Handbook of Independent Journalism (6) : Specialized Journalism

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. ?is 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.

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