Melanie Magin and Peter Maurer
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.
Editorial journalism and newspapers’ editorial opinions represent an area of research that can make an important contribution to our understanding of the relationship between the press and politics. Editorials are a distinctive format and are the only place in a newspaper where the opinions of a paper as an organization are explicitly represented. Newspapers and the journalists who write editorials play a powerful role in constructing political debate in the public sphere. They use their editorial voice to attempt to influence politics either indirectly, through reaching public opinion, or directly, by targeting politicians. Editorial journalism is at its most persuasive during elections, when newspapers traditionally declare support for candidates and political parties. Despite the potential of editorial opinions to influence democratic debate, and controversy over the way newspapers and their proprietors use editorials to intervene in politics, editorial journalism is under-researched. Our understanding of the significance of this distinctive form of journalism can be better understood by exploring four key themes.
First, asking “What is editorial journalism?” establishes the context of editorial journalism as a unique practice with opinion-leading intentions. Several characteristics of editorial journalism distinguish it from other formats and genres. Editorials (also known as leading articles) require a distinctive style and form of expression, occupy a special place in the physical geography of a newspaper, represent the collective institutional voice of a newspaper rather than that of an individual, have no bylines in the majority of countries, and are written with differing aims and motivations to news reports. The historical development of journalism explains the status of editorials as a distinctive form of journalism. Professional ideals and practices evolved to demand objectivity in news reporting and the separation of fact from opinion. Historically, editorial and advocacy journalism share an ethos for journalism that endeavors to effect social or political change, yet editorial journalism is distinctive from other advocacy journalism practices in significant ways. Editorials are also an integral part of the campaign journalism practiced by some newspapers.
Second, research and approaches in the field of political communication have attributed a particularly powerful role to editorial journalism. Rooted in the effects tradition, researchers have attributed an important role to editorials in informing and shaping debate in the public sphere in four ways: (1) as an influence on readers, voters, and/or public opinion; (2) as an influence on the internal news agendas and coverage of newspapers; (3) as an influence on the agendas and coverage in other news media; and (4) as an influence on political or policy agendas. Theorizing newspapers as active and independent political actors in the political process further underpins the need to research editorial journalism. Third, editorial journalism has been overlooked by sociological studies of journalism practices. Research provides a limited understanding of the routines and practices of editorial journalists and the organization of editorial opinion at newspapers. Although rare, studies focusing on editorial journalism show that editorial opinion does not simply reflect the influence of proprietors, as has often been assumed. Rather, editorial opinions are shaped by a complex range of factors. Finally, existing research trajectories and current developments point to new challenges and opportunities for editorial journalism. These challenges relate to how professional norms respond to age-old questions about objectivity, bias, and partisanship in the digital age.
The public sphere is a social entity with an important function and powerful effects in modern, democratic societies. The idea of the public sphere rests on the conviction that people living in a society, regardless of their age, gender, religion, economic or social status, professional position, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, or nationality, should be able to publicly express their thoughts, ideas, and opinions about issues that matter to them and impact their lives. This expression should be as free as possible in form and function and should operate through means and methods that people themselves deem suitable, so not via channels that are official or state-sanctioned. The classic Habermasian idea of the public sphere is that it is used by private individuals (not officials or politicians) who should be able to converse with each other in a public-spirited way to develop opinions that impact state or public-body decisions and policies. Also contained within this classic idea is the conviction that public sphere conversations should be rational (i.e., logical, evidence-based, and properly motivated and argued using an acceptable set of rhetorical devices) in order to convince others of the usefulness of a position, statement, or opinion. In commonsensical, political, and journalistic understandings, the public sphere is a critical component of a democracy that enables ordinary citizens to act as interlocutors to those who hold power and thereby hold them to account. As such it is one of the elements whereby democracy as a system is able to claim legitimacy as the “rule of the people.”
Journalism’s imbrication in the social imaginary of the public sphere dates back to 17th- and 18th-century Europe when venues like coffee houses, clubs, and private homes, and media like newspapers and newsletters were being used by a mixture of gentry, nobility, and an emerging middle class of traders and merchants and other educated thinkers to disseminate information and express ideas. The conviction that journalism was the key vehicle for the conveyance of information and ideas of public import was then imbedded in the foundations of the practice of modern journalism and in the form exported from Western Europe to the rest of the world. Journalism’s role as a key institution within and vehicle of the public sphere was thus born. Allied to this was the conviction that journalism, via this public sphere role and working on behalf of the public interest (roughly understood as the consensus of opinions formed in the public sphere), should hold political, social, and economic powers to account. Journalists are therefore understood to be crucial proxies for the millions of people in a democracy who cannot easily wield on their own the collective voices that journalism with its institutional bases can produce.