed but became one of the prominent storylines in sports this year.

The fact that Kekua was a complete fabrication is a seemingly rare case, but it’s far from the first time someone in a news article wasn’t who they appeared to be. For instance, in September the Chicago Tribune reported that a well-regarded school teacher had fallen on hard times and was living in a homeless shelter -- a tale that prompted his former students to begin raising funds online for the teacher. But later that month, after further digging, the Tribune revealed in a follow-up story that the teacher had inherited $247,000 in 2007 and gambled away nearly $180,000.

Stories like that of Manti Te’o, however, do more than serve as a cautionary tale for journalists about why to background their subjects -- they raise questions about how and when it needs to be done. Neither Te’o nor Kekau were public officials or powerful businesspeople. Neither had been accused of a crime. The story was simply of a football player and his girlfriend. Yet at some point the story grew into a phenomenon and captured the nation, and all the while more and more of it didn’t add up.

So when the alarm bells start sounding, what is the best way to reconcile the facts? Even more important, before reasons for skepticism emerge, what preventative steps can journalists take?

Deadspin reporters established the nonexistence of Lennay Kekua through Nexis, a search that can be replicated through simple tools available to all journalists -- public records.

Backgrounding is a tool IRE’s members have been honing since its inception. For starters, the resource center has dozens of tipsheets on the topic and he NICAR Net Tour has a wealth of links from staff trainers and journalists now at ProPublica, The Center for Public Integrity and The New York Times, among others. A site run by former IRE Board member Duff Wilson, reporter.org, has the feature “Who is John Doe?” that has many links and tips for putting together a person’s history.

Whether you’re putting together an exhaustive background search or need to run quick checks on deadline, there are plenty of paid and free resources available. Here’s a sample, though there are many more at the resources linked above:

People finding

Remember that many of them base their numbers on the same regional telephone books. Most now include e-mail address look ups. But many of the databases are out of date.

  • ZabaSearch - ZabaSearch allows for quick access to records available in the public domain. Searches generate lists of available information gathered from sources such as court documents, phone listings, and real estate records.
  • Spokeo - Spokeo is a search engine for finding people. It aggregates listings from white pages and public records.
  • Whitepages.com - This phone direction has easy-to-find links and reverse, area code and zip cop lookups at the top of the page.
  • ReferenceUSA - Useful for finding neighbor phone numbers at an address.The custom search tab in the U.S. residential database allows searching by geography— county, zip code or street address, or example. Standard name searching is also available.
  • Anywho - Run by AT&T, it's also one of the few with a reverse directory. When you get the street you can click on it for neighbors' phone numbers, and it will draw a map when it finds the address.
  • Google Image Finder - A reverse image lookup finds sites that use the photo you're searching for. A great way to catch "Catfish" situations like the photos used in the fake profile for Lennay Kekua. Watch a video explanation of the tool.

Public records gateways
Many of these sites have limited free access to data and are really portals to pay searches from their Web sites. But four sites - the National Association of Secretaries of State, NETRonline, Public Record Finder and especially Search Systems - offer lots of free public access to records. More at the NICAR Net Tour.

The Invisible Web
The Invisible Web is made up of tons of information invisible to most search engines. That's because most of the information is stored in databases that cannot be accessed by the software search engines used to compile their indexes. Fortunately, there are a few sites that can help you get at this information. Some of these pull from social media sites, which wouldn’t help verify a fake profile, but can help in backgrounding other ways:

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