Friday, May 1, 2009

Fear, Worry and Investigative Journalism

By Stephen Yoon

Being a good reporter often means investigating out of the ordinary situations in search of a story. Indeed, the intrepid reporter must journey to places they would ordinarily never venture, as they are a bastion of news, especially in their local communities. Jan Barry, professor of journalism at Rutgers University, has had to deal with many uncomfortable situations and events during his tenure as a news reporter at the Record of Hackensack. In a speech entitled, “Tapping the Grassroots, Unofficial Sources,” Barry reflected on his experiences doing investigative reporting in such disturbing places as a nursing home full of AIDS patients in Wanaque, NJ.

“For many readers, their newspaper is an important part of their life,” said Barry. 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 his “Tapping the Grassroots, Unofficial Sources” speech where he spoke of the utility of using local citizens as information sources for news reporting, tips that he learned during his tenure as a reporter. “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.

Barry went on to say, “Finding good unofficial sources takes patience, persistence, and sometimes luck or fortuitous timing.” He then reflected on his experiences covering a story about young AIDS patients being put into a nursing home ward due to New Jersey’s “controversial policy of consolidating AIDS patients in one place for treatment.” Indeed, he got his tip about this matter from a public meeting in neighboring Pompton Lakes. “Despite my own worry and ignorance about this disease, I wanted to write about the AIDS patients’ experiences of being in a nursing home, where many of them were much younger than the typical nursing home patient,” Barry revealed. 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.

After the story ran, Barry got a call from one of the AIDS patients, who explained that the patients might have to leave the nursing home and be separated from one another due to a Medicare funding dispute. The patients were highly opposed to this, as they had formed a strong group of supportive friendships in their time there, and the healthcare was very good. “They were very upset with the idea of having to move and asked for coverage of their concerns,” explained Barry. He complied with the patients’ request, writing multiple articles about the matter and interviewing many people connected to it, such as state officials, nursing home owners and managers, patients, community members, and members of an advocacy group for the patients. Barry learned quite a bit from this ordeal, as he “went from knowing nothing about this health issue to chronicling the short life and death of a controversial program from all sides.” Indeed, he was so moved by the matter that he wrote a short poem about what happened with one of the patients he chronicled in his original story, entitled Bitter Fruit, from his collection of poems: Earth Songs: New & Selected Poems.

He further 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.

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.

Although we may think of a typical journalist as a someone who provides news about national or international affairs and major breaking news, that is not necessarily the case. It has become apparent through Barry’s accounts that journalists have the power of voicing concerns of citizens, and increasing awareness and empathy for the issues of today, especially when a reporter gets involved with his/her local community and its citizens. Indeed, a proactive investigative journalist must often report on uncomfortable situations and events, as they assume the role of public voice of the community. “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.

Stephen Yoon is a junior at Rutgers University. He is double majoring in Political Science and Journalism and Media Studies with a minor in Music.

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