Skills for journalists in print and digital media

Beats crumble, and few take flight

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Nieman Reports’ new Winter 2010 issue opens with a tough look at the loss of strong beat coverage and the appalling consequences for journalism. Much of this will not be news for editors and reporters who have been struggling with diminished resources and rising demands for coverage. They know the result is a sham, thin stories and large pieces of the community that go without coverage.

In one article, former New York Times reporter David Cay Johnson, who won the 2001 Pulitzer for Beat Reporting and now teaches at Syracuse University, puts it bluntly:

Far too much of journalism consists of quoting what police, prosecutors, politicians and publicists say—and this is especially the case with beat reporters. It’s news on the cheap and most of it isn’t worth the time it takes to read, hear or watch.

During the past 15 years as I focused my reporting on how the American economy works and the role of government in shaping how the benefits and burdens of the economy are distributed, I’ve grown increasingly dismayed at the superficial and often dead wrong assumptions permeating the news. Every day in highly respected newspapers I read well-crafted stories with information that in years past I would have embraced but now know is nonsense, displaying a lack of understanding of economic theory and the regulation of business. The stories even lack readily available official data on the economy and knowledge of the language and principles in the law, including the Constitution. What these stories have in common is a reliance on what sources say rather than what the official record shows.

Stories built on quotes. No context. “Conflict” stories rather than explanatory or investigative stories. Reporters dependent on sources to tell them what is happening, rather than sources being held accountable for the facts assembled by the beat reporter. In many newsrooms, even the parameters of a given beat are vague and the coverage goals unspoken. Beat mapping discussions are a crucial beginning.

The issue also takes a look at new twists in beat coverage in Sports, the science beat, and in a fun group article four members of the Community Engagement Team at TBD share thoughts on their own emerging beat, one that is about engaging the community.

Beat mapping: How to focus and drive a beat.


Written by mroberts8

12/14/2010 at 9:35 pm

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