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April 24, 2005

Tapping the Grassroots: Unofficial Sources –
the News-Making Role of Ordinary Citizens

Talk by Jan Barry, North Jersey Media Group Journalist in Residence
Rutgers University April 13, 2005

"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,” I revealed to the world in my book on civic activism, A Citizen’s Guide to Grassroots Campaigns.

OK, so some people already knew that. But here’s a truly closely guarded news media trade secret: Savvy reporters don’t sit waiting for tips. They search out people who are doing or saying interesting things.

Otherwise, journalists are just conveying “official-speak,” as in “officials said.”

As Guy Baehr put it when we discussed the topic of this talk, “The official sources find you”—and spin their version of reality to the exclusion of all other versions. 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.

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.

An investigative series I did on health concerns over the wartime use of Agent Orange in Vietnam grew out of a remark at a municipal council meeting in Morris County. A man in the audience stood up and made a startling statement. He said the same chemical herbicides that constituted Agent Orange were sprayed to kill vegetation under power lines that crossed the Rockaway River, a water supply stream. That man, a local environmentalist, was right. He’d done some research.

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 its own troops as well as much of Vietnam and its people, using dioxin-laced weed killers that, in diluted concentrations, were widely used at home.

The best sources turned out to be concerned veterans and independent researchers who dug out details 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.

In the course of several years of reporting for the Morristown Daily Record and The Record of Bergen County, I encountered so many well-informed citizens speaking out at local meetings that I realized I could write a book about the role that grassroots civic groups play in addressing public issues. So I did, interviewing many of my unofficial newspaper sources, whose stories are fascinating as well as informative.

Many of these sources, whom I first encountered years ago, are still around, moving up from local disputes over land conservation vs. development, for instance, to regional or state issues, such as the creation last year of the Highlands preservation and planning law. On statewide issues, they provide a local grounding and reference points, which are invaluable in doing comprehensive reporting anchored in a local beat.

In some cases, citizen activists I have covered got elected to the school board or municipal council or were appointed to a state post. That has provided me with timely tips on official discussions and a reliable means of quickly getting copies of key records that an OPRA request might take weeks to cough up.

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.

I’ve been interviewed in print, radio and television for stories about Vietnam, because of my past role as a founder of a Vietnam veterans’ organization. When John Kerry, who was also involved in that organization, became a presidential candidate, I was inundated with calls from reporters at national news organizations.

Finding good unofficial sources takes patience, persistence, and sometimes luck or fortuitous timing. Going into a nursing home ward full of AIDS patients was one of the scariest places I’ve 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. Shortly after it ran, a couple of the patients called with information that sparked breaking-news articles on a Medicare funding dispute that created another crisis for these beleaguered folks. A columnist at my paper picked up on one of the patients I’d written about and shed more light on the AIDS crisis by chronicling one man’s journey through his final days.

For many readers, their newspaper is an important part of their life. I’ve fielded calls from a father who wanted to talk about his son who died in a traffic accident, a veteran going crazy from health problems after serving in the first Gulf War, a housing developer who wanted a feature story on his controversial plans—who called another time to talk about a relative who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound—and a property tax watchdog with a tip that a suburban mayor had just been abducted (turned out he was arrested by the FBI on bribery charges).

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.

Selected Works

Poetry
A tonic spray of poetry, verses that a Vietnam war veteran lives by.
Prose
A pragmatic, common-sense handbook for civic action at the community and international levels.