Beat Journalism and Reporting
Summary and Keywords
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.
Beat reporting belongs to the fundamentals of journalism because, broadly speaking, it throws into sharp relief the development as well as the intricacies and problems of news journalism and how it is organized. If one considers that news gathering is underlying all journalistic activity, it becomes obvious that the routines of the news beat quite strongly influence the routines and culture of journalism as such. Beat reporting also refers to the separation of different roles in news journalism—especially exercised in American journalism—particularly between reporters as news gatherers who liaise with sources and journalists as writers and editors working from the desk in the news room or as presenters and host in TV studios.
This article focuses more on the sociology of the beat rather than the technology because technological innovations transform journalism on a higher, more general level. The wide range of implications and transformation that, for example, the Internet has brought to journalism as a profession have of course also affected beat reporting and are also touched on but are not in the spotlight of this entry.
This article is organized as follows. First, it compares relevant definitions of beat reporting and presents some of its general implications and routines. Second, it gives a cursory overview of the development of beat reporting from its beginnings in the New York of the 19th century. Third, the entry focuses on political journalism, the most prominent journalistic beat and the one that has been in the subject of much research on beat journalism. Particularly the multifaceted, complicated relationship of beat reporters and their sources is described in some detail. After, fourth, touching on the related phenomenon of pack journalism, it describes, fifth, how beat reporting has changed through the Internet most recently. Finally, the article highlights some methodological challenges the research on beat journalism faces. A short outlook completes the review.
Definition and General Aspects
Beat reporting refers to thematic specialization in journalism and was an answer to the immense diversity of the themes and events it covers. Beat reporting especially went with newspapers in their “golden age,” throughout most of the 20th century but seems less possible in the leaner era of transition from print to online news that has characterize journalism since 2000. Journalism, in terms of media outlets as well as the journalistic workforce, is structured around the opposition between a generalized pole and a specialized pole (Marchetti, 2005). The distinction between general assignment reporters and specialized (beat) reporters covering a specific area (beat) reflects this divide. In journalistic practice, beats are subject-matter divisions or geographic divisions between areas of reporting by which media organizations seek to structure the social environment—for example the community—they cover. As McCluskey (2008) puts it, “the beat system in journalism establishes work routines in which reporters focus on particular institutions or topic areas” (p. 84). As such, beat reporting is “part of a newsrooms system for managing and prioritizing news coverage” (Broadway, 2010, p. 85). Beats affect primarily the process and outcome of news gathering but have wider implication as well. Classic examples of beats in local newspapers are criminal affairs covered by an assigned police (beat) reporter or a sports (beat) reporter in charge of the local football club. Generally, which kinds of beats develop depends on the journalism culture—in European countries (e.g., France, Germany), local and regional media usually have a strong local beat that covers all kinds of local events—from politics to culture and sports. Opposed to the local beat are national and international political affairs beats that are covered by specialized correspondents and editors.
The word “beat” was originally used to describe the regular route of a police officer in charge of a neighborhood, the so-called beat cop. Thus, by analogy, “beat” denotes a specific area of journalistic reporting. Beats are among the most important organizational principles of news organizations. The larger a news organization is, the more beats it usually has and the more specialized the beats (Broadway, 2010). For instance, the beat structure of big-city U.S. newspapers used to include beats like arts, theater, film, music, and food in addition the “hard-news beats” such as politics, economy, or education. The smaller, “soft” beats still exist at the largest, most prestigious newspapers although they are increasingly migrating to niche online outlets. The break-up of news reporting into beats is, however, not equivalent with a total separation of reporters’ areas of expertise because they can and do switch between beats easily and often; there are no formal requirements necessary for covering a specific beat (Marchetti, 2005). The special knowledge needed to cover a beat is normally learned on the job.
