News sources are journalists bread and butter
About a week ago, Edwin Minnich died in Forks Township, Northampton County, at the age of 92.
Minnich was not a well-known celebrity, nor was he particularly well-known in the Easton area neighborhood where he lived for many years.
In his quiet, unassuming way, Minnich was one of my many news tipsters and sources. His efforts helped my colleagues and me spring into action when important police and fire news occurred.
Minnich was blind and spent much of the day with his ears on high alert for police scanner transmissions that signaled danger and mayhem throughout the Lehigh Valley and the Poconos.
As any good news organization, we, too, had scanners that were monitoring police activity, yet there were times when our attention was diverted elsewhere and didn’t hear important transmissions, but Minnich did, and within a minute he was on the phone relaying what he had heard.
Minnich was not an employee. He wasn’t looking for compensation. He sought nothing in return. He felt that his actions provided a service to the community.
Nothing substitutes for digging for the news, but the key for getting most news of substance is having excellent news sources. To this end, citizens such as Minnich can be of substantial value, because they are additional eyes and ears in their communities.
A news source often is someone in a key position who can be trusted to supply straight information. Some front-line sources are elected or appointed public officials, company spokespersons or police or fire officials.
But there also are unofficial sources — average citizens who volunteer information. They traditionally request anonymity but have a reason for wanting to help a reporter get the story.
Sometimes the source is motivated by patriotism or an abiding search for the truth. Sometimes motives are far less noble, perhaps a desire to strike back at an unsympathetic bureaucracy or employer. Professional journalists have the expertise to evaluate the information based on these biases and make key determinations about their validity.
When pursuing their Watergate investigation which started 47 years this week (week of June 17), Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein used “Deep Throat,” the shadowy source, who turned out to be FBI Associate Director Mark Felt.
As a highly placed official, Felt had considerable insider information. He was the key person to keep the two reporters on track. His “follow the money” advice turned out to be priceless. He also had a perverse sense of humor since his nickname, “Deep Throat,” was taken from one of the most successful porn films of that day. In the Watergate investigation, “Deep Throat” was valuable in verifying or debunking key information that Woodward and Bernstein found but couldn’t otherwise corroborate.
Sources must have access to key information. Instead of waiting to be called, good news sources often call reporters — day or night — with scraps of important information. These sources do not spring up like magic. They are cultivated by mutual trust — the reporter must evaluate and trust the accuracy of the source, while the source must feel he or she can trust the reporter not to betray the confidence if the going gets rough.
That’s why reporters are so insistent on not giving the names of sources, even when threatened with jail.
Sources are developed through low-key salesmanship. Reporters don’t go up to someone and ask, “Pardon me, but would you like to be my source?” In fact, the question is usually not ever asked formally. Even when a person becomes a source, it evolves and develops over time, rarely through a formalized process.
Readers become occasional news sources, although they don’t necessarily think of themselves in this role. For example, a reader knows of a serious auto accident in his neighborhood but doesn’t see anything about it in the newspaper or on the paper’s website. The reader calls to complain.
Unaware of the incident because the police failed to tell the reporter about it during periodic and frequent police checks, the reporter, now armed with some basic knowledge, tracks down the information.
Thanks to that irate reader, acting unknowingly as a source, the paper now gets the story.
The term “citizen journalist” is becoming a popular description of bloggers and community gadflies seeking a soapbox, but just because anyone with a laptop can pontificate on any subject does not give that person the credentials to do it credibly, let alone with fairness, balance and accuracy — the accepted hallmarks of a competent journalist.
Amateur bloggers have neither the time nor the inclination to worry about sources or the complex verification process. That’s a toxic mixture awaiting the reader. The warning — don’t believe everything that you read — is an important one when it comes to the ramblings of bloggers trying to pass themselves off as serious and competent journalists.
By BRUCE FRASSINELLI | firstname.lastname@example.org