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UK freelance journalist and author Sean McManus

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Greatest story of my life ever!

20 November 2009

From time to time, I get emails from people who tell me they have the greatest story ever that they need help breaking. Sometimes it's a crime story, and other times it's a big political story. Occasionally, it's a campaigning-style story.

I know what you're thinking because I think it too: why me? My journalism experience hasn't yet stirred national newspapers, and my specialist subjects to date have been technology, business and music.

I never know how to respond to these people. Some of them are genuine people, trying to help others out, and struggling to draw attention to something the world should know about. Some of them are just trying to help themselves out, and use the press as a weapon against their opponents. Some of them might actually be insane.

For those who have uncovered a genuine injustice, I usually feel there are others far better placed to break the story. There are people who understand their way around parliament, who have friendly lawyers to advise them, and who know how to get stories of that type into print. I would face a steep learning curve. I do sympathise with many of these stories, but I don't have the time, experience or energy to help. Although I might admire those who are campaigning for justice, I can't give more than a one-time friendly email offering support.

Those who are using the press as a weapon against their opponents often appear to have a valid case, or at least a right to be heard. Sometimes they're being oppressed. After all, the most powerful people have easy access to the media, and it's the less powerful people who can struggle to get heard. But again I don't have the right experience to make these stories fly. Nor do I have the time to really vet the stories so that I can blog about them with confidence in their accuracy. I don't believe that journalists must be impartial, but I do believe that they must base their opinions on facts, which means a lot of independent research.

For the people who show signs of paranoia and instability, I've tried to bow out gracefully and wish them the best with their story. They inevitably won't stop emailing.

I've never broken a national news story before, but if I were planning to, this is what I'd do:As I said, I've never done it before, so it might not work. But since people sometimes approach me for help on this subject, this is the best I can do. I'll respond to comments left here, but I won't be answering any more emails that I believe are covered by this post. I would welcome any advice or tips from others (in the comments) about other ways to break news stories.

(To clarify: I am still happy to receive emails from people who are approaching me because they know their idea is relevant to my interests, perhaps based on what they've read on this website. Personally addressed emails get more attention, and emails that explain why I'm being approached will almost always get a personal reply).

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