From a social-scientific point of view, the beat is an additional level of aggregation located between journalism as a profession and individual journalists. Researchers may analyze the same variables in beats as in media organizations or the whole media system, for example sociodemographics, interaction routines, power balances, political attitudes, professional creeds, writing styles, slant, and so on. Moreover, the meaning of “beat” varies according to the analytical level. If one takes a micro-level perspective, a beat represents a specific set of constraints for a reporter and his or her informants/sources because it is constituted by unwritten rules of behavior that have emerged from the previous transactions of reporters and the major sources of the beat. It describes a reporter’s “usual places to go” and the “people to see”—in other words, a social setting. From a sociological point of view, the beat is also a place “a reporter makes friends and enemies” (Fishman, 1980, p. 104), and, as such, it represents a “microculture” and “subspace” of the larger space of journalism (Ericson, Baranek, & Chan, 1989, p. 34; Marchetti, 2005, p. 65). Importantly, the professional socialization of a journalist takes place, to a large degree, within a beat and in particular at the venues where transactions take place. For example, journalists on different beats may frequent different informal meeting places where they spend time and do an important part of their job (Marchetti, 2005). These venues are more than buildings; they are social institutions from which the unwritten codes of behavior of their sources emanate, which beat reporters must observe if they want to secure access to these venues. Examples of such places where reporters meet informants are government buildings, headquarters of associations, parliaments, cafes, or sources’ homes. So while there is a common socialization in the newsroom of the medium, beat reporters also take on the particular values of the institutions and social circles they cover. The nonjournalistic cultural influence is stronger if reporters dwell more among their sources than with fellow journalists in the newsroom. Marchetti (2005) gives a good example thereof:
Legal columnists from the Paris city courthouse function as a “little family” accredited by the institution, often seeing each other in the same places, whether in the hallways or the cafeteria of the courthouse, the hearing rooms, or even in hotels and restaurants when they cover a trial outside the Paris area. (p. 75)
From a macro perspective, on the other hand, a beat is the interface at which political or other societal institutions interact with the press on a routine basis to trade information (Reich, 2012). Thereby beats act also as filters and gates for the transformation of events into news. As Meyers (1992) observes: “The beat not only defined the news by determining what got covered and how, but it guaranteed that news which did not fit the beat was ignored” (p. 82). Often, the beat system mirrors the political and economic structure of society, for example the party system. This means that specific journalists are each in charge of one specific party in the capital. Not all news organizations can afford such a deep level of specialization, but a differentiated beat system exists in media of national record. In economic journalism, there are beats for covering carmakers; the tech, energy, and telecommunications market; or the stock exchange. Of course the beat system extends beyond politics and the economy: It includes justice and courts, cultural production (e.g., theatre, film, and literature), sports, education, health, and other social issues, as well as technology, travel, and lifestyle themes. For example, in the United States, there is a research tradition of the education beat (DeRiemer, 1988).
An important finding from research on beat reporting is that the writing style, framing, and slant vary among different beats covering similar issues (Doyle, 2006; Lewis, Williams, & Franklin, 2008; McCluskey, 2008; Reich, 2012). Thematic beats can be cross-cutting, which leads to several beats reporting about the same events from different angles. McCluskey studied the “competence for reporting” problems arising from beat-spanning issues with respect to coverage of environmental news. The environment as a public issue potentially touches on many beats including government (local and national), business, agriculture, and others. Hence a hypothetical event like a protest by environmental activists concerning a new development in a city might be covered by different types of beat reporters who frame the story in different ways:
Environmental reporters, with knowledge of potential social and environmental effects of new construction in that location, may envision a story about environmental degradation. Reporters from a crime beat may interpret the demonstration as upsetting societal norms. Business reporters may focus on economic ramifications of the project.
(McCluskey, 2008, p. 84)
From this can arise a competition between the beats about what is newsworthy in the sequence of events and which beat (reporter) sets the tone of the coverage about the issue in the medium, who makes the news decisions, which beat writes the commentaries concerning this issue, and so on. Generally, only as long as an issue is low on the media agenda, specialized beat reporters cover it by default. However, as soon as it develops into a more important, prominent topic (e.g., a national scandal), the implicit hierarchy of beats becomes relevant for deciding which beat makes the news judgment henceforth. Normally, journalists of the political beat are at top of the hierarchy. Although they may be less specialized and less expert with the issue at hand, they have more properly journalistic credentials, which trumps the specific expertise of beat reporters (Marchetti, 2005).
