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 • Fashion
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.