Monday, April 20, 2009

Reporters and Unofficial Informants

By Kara Jordhoy

As an investigative reporter, Jan Barry found that sometimes the most reliable source is the ordinary citizen. At public meetings, well-informed men and women often are the first to speak up about the issues that needed to be addressed in town. Barry, a retired reporter for The Record (Bergen County, NJ), gave an in class speech at Rutgers University on Mar. 27 about how average citizens can be the most reliable and finest sources for a journalist.

“A trade secret of the news media in America is that its major sources include the public—ordinary citizens who call, write, fax, e-mail, or personally deliver an interesting tip or complaint,” Barry quoted from his book, A Citizen’s Guide to Grassroot Campaigns.

A few years ago, Barry was doing an investigative series about the use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War. At a municipal council meeting in Morris County, a man had stood up and stated that some of the same toxic ingredients used in Agent Orange were sprayed to kill vegetation by the Rockaway River, which is a water supply stream. The man turned out to be correct, startling many who had been drinking that water for years.

Barry said that the official sources usually find the journalist to report the story they want revealed to the public. Barry had founded a Vietnam veterans’ organization that John Kerry had been a member of. When Kerry was nominated for president, Barry received many phone calls from national news organizations.

Clearly putting an emphasis on how anyone could be a source for news, Barry relived stories of how people have called him in the past, wanting him to put something in the paper. He has received phone calls from many local citizens, including a Gulf War veteran who had health issues after serving his country and a father who wanted to tell people about how his son died in a traffic accident.

Barry talked about one of his more scary experiences: walking through a nursing home full of AIDS patients. He said he was glad to get out of there when he finished finding his sources. Barry also went to a town meeting, where people screamed about AIDS patients being brought into the town.

“I was glad to get out of there alive,” Barry exclaimed, shaking his head. AIDS is a sickness that is not contagious from casual contact, something that many of the citizens did not seem to realize.

He then wrote a story about young people who were dying of this terrible virus, pulling the heartstrings of readers. However, Barry then received notice that Medicaid had a funding dispute over these patients, and that everyone with AIDS in the nursing home had to be moved out. Though this story was heartbreaking, Barry found that many critical people in the community decided to volunteer at the hospital, including the chief of police. “News reporting helps to explain something scary and give advice on how to help,” Barry concluded in his speech. His passion for journalism truly stands out through his stories and experiences that all fervent future reporters can look forward to.

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