By Russell Booth
In order to find good stories and news sources, journalists have to go the extra mile. Rather than staying in statehouses, municipal buildings, or school board offices, journalists must venture out into the world to find good stories. According to Jan Barry, a retired staff writer for The Record, “It means listening to gabby gadflies at local meetings and afterwards in cold dark parking lots, returning heated phone calls from furious readers fed up with your newspaper, knocking on doors in strange neighborhoods sometimes late at night…” On March 27 in the SCILS building at Rutgers University, Barry delivered a speech to his News Reporting and Writing class. The speech he delivered to the class was the one he gave after being named Journalist-in-Residence in spring 2005 by the North Jersey Media Group Fellowship. His speech, entitled “Tapping the Grassroots: Unofficial Sources-the News-Making Role of Ordinary Citizens,” was about some of journalism’s trade secrets. Some of the trade secrets he spoke about were also mentioned in his book, “A Citizen’s Guide to Grassroots Campaigns.” Following some of these secrets can help lead to a successful career in journalism.
The first trade secret Barry revealed was that citizens were major news sources for media outlets. In his book Barry stated, “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 complaint.” He continued saying that good reporters do not just wait for tips, they go out and find people that are saying and doing interesting things. Barry said journalists that do not go out and search for stories convey “official speak.” These official sources spin their version of reality while excluding all other versions. Barry stated that officials are media savvy and their sources will find you. He said, “Elected officials and government administrators, or their press aides, have perfected the news media game, feeding the media maw with press releases, press conferences, exquisitely timed political tidbits, and provocative public speeches.” All of these sources have planned responses and will only feed information and news stories that put them in a good light.
Barry gave a personal example of how citizens can be reliable sources. He stated that a health story on the effects of the chemical Agent Orange came from a person’s remark at a municipal council meeting in Morris County. At the meeting a man stood up and claimed that the same chemical herbicides that were in Agent Orange were sprayed to kill vegetation under power lines that crossed the Rockaway River. Barry stated, “That man, a local environmentalist was right. He’d done some research.” This is a perfect example that shows how citizens can sometimes be the best sources. By the end of this health story Barry concluded that the best sources were concerned veterans and independent researchers.
Barry said that the next trade secret is that reporters often trade sources. For some stories, the information in the stories come from other journalists. He told the audience, “I also tap an informal network of people I’ve met while hiking, canoeing, in college classes, at conferences and award dinners.” It is very important for journalists to network with each other because networking increases the chances of a journalist finding a good story. According to Barry, citizens that have good tips are crucial to American journalism. He concluded his speech stating, “So there you have it. And in New Jersey, that’s at least 8 million stories-just waiting to be reported.”