May 2nd, 2006 05:06 EST
Good Reporters Translate, Interpret the News
Many news organizations assign journalists to cover specific areas, either geographic or topical, known as “beats.” This is a term originally used to describe a regular route for a sentry or policeman. Journalists get to know the territory and people who make up their beat, and in many cases they have to learn specialized vocabulary in order to understand their sources. This does not mean they use that vocabulary in their stories. On the contrary, good beat reporters become translators and interpreters, making information that might otherwise be obscure accessible to the general public.
Beats are rare in the smallest newsrooms, where every reporter is expected to cover every kind of story. But in larger news organizations, print and broadcast, journalists may have the opportunity to focus on a particular type of news. Some beats are traditional: government, police, courts, and business, for example. Others vary with the territory. Depending on a community’s make-up, reporters might be assigned to cover the environment, or the elderly, or education as a beat.
Beat reporters have one basic responsibility: to stay on top of the news in their specialty area. They are expected to cover stories that arise on their beat -- meetings, printed reports or Web postings, and other routine events -- but they’re also responsible for finding news that goes beyond the obvious. Beat reporters develop stories through their own enterprise, by building relationships with sources who will keep them abreast of what’s really going on, not just in public but behind the scenes. They produce a wide variety of stories, from breaking news to feature profiles. “The best beat reporters I’ve known are well organized, determined, with a clear sense of mission, and a wide range of sources,” says Chip Scanlan, a former beat reporter for Knight Ridder newspapers and currently with the Poynter Institute.
Beat Reporting Skills
Whatever beat a journalist chooses or is assigned to cover, one basic skill is essential: the ability to understand the institutions that dominate the beat. Learning how the system works takes time and effort, but it pays off in stories that non-beat reporters can’t match. Eric Nalder, the reporter who uncovered the life raft story discussed in Chapter 2, uses these questions to begin learning his way around a beat:
• Who are the players?
• Who is in charge?
• Who are the regulators?
• What are the rules?
• How are things done?
• Where are the mistakes recorded?
• Where is the spending recorded?
• Who knows the real story and how can I get it?
To get answers to these questions, a reporter has to study hard and “walk the beat.” Read everything you can about the topic, collect meeting schedules and agendas, subscribe to specialized publications. But most importantly, get up and go. Beat reporters cannot depend solely on the telephone; they have to spend time on the beat, meeting and talking with people. “No one ever got a story sitting around the newsroom,” says veteran American journalist Mike Mather, an investigative reporter at WTKR-TV in Norfolk, Virginia. Get to know everyone who could be helpful—from officials to clerks—and pass out your business card to everyone you meet on the beat. Build a source list with as much contact information as you can pry loose, and stay in touch with those people by making regular “beat checks.” In addition to covering the key players on the beat, a good beat reporter also looks at how their actions affect people in the community.
Beat reporting requires strong organizational and personal skills. Staying organized means using a calendar to track meetings, hearings, and due dates for reports or action. It means having a reliable, portable system for filing and retrieving contact information, especially phone numbers and e-mail addresses. And it means keeping a file of future story ideas, with daily lists of things to follow up on. Many reporters now keep this information in their computers, using programs that make it easy to search for people and dates. But they also need it when they’re not in the office, so they either carry a printout, a laptop computer, or that useful hand-held device that allows remote Web access, the personal digital assistant (PDA). Since technology can be unreliable, it’s important to make a back-up copy of the information frequently.
Covering a beat means getting to know people well enough that they will trust you, while still maintaining a professional distance. The hardest part of being a beat reporter, says Scanlan, is “dealing with sources you have to return to every day even if you’ve written a story they don’t like.”
"Beat" reporters bring expertise, insights to their work", says Deborah Potter. This article is sixth in a series of excerpts from an International Information Programs (IIP) publication, Handbook of Independent Journalism, scheduled for release in mid-2006.
The entire book will be made available on USINFO's Publications Web site.
In the excerpt below, educator Deborah Potter outlines the duties of "beat" reporters who cover specialized fields. Additional excerpts from the Handbook will appear on the USINFO Web site during the days leading up to World Press Freedom Day, May 3.
For additional information, see Press Freedom.