How pronounced are the differences in approach of reporters from different beats to news coverage? A number of studies, all from advanced democracies with high levels of press freedom, find important differences, even though all follow a general news logic. Several studies (all cited in Reich, 2012) mention differences: Acceptable spin levels (Doyle, 2006; Lewis et al., 2008), the boundaries of free expression (Tambini, 2010), and the practices for initiating stories and for obtaining leaks (Barnett & Gaber, 2001; Doyle, 2006; Tunstall, 1971) can all depend on beats. The difference even stretches to the communication patterns reporters employ in their exchanges with sources: According to the beat culture of exchange, transactions can be mostly verbal (telephone and personal meeting) or mainly based on written text, such as emails, reports, minutes, or documents, made available to journalists (Reich, 2012). This includes a difference between a desk-bound work style where reporters rely on telephone and email versus one that is more about being out in the community. Thus the famous quote by the Alsop brothers, two of the most prominent columnists of the postwar American press—“His feet are a much more important part of a reporter’s body than his head” (cited in Hallin, 1989, p. 73)—is not equally valid for every beat.
Beats also vary with respect to how easily journalists can get access to sources: For instance, reporters of the financial beat tend to have less possibilities to exchange with their sources like senior managers, CEOs, business analysts, and so on than political reporters on the governmental beat. Foreshadowing implications of the beat system for the relationship between journalists and sources, Reich (2012), citing several other studies (Doyle, 2006; Tambini, 2010), points to a difference in the attitude of reporters from different beats: While reporters from the political beat tend to embrace the watchdog role and show an adversarial attitude, financial beat reporters are suspect of being prone to co-optation by corporate power. Nonetheless, a generally complaisant approach of financial journalists to their objects of reporting is not borne out in recent studies. Financial reporters in Anglo-Saxon countries rather emphasize their independence and skepticism toward corporate behavior. However, this does not coincide with the same perception of broad public responsibility as political journalists (Doyle, 2006).
Environmental journalists tend to be closer to political activism. The coverage about the same environmental issues varies according to beat—environmental, political, business, general assignment—with respect to focus and slant (McCluskey, 2008). While some studies look at the journalistic product, Reich (2012) compares the news-gathering process between political, financial, and local beats. Some interesting differences emerge: For instance, leaking and initiating contacts during the news gathering stage takes place most often in the political beat, while local beat reporters have to deal most often with nonscheduled events. Compared to the political beat, the financial beat used fewer sources, showed less initiative vis-à-vis sources, and relied more strongly on written exchanges (Reich, 2012).
Historic Beginnings and Development of Beat Reporting
Historically, the development of beats and beat reporting stands in a relationship with the professionalization and rationalization of newspaper journalism and its transformation into a mass product. In a way, the development of the beat system was a response by media organizations to the growing differentiation of society. It helped them to keep the social complexity around them manageable. Working with beat reporters, in addition to general assignment reporters and desk editors, helped media organizations to structure the news agenda, to fill the daily news hole, and to make the flow of news predictable. When (local) beat reporting was flourishing in the 20th century, it was coupled with a reliance on a set of official sources such as councils, police, fire brigades, ambulances, hospitals, local industries and their bodies, members of (local) parliaments, and others (Keeble, 2009, cited in Dick, 2012, p. 758). Approaching these sources through the beat system on a regular basis helped local newspapers to produce factually accurate, authoritative news and to make the news gathering predictable and efficient. On the other hand, the selection of official sources to which reporters regularly turned also limited the diversity of the perspectives in the news and the topics on the news agenda.
In other words, the invention of beat reporting was an important condition to make newspapers an attractive product for sale on the market. It corresponds with the displacement of the old creed of the newspaper business according to which, as noted by Benjamin Franklin, “the business of printing has chiefly to do with men’s opinions,” with a new creed according to which a paper’s proper business was to publish fact, the Times Model of 1860. In Great Britain and other European countries, beats were introduced in the 1880s to enhance efficient news gathering (Manning, 2001). At about the same time in the United States, beat reporting ended an era when journalism was a form of political writing and newspapers were primarily partisan, directed by politically engaged editors who were often former politicians. Therefore, given that the papers were perceived more as propaganda leaflets than trustworthy information carriers at that time, a lack of accuracy and objectivity in the reporting was no real concern. With the advent of beat reporting, however, newspapers acquired a new utility for a wider audience that was interested in objective accounts of important events taking place in their community and at different levels of government. So while beat reporting and political writing are not contradictions (both can take place in the same outlet), the introduction of beat reporting was a condition to make newspapers more marketable.
