Many reporters use both public and private documents when researching and writing stories. Public documents are available through the Freedom of Information Act, or simply by asking for them. Private documents are often available only from the person to whom they belong.

In this section, we’ll learn more about how to use documents in your stories.


Read the story by Louise Kiernan of the Chicago Tribune about one man’s efforts to learn to read. Identify three instances on which Kiernan refers to information from private documents.

If not already clear, try to identify the document source of the information.

Read story

Play the video clip of Kiernan as she talks about how she used documents when reporting the literacy story.

Kiernan mentions how she even used a train ticket stub to verify information and test the validity of a source for her story, and considers that ticket stub a document in the sense that it is information on paper that is useful in her research and reporting.

Many people may not think of documents in such a broad sense, but as a reporter, any hard copy version of information can be considered a document.

Identify at least three other document sources that may have been used to verify information in Kiernan’s story. Remember, the story may not even attribute the information to a document – the document is used solely for the reporter to check out information.

As an entire class or in small groups, talk about the nature of documents in everyday life. Take 5 to 10 minutes and list the documents that are part of your daily world – they may include a class syllabus or a work time card. Then, brainstorm about stories in which those documents might be very important from a reporter’s point of view. For example, a student’s credit card bill may be fodder for a story on rising student debt. Try to come up with at least ten documents that are part of your daily life and three stories that might come from them.

Finf two newspaper articles that rely on documents. One article should use public documents and the second article should use private documents. Could the document information in those stories be found elsewhere?

How would the stories read without the document information in them?

Write you answers in 1-2 paragraphs.

Writing Tip: Look for metaphors and similes in Kiernan’s writing. She uses them often and powerfully to convey abstract ideas and concepts – such as learning to read. She jotted down one metaphor in her notebook while listening to one of Calvin’s sessions. The image came to her while listening to the tutoring session. Calvin’s words fell from his mouth “like stones.”

Write metaphors for the following acts: An adult learning to ride a bike, an experienced chef creating an intricate pastry, a child building a sandcastle.

Not all government documents are public. But the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act allows reporters access to public documents of all kinds.

Play the video clip of Chicago Tribune reporter Noreen Ahmed-Ullah talking about how she used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain documents to verify a tip she received from a source regarding a local college or university president.

FOI the expanse reports for your college or university president.