Beat reporting Tips and techniques
What is a beat? A beat – a specific area or topic you are assigned to cover. Police Courts Education Local government Religion Health and the environment Agriculture
Own your beat Beat reporting – the core of daily journalism in print, broadcast, online. Immerse yourself in your beat – become the expert. Take ownership. You are a surrogate for your audience. It’s your job to be the eyes and ears of the community.
Qualities of good beat reporters Prepared Alert Persistent There Wary Knowledgeable
Prepared Talk to your predecessor on the beat. If unavailable, talk to your editor or co-worker. What are the issues that are ongoing? What are prominent local issues related to this beat? What does your editor or boss expect of you?
Sources Get some background from your co-workers or editor – who is a good source? Who is not such a good source? Do your background research before you meet with the sources on your beat. First impressions are important. Impress them, don’t leave them thinking you are a lightweight or amateur.
Relationship building Successful beat reporting requires building a working relationship with your sources. Is this person trustworthy? First meeting – set up an informal get-acquainted session at their office or some other comfortable location. Ask the source – what are some things I should be aware of? What is coming up that I may not have heard about?
A tip Secretaries or administrative assistants can be valuable people to have on your side. Treat them respectfully. They are the gatekeepers to the officials. Your message could be on the top or the bottom of the pile. Know the schedule of their boss. Often know what is really going on. Good source for gossip, tips, etc.
Be alert What’s going on? What are those on my beat working on? How will these efforts impact the average reader or viewer. Never be caught unaware. What is the cost and where is the money coming from?
Be persistent Make sure your questions are answered. If you get a non-answer, ask again. If you have to, use different phrasing. If the source is hiding behind jargon, simplify it back to them. “So what you are saying is …”
Persistence with stories Some stories may be ongoing, with months going by between developments. Make sure not to lose track of them. Keep a file to remind yourself to periodically ask about these efforts. Is there anything new your readers or viewers may be interested in?
Be there Make sure those on your beat see your face. Showing up is a sign you care. Even if event isn’t of strong news value, showing up can be good PR with your sources. Showing up is a sign that you respect what your sources do every day.
More on relationship building Small favors – can you get a birth or graduation announcement in? A copy of a picture your staff took? Take all story suggestions seriously. Protect your sources. If you are told something but the source wants to remain confidential, keep that confidentiality. Be accurate – don’t cause headaches for your source.
Be wary Be a skeptic – report for your readers and viewers, not your sources. Be a reporter, not a stenographer. Always remember why you are there. If you do your job well, most sources will respect that. You are not their PR person, you are a surrogate for your audience.
Be knowledgeable Own your beat. Be the media person who is the recognized expert on that beat. Knowledge is power. Do your research. Impress people with the depth of your knowledge.
Writing for readers Translate – each profession has its own jargon. Learn it, then learn the common English equivalent so you can translate. Write about real people who are affected by polices, trends and changes. Gives readers someone they can compare to and humanizes the story.
Writing for readers, cont. Money, money, money. Explain to your audience how any changes in taxes, fees, water rates, etc. will cost them. Get out of the office. Experience what you are writing about. Visit a classroom. Go on a police ride-along. Not only is it good for your audience, it can help with relationship-building with your sources.
Education One of the most diverse beats in terms of types of stories. Activities in the classroom. The most basic educational function. Cover them. Statistics – test scores, enrollment. School board meetings. Taxation – special building millages. Crime and investigative reporting.
Police and public safety Crime, crashes and fires draw a lot of interest from the general public. Police are sometimes suspicious or hostile toward reporters. Establishing a good, respectful relationship is key. Respect what they do. Accurate reporting is key. Translate police talk into English. Police as gossips?
Courts The activity related to courts can be very emotional/personal to those involved. May require some empathy. May require some suspicion. Lawyers are advocates, not impartial observers. Can have healthy egos. Judges may be good sources. Can have healthy egos. Clerks can be good sources.
Court records Valuable sources of info for reporters. Can follow a case by checking the case file. Lots of documentation. Accurately quoting or using the info in court records affords absolute protection on a reporter’s story. That is also the case with police reports.
Religion Prominent in American life, more in some areas than others. Sometimes a subject that reporters are a little uncomfortable with. Why? Sympathy, respect, do your homework. Religion stories can relate to social issues, everyday life issues, politics, money, land use, etc.
Environment, health and science Health stories can impact many people. Cancer, H1N1 flu. Environment – Generating more coverage and interest all the time. Alternative energies, cleanup, etc. Science – interesting, amazing developments. Translate Localize stories
Business Seen any stories on the economy lately? Which industries are prominent in your coverage area? Efforts to attract business. Local economic development agents can be great sources of information. Developers can also be very good sources.
Agriculture Major employer in rural areas. What is the top crop in your coverage area? Weather has a huge impact on farming. Touches on local, state and federal government through regulations, subsidies, incentive programs.