According to McGrath Morris (2003), the idea of creating news beats was developed by newspaper editor Charles E. Chapin at the end of 19th century in New York. He was thinking of ways to give his papers an advantage over the newspapers published by William R. Hearst. Chapin took a map of New York City and drew a checkerboard pattern on it, with each square the equivalent of three or four blocks. Then he assigned reporters responsibility for each of the square areas and instructed each reporter to gather everything important that happened within its boundaries. He also had the reporters and the paper’s star writers in the newsroom connect with telephone. Reporters had to file their reports with the writers, who transformed them into appealing articles based on facts. The system of beat reporting was thus a way to make news gathering more efficient and reliable and less partisan and to create a different news product. At the White House, beat reporters emerged at the end of the 19th century; in 1896 there were a minimum of three reporters, according to Kumar (2008, p. 680).
From its beginnings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, beat reporting developed and flourished in the mid- and late 20th century when it had its golden age. It benefitted from, and helped to secure, a solid economic basis of many newspapers, national and local. However, with technological changes and the economic crises of the newspaper market since the 2000s, the beat reporting system has come under strong pressure and may not survive in its classic form (see “Recent Developments”). From one perspective, the counterpoint of beat reporting is the general assignment reporter who can cover any news that breaks. In the United States and other countries (see Charon  for France), freshly recruited journalists often start as general assignment reporters to acquire experience before they move to a specific beat. Moreover, local television and radio news operations function with general assignment reporters. A problem with general assignment reporters is that they often lack the expertise of specialized beat reporters to cover specific issues with sufficient depth, for example in health journalism (Schwitzer et al., 2005). That said, local beat reporters at newspapers are also known as general assignment reporters (généralistes in French), taking on any story they need to. In the context of the local beat, however, general assignment and beat reporting are not contradictions.
Another trend that might result from beat reporting is that generalist journalists could be successively replaced by specialists with a specific education corresponding to the area of coverage. Although it would be premature to claim that generalist journalists are dying out, specialized beats require journalists with special (academic) knowledge, particularly in beats like business, science, or health journalism. Another example is data journalism, which requires journalists trained in the handling of large amounts of data available on the Internet, although this might be better conceptualized as a type of journalism that can be practiced in any beat. Expert journalists with a degree in the subject they cover might be better equipped to deal with the sources and intricacies of their beat. Yet, the downside of highly specialized journalists is that they can less easily move between beats, and their risk of assimilating to the expert culture of their sources is extremely high. However, the model that journalists move between beats and acquire the necessary background knowledge on the beat seems to remain in use as well (Marchetti, 2005).
In an attempt to counter the decline of their circulation in the 1980s and 1990s, some American newspapers restructured their beats to respond better to what publishers believed were readers’ preferences. This resulted in the creation of topic clusters and issue-oriented teams of journalists. Examples for this new type of newsroom organization were topics like “The Way We Live,” “Quality of Life,” or “Leisure.” Other newspapers chose local government, education, sports, environment, consumer news, health and medicine, and crime as topic clusters. This restructuring was meant to make news more reader-friendly, but the new structure missed classic hard-news beats like national politics, economics, education, or even international affairs, as critics noted, and thus the new structure might have missed what readers truly wanted (Thornton, 2016). European newspapers attempted similar reforms of the beat system, but they resulted rather in an addition of “soft,” service-oriented beats to the existing “hard” beats and in cutbacks of space for the latter.
The Political Beat
Each news beat is unique in its practices. For illustrating its general logic and mechanics, including the relationship with sources, the political beat is well suited; it is also the most prominent beat and has received the most research attention so far. The political beat is a subarea of political journalism that has important functions for both politics and society as a whole. Political beat reporting exemplifies what beat reporting means in practice and points to challenges beat reporters face in their everyday work. Reporters on other beats face similarly challenging reporter–source relationships in other contexts, despite the specific intricacies of the “political-media complex” (Swanson, 1992, p. 397).
