Monday, April 20, 2009

Unofficial Sources: The Key to a Great News Story

By Jaclyn Mandelbaum

“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”, revealed Professor Jan Barry, referring to his book, “A Citizen’s Guide to Grassroots Campaigns”. On March 27, the Rutgers professor addressed his News Reporting and Writing students and revealed fascinating tips regarding the use of various types of unofficial sources in the journalism field. Barry is a seasoned reporter having written for The Record, and is the author of two books including “Earth Songs: New & Selected Poems” and “A Citizen's Guide to Grassroots Campaigns.” Barry has quite a bit of experience in the industry, and was able to shed light on the use of citizens as helpful and necessary sources in writing a well researched and thought out piece.

Barry provided the class with multiple examples of ways in which common citizens sparked and perpetuated various investigations in his career. He explained how when a resident at a Morris County municipal meeting voiced a concern, an investigative series was born. A local environmentalist was disturbed to find out that the same chemical herbicides that were used in Agent Orange in Vietnam War were being used to kill vegetation along the Rockaway River.

Further research by Barry confirmed that the citizen was indeed correct. According to Barry, the best sources in his investigation turned out to be concerned veterans of the war and independent researchers who extrapolated vague and ambiguous details from medical journals, military reports, and Veterans Administration files. As more discoveries were made, the series of articles was investigated for about three months.

Barry revealed that when he had a discussion with Guy Baehr, a former Star Ledger reporter and Rutgers professor, Baehr said, “The official sources find you.” Elected officials, government administrators, and press aides feed journalists information that they want to be conveyed in a certain manner. They have “perfected the news media game,” as Barry said, and only reveal which news they so chose to reveal. Great journalists should, and could, dig deeper if they want to avoid this “official speak,” as in “official said” sort of journalism, he said.
“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, returning heated phone calls from furious readers fed up with your newspaper, knocking on doors in strange neighborhoods sometimes late at night, shooting the bull with armed hunters and barbed-hook-flinging fisher folk, consoling distraught relatives and other survivors at fire scenes and funerals, consorting with wary suspects and hyper-talkative lawyers, tracking down people who were once in the news and don’t ever care to be again,” Barry explained

Barry’s journalism students seemed to have taken away a great deal of information from his presentation. They learned that although finding and using unofficial sources could take much patience, persistence, and perhaps some luck or good timing, the results often are worth it. With this knowledge, hopefully these future journalists will dig deep, follow their instincts, and provide the public with fascinating and previously untold news stories.

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