Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Rutgers University Professor Extols Virtues of Active Citizens

By Stephen Yoon

“For many readers, their newspaper is an important part of their life,” said Jan Barry, a professor of journalism at Rutgers University. Indeed, newspapers serve as a primary source of information for many citizens. Barry then went on to emphasize his point by using stories of experiences of readers calling in with proposals for news stories, from deaths to a suburban mayor being arrested by the FBI on bribery charges.

On March 27 Professor Barry presented a speech he had previously given in 2005 called “Tapping the Grassroots, Unofficial Sources.” Barry spoke of the utility of using local citizens as information sources for news reporting, tips that he learned during his tenure as a reporter at The Record of Bergen County in Hackensack, NJ.

“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 wrote in his book, A Citizen’s Guide to Grassroots Campaigns.

He used his experience attained while doing an investigative series on dangerous chemical herbicides being used by the Rockaway River in Morris County, NJ. Indeed this tip did not come from an environmental organization, but from a statement made by a man at a municipal council meeting. At this meeting Barry learned that the same chemicals were used in Agent Orange, a deadly herbicide used during the Vietnam War. Clearly finding unofficial sources requires effort like meeting with people after municipal meetings or going to homes trying to get information.

When trying to follow up on this information with official sources, Barry ran into a roadblock. “Federal officials, it became evident in reporting that story, preferred to stonewall rather than forthrightly address the implications that the United States government poisoned many of their own troops as well as much of Vietnam and its people,” he revealed. Indeed, members of the government and their press corps are well versed in putting a favorable spin on stories relating to them.
Barry was then forced to turn to unofficial sources, the best of which turned out to be concerned veterans and independent researchers. Although the process was very time consuming it was beneficial, as these citizens had gotten information from obscure industrial medical journals, military reports, and Veterans Administration files.

“Finding those folks and reporting their decidedly unofficial—but now historic—story took the better part of three months,” commented Barry.
Indeed having a large, even unorthodox network of sources is absolutely crucial to a proactive news reporter. “I also tap an informal network of people I’ve met while hiking, canoeing, in college classes, at conferences and awards dinners. Another trade secret is that reporters trade sources. Sometimes reporters are sources,” Barry revealed.

Barry’s connections extend even to his experiences serving in Vietnam. As a founder of a Vietnam veterans’ organization, he has been interviewed in print, radio, and television about various stories. Through this organization he was connected to Democratic Presidential Candidate John Kerry, another member of the organization. Due to this he was constantly tapped by reporters at national news organizations for stories about Kerry.

Barry went on to say, “Finding good unofficial sources takes patience, persistence, and sometimes luck or fortuitous timing.” He then reflected on going into a nursing home ward full of AIDS patients, stating that it was one of the most frightening places he had tried to find a story. His diligence paid off, as he got enough information to write a heartbreaking feature story about young adults in an old-age home withering away from a terminal virus. Barry got more stories after the original article ran, as patients followed up with information about a Medicare funding problem that had arose in the nursing home.

“Finding well-informed sources in the vastly bigger, diverse, and diffuse world beyond the statehouse, municipal building or school board offices takes work. It means listening to gabby gadflies at local meetings and afterwards in cold dark parking lots,” Barry revealed. What we can take away from his speech is that although the work of a news reporter never truly ends, the rewards can be great with enough patience and persistence.

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