Specifics of Political Beat Reporters
The political beat holds a special status within the journalistic profession itself. Besides covering foreign affairs and economics, the political beat is one of the most prestigious beats and is the most visible in media coverage (van Dalen, 2015). Working this beat is associated with privileged status and prominence. The (relatively small) group of political beat reporters has been characterized as “aristocrats” of the newsroom (Neveu, 2002, p. 23). Being assigned the political beat is the career goal of many young journalists and students in journalism. As with any journalistic beat (van Dalen, 2012), political beat reporters show very specific demographic and job-related characteristics that distinguish them from their colleagues on other beats. Political beat reporters are predominantly male, are more highly educated, and are often senior and better-paid journalists (Nuernbergk, 2016; Tunstall, 1971) with a middle- or upper-class background. One reason for the predominance of males is that at the time when 21st-century senior journalists started their careers, the predominance of males in journalism was much stronger than today. Another reason is that political (beat) journalists are a group with a particularly high status. Like journalists in general, political beat reporters have the reputation of holding left-wing political attitudes. Research has shown that the influence of journalists on news coverage is limited (but not nullified) by socialization on the job, control within the news organizations, and professional routines (van Dalen, 2015).
The above-average age and status of political beat reporters also reflects the high requirements of the job: The political beat is “nothing for beginners,” and political beat reporters are often the best journalists an outlet has (Hess, 1992; van Dalen, 2012). For White House beat reporters, Kumar (2008) names five ambitious requirements that should apply to political beat reporters in general: They must be experienced with a variety of political issues, knowledgeable with the routines within their news organization through desk experience, have a strong network of prior relationships with political sources, have the skills to handle breaking news adequately, and be able to deal with multimedia reporting—an ability that has become even more important in times of digitization. Political beat reporters are expected to adhere to higher reporting standards than their colleagues on other beats, including delivering higher accuracy, comprehensiveness, and complexity and showing stronger self-initiative. These requirements are necessary due to the reporters’ highly accessible but also strongly self-interested sources. This need to secure journalistic independence accounts for the high personal identification with the watchdog role and the serving of the public interest (Reich, 2012). However, this characterization is ideal-typical and describes expectations and general tendencies that do not apply to every political beat reporter. Nevertheless, political beat reporters are not necessarily excellent journalists, nor are all journalists outside the political beat less skilled and oriented toward lower standards. A frequently cited example in this context is Watergate, which was debunked by investigative, local journalists, not by political beat reporters.
The political beat is also important for branding and marketing in media companies: Due to the political beat’s social relevance and high visibility, media companies invest more resources in it than it directly earns, often using it as a showpiece (Skovsgaard & van Dalen, 2013). Still, compared to other beats, the political beat is relatively cheap since its sources—the political actors—are often easily accessible. They are usually interested in maintaining a close relationship with the reporters and provide them with a constant news flow, even though there are individual differences in how easily and how much information political beat reporters receive (Kumar, 2008).
Due to their demographic specifics, most political beat reporters are part of the same social elite as the top politicians they report on. Politicians’ and journalists’ biographies are often quite parallel, particularly in the United States, including studies at the same prestigious colleges and universities. The parallel biographies strongly deviate from the average citizens and audience members (van Dalen, 2015). On the one hand, these similar backgrounds can be advantageous if they contribute to an equal relationship between reporters and politicians, improving journalists’ bargaining power and protecting them from being instrumentalized. On the other hand, it involves the danger of restricting the political coverage to a narrow elite perspective that neglects the interests of the broader public (Schudson, 2003). Friendships between politicians and journalists may emerge, often also for strategic reasons.
The political beat per se is strongly oriented toward top-down reporting building on politicians as sources. It informs the citizenry about the political agenda and how the political elite handles the current political issues from an inside perspective (Skovsgaard & van Dalen, 2013). In case of the political beat (as in the business and sports beats), this perspective is predominantly male: Typical for prestigious positions in journalism, the proportion of women is particularly low. This gender distribution has implications for who is considered a good source (which may be among the reasons why men outnumber women as sources) and for how stories are covered (Armstrong, 2004; Fadnis, 2018; North, 2016). Such segregation tendencies, which we can observe for minorities in a similar way, can lead to a neglect of the interest of social groups whose members are typically underrepresented in the political elite in news content and, in turn, also in politics since politicians to a certain degree rest their decisions upon media coverage (Kepplinger, 2007). A result might be the alienation of citizens and politics or citizens and journalism. In extremum, beat reporters and their sources can form an in-group with citizen audiences as out-groups. These dangers have just recently raised calls for more bottom-up reporting in the political beat, giving all social groups a voice (Berkowitz, 2009) and “confronting politicians with the concerns of ordinary citizens” (van Dalen, 2015, p. 1), like other news beats already do more strongly (e.g., sports, health, travel, local). Even though also other beat reporters maintain regular, intimate relationships with their sources (e.g., crime reporters with police officials), political beat reporters are probably singular in one respect: Unlike reporters on other beats and editors, they have offices inside political institutions, for example parliaments or state houses (e.g., Ciboh, 2017; Revers, 2014). For that reason, the political beat as a whole comprises a number of more specialized “sub-beats” like the “White House beat” (Hess, 1992; Kumar, 2008) or the “Brussels beat” (Martins, Lecheler, & de Vreese, 2012; Slaatta, 2001). Political beat reporters work to a large extent right beside the politicians, and both’ lives “strongly intertwine” (Skovsgaard & van Dalen, 2013, p. 372)—much more strongly than in case of other beat reporters and their sources. This allows for more face-to-face exchanges with their sources compared to other reporters (Reich, 2012).
