Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tapping the Grassroots of Sources

By Shaun Van Moerkerken

Too often in today’s society, news reporting is viewed as a job rather than a civic duty to keep American citizens informed about government and their surroundings. When reporting the news becomes a source of revenue, cost effective techniques such as the use of experts are used, which blurs the reality of the news. “Finding well-informed sources in the vastly bigger, diverse and diffuse world beyond the statehouse, municipal building or school board offices takes work,” said Barry. On March 27, Jan Barry a professional journalists and Rutgers University Professor spoke to a group of young upcoming journalist about tapping the grassroots of journalism and the use of unofficial sources. He started off his speech with a quote from his book, “A Citizens Guide to Grassroots Campaigns” “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.” This quote may seem controversial to news stations today that rely on the use of politicians and “experts” to convey what is news worthy.

He went on to explain that good reporters don’t just sit back and wait for a tip to come their way, they must search out people who are saying interesting things. When news is not reported in this way, news becomes the hearsay of political figures and societies elites. “The official sources find you,” Barry used a quote from Gary Baehr’s talk on this topic. People in powerful positions don’t want to leave their public images in the hands of news reporters and everyday American citizens so “experts” and public relation workers seek out reporters to make sure the news displays them in a positive manner. The problem with this is “they spin their version of reality to the exclusion of all other versions,” Barry said. The use of experts in the news today is a very popular way for news stations to obtain news because it is cheap and cost effective.

Barry has found himself on many occasions getting down and dirty trying to get the truth behind an important lead. On one occasion, Barry did an investigative series on health concerns over the use of Agent Orange near the Rockaway River, a Morris County water supply and in the Vietnam War. The best sources on this topic turned out being concerned veterans and independent researchers who dug up details from various sources. Finding these folks was not an easy task, but the angle on the story was perfected due to these unofficial sources, Barry said.

Another instance where unofficial sources paid off for Barry’s reporting career was when AIDs patients had been denied access to parts of a town and were even being petitioned to leave the town. The reason the townspeople wanted the patients to leave was because of the fear of catching the deadly disease from them (This was at a time when AIDs awareness was not popular and people were unaware of how to contract AIDs). To find his unofficial sources, Barry went to a nursing home ward full of AIDs patients, which is one of the scariest places he has ever gone looking for a story. “I was glad to get out alive and write a heartbreaking feature story about young people dying in an old-age home,” said Barry. After the story was printed, patients called in with information that sparked breaking-news articles on a Medicare funding dispute that created another crisis for these folks. “Citizens with a hot tip or a cool observation on public affairs are as crucial to American journalism as politicians whose careers flare or flameout in blazing headlines. So there you have it, and in New Jersey, that’s at least 8 million stories-just waiting to be reported,” Barry said in closing.

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