Saturday, February 17, 2007

and the beat goes on...

The Frontline special did an excellent job of contextualizing many background facts related to the Libby trial. I was thinking about the victim/culprit dynamic that many of the journalists are and will face during the trial and I realized that part of the conflict (as it relates to a journalist's values and loyalties) stands with the very structure of current journalism....the beat system.

In a January 8 article in the Miami Herald, Edward Wasserman (a journalism professor at Washington and Lee) writes "If you deliberately set out to invent an arrangement less conducive to tough adversarial reporting, it would be hard to beat beats."

In the article, he describes a local police beat reporter who learns of police misconduct. The reporter knows it's a great story but she also knows that to pursue the story is to risk future access to stories (and even her career) on the police beat. So the reporter faced a choice: She could sit on a perfectly newsworthy story that would embarrass the sources she relies on, or she could write it and sacrifice her future effectiveness as a police reporter.

Wasserman suggests this conflict has been institutionalized into a routine reality that traditional journalists face, thanks to the near-universal adoption of beat reporting.

Our role this quarter was much more like that of general assignment broadcasters...not beat many of us were (and some will be:) ) during our respective RPAs. Overtime, many of us developed relationships with sources and most likely, developed a kind of repository of stories that we wanted to tell. But did some of those stories ever put into question our loyalties or our value systems? For our 10-week stints..likely not. But one recent Newslab article( ) describes how beat systems appear to be "making inroads in local television newsrooms, which for years have been staffed mainly by general assignment reporters."

Beat systems vary depending on the station; some stations assign every reporter to a beat and at others, just a few. Advocates of beat reporting note that it provides quicker access and story-telling within a specific domain. While I'm a fan of beat reporting, I find that the system can provide conflicts of interests. When beat reporters form relationships with "trusted sources" loyalty systems could shift and this shift could jeopardize the ability to tell or reveal certain stories lest the reporter risk acceptance and success within a beat. Do those risks trump the innumerable advantages of beat reporting – the development of sources, the ability to know when a story is newsworthy, and the growing sense of expertise that comes with beat experience?What happens when career beat reporters are exposed to things that would make amazing, Pulitzer-worthy, A-block stories that couldn't be told simply because of a need to protect his/her career?

The more immersed a reporter becomes with a beat, the more likely he/she will develop relationships with "trusted sources" and it's also more than likely that the reporter will run across stories that are incredibly tempting but aren't reported.



At Sunday, February 18, 2007, Anonymous TD said...

I really liked being able to do all kinds of different stories this quarter and not being locked into a beat. I realize that on a beat a journalist can develop a certain level of expertise in the area, but the conflict of interest issue is so much more likely to rear its ugly head, as you said ER. This gets especially dangerous with political reporting, as the watchdog may be tempted to look the other way more often than not.


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