Top Investigative Reporters Offer Tips and Strategy on Backgrounding Businesses

July 20, 2020 – The U.S. government is spending trillions of dollars to prop up the COVID-ravaged economy, but reporters scrambling to find out who is getting the money are often out of luck.

Even so, there are ways to pierce the corporate veil and find the people behind the companies that have received loans or contracts under the economic stimulus package. In sessions with the National Press Foundation, three experts in investigative reporting shared their best tips for finding background on businesses.

Much of the CARES Act data released by the Small Business Administration is incomplete. Nongovernmental watchdogs have been trying to fill in gaps. But news organizations can use specialized searches of Security and Exchange Commission to track companies in their coverage areas, filtering the data by state, city or ZIP code.

Reporters can start learning about recipients of stimulus loans and contracts by checking the corporate records that are on file at the Secretary of State’s office in all 50 states. But often the name listed on the articles of incorporation is that of an agent and none of the corporate executives are listed. Mark Horvit, a University of Missouri professor and former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, showed how to get around this and other reporting problems by making the most of the tool that everyone thinks they already know: Google.

“This may sound a little basic to you guys but I swear it’s not,” Horvit said. “It’s the Google advanced search. And if you don’t regularly use this, I cannot overstate the value of doing so.”

Using the regular Google search bar, Horvit typed in his employer’s name and got 367 million results. But by using the advanced search function under “Settings,” he showed how to narrow his search to the domain, or to PDF, PowerPoint or Excel files. He also showed how to narrow searches can also be narrowed by time range, region or language.

Searching within a specific domain, Horvit said, “focuses all the power of Google on a specific website so much better than a websites normal search engine can.” It can reveal data hidden on websites as well.

Horvit also recommends using Google image searches, which can reveal telling connections among people: who they know, trips they’ve taken, places they have spoken, organizations they’ve worked with.

He also recommended sites such as Cyber Background Checks, which has addresses, landlines, cell phone numbers and family connections going back decades. While such free sites are not always reliable, Horvit said they generally are just as good as people-finder sites that charge.

Cheryl Thompson, an NPR reporter, George Washington University professor and president of Investigative Reporters and Editors, said that beyond Google and social media searches, reporters should start by hunting for lawsuits involving the companies (PACER, Law360) and corporate finances (Dun & Bradstreet, Securities and Exchange Commission).

For tracking nonprofits, Thompson pointed reporters to GuideStar and Charity Navigator. And for seeing if a company has run afoul of regulators or the law, Violation Tracker compiles infractions from state and federal agencies that regulate banking, consumer protection, false claims, environmental, safety, employment discrimination, price-fixing and other regulatory sanctions.

Thompson’s reporting on the stimulus included a look at how the government rushed through no-bid COVID-19 contracts.

Rob Wells, a University of Arkansas professor and author, briefed reporters on how to make the most of the Securities and Exchange Commission records. His online tutorial shows how to find and interpret the various types of documents that companies are required to file with the SEC. These are found on the Edgar website.

Wells also offered tips on ways to glean details on private companies. Many of the companies that received CARES Act funding are private firms that received loans of less than $150,000. The Small Business Administration has not disclosed the names of those companies. An update on the lawsuit by news organizations demanding disclosure of that information can be found here. Resources and databases that can help journalists work around the $150,000 cap can be found here.

SEC records are generally used only by investors and business reporters, but they can be used by state and local journalists to drill into companies in their region. Wells showed how to use SEC records to shed light on executive pay, business prospects, bios of key leaders, lawsuits involving the company and – key during the COVID-19 crisis – material risks a company faces.

The Edgar database can also be used to drill down on companies by state, city or ZIP code.

Wells recommends checking these key documents:

  • Breaking corporate news, earnings (Form 8-K)
  • Executive pay (10-K, Def 14A)
  • In-depth profits/losses (10-Q)
  • Executive bios, photos (10-K, Def 14A)
  • Lawsuit summaries (10-Q, 10-K, 8-K)


This program is funded by the Evelyn Y. Davis Foundation. NPF is solely responsible for the content.

Mark Horvit
Associate professor, University of Missouri School of Journalism
Cheryl W. Thompson
Investigative correspondent, NPR; associate professor of journalism, George Washington University; president, Investigative Reporters and Editors
Rob Wells
Assistant professor, School of Journalism and Strategic Media, University of Arkansas, and author of “The Enforcers: How Little-Known Trade Reporters Exposed the Keating Five and Advanced Business Journalism”
Mark Horvit teaches how to background individuals.
Rob Wells on making the most of SEC filings.
Cheryl Thompson on backgrounding businesses.
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