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date: 26 November 2020

Beat Journalism and Reportinglocked

  • Melanie MaginMelanie MaginDepartment of Sociology and Political Science, Norwegian University of Science and Technology
  •  and Peter MaurerPeter MaurerDepartment of Sociology and Political Science, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Summary

Beat reporting refers to thematic specialization and routines (places to go, people to see) in journalism. The term reflects the distinction between general assignment reporters and specialized (beat) reporters covering a specific area (beat) as well as the subject-matter or geographic divisions between areas of reporting by which media organizations seek to structure the social environment they cover. Beat reporting marks the beginning of modern journalism. It was invented at the end of the 19th century in the United States with the aim to increase the efficiency of journalistic work. Thus it relates to the professionalization and rationalization of newspaper journalism and the transformation of newspapers into a mass product. In everyday work, beat reporting has undeniable advantages. It saves resources since beat reporters are very experienced on their beat and know well where and how to get exactly the information they need. Due to their long-term relationship of trust with relevant sources, beat reporters obtain exclusive, trustworthy, and newsworthy information. Along with this specialization come, however, several challenges; for example, the diversity of views represented in a beat might be limited, which can also affect the diversity of news coverage. At the extreme, this can even lead to pack journalism as a form of groupthink. Concerning the reporter–source relationship, there are three risks of losing professional distance: (a) If beat reporters become too loyal toward their sources, they can be instrumentalized; (b) being too adversarial toward their sources might entail a loss of trust and an increasing cynicism of the audience; (c) if beat reporters start feeling like advocates of their own interests, they might behave as activists rather than detached observers. Most recently, online journalism has changed the understanding of beat journalism (e.g., data journalism, local online beat) compared to the traditional understanding. Research on beat journalism has so far focused on stable, high-income democracies and on the political beat as the most fundamental and prominent beat.

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