Political beat reporters are close to their sources but also to political beat reporters from other outlets. The constant direct awareness of their so-called competitor-colleagues (Tunstall, 1971) is a source of pressure unknown to editors, who mostly infer what other media do and decide from their coverage. The close contact with colleagues can and does also result in fruitful collaborations under certain circumstances. As an example, Kumar (2008) names the limited access to press conferences in the White House: The participating journalists provide their colleagues who do not get a place with information disseminated there afterwards and ask questions on their behalf. The journalists working a specific political beat are often referred to as a group and form associations, such as the White House Correspondents’ Association in the United States.
The Relationship With Sources
As beats shape journalists’ routines and interactions in the news gathering process (Davis, 2003; Reich, 2012; Sigal, 1973), they pivotally affect their relationships with sources in many ways (Davis, 2007; Sigal, 1973; Tunstall, 1971). The fact that journalists are assigned to a specific beat means that they quickly develop an understanding regarding who the potentially relevant news sources in that domain are and begin to draw a “map of relevant knowers” (Fishman, 1980, p. 108). This implies that reporters and informants interact often, know each other well, and live in a “common social world” (Schudson, 2003, p. 145). In the case of political beat reporters, the relationships of journalists to politicians as their main sources is intimate, complex, complicated, and dynamic (Berkowitz, 2009), oscillating between dependency, antagonism, companionship, and indifference (Revers, 2014, p. 38). The closeness of relationships varies between single beat reporters and single politicians, based on their previous contacts, personal characteristics, and professional role perceptions. Role perceptions are, in the case of the beat reporters, located somewhere on the continuum between the ideal-typical poles of an adversarial watchdog position and a symbiotic position (Berkowitz, 2009, p. 111). However, supraindividually, the relationship is shaped by the circumstances under which it develops. As such, it is part of the broader national political communication culture (Pfetsch, 2001) and therewith differs between countries but also between political institutions in the same country. Kumar (2008), for example, describes differences between the beat in the White House and the Congress.
Political beat reporters and politicians in democracies have often been described as mutually dependent on each other: Reporters need exclusive, newsworthy, and trustworthy information from politicians, and politicians need reporters to ventilate their information through the media and to reach the public. Thus both sides have a natural drive to collaborate to advance their respective goals. A wealth of empirical studies focus on this interdependency and the related question of power balance but also on political journalism in general (Revers, 2014): Who controls news decisions? In a sense, both political beat reporters and politicians act as partners who coproduce and negotiate the news on a daily basis (Ciboh, 2017), thereby applying various techniques of influence (Maurer & Beiler, 2018). At the same time, both are very conscious about their innermost interests: Both hope to achieve their goals and maintain their organizational and societal status (Berkowitz, 2009). Therefore, their relationship has been described as a tango that can be led by both dancing partners (Gans, 1979, p. 116). The crucial question regarding who has the upper hand cannot be answered easily and universally. In the long run, the media seem to have gained influence at the expense of the politicians, according to mediatization theory (e.g., Strömbäck, 2008), even though this development has not been linear, unidirectional, and cross-nationally identical (e.g., Magin, 2015).
A major dilemma of all beat reporters is: How can they stay independent from their sources (Bennett & Livingston, 2003; Lacy & Coulson, 2000)? When covering politics, journalists need to balance the closeness necessary for collecting information and the distance necessary for impartial coverage, which can be characterized as a walk on a “tightrope.” In the case of political beat reporters, the metaphorical tightrope is thin, since they are in constant danger of losing neutrality due to several reasons.
First, repeated interactions can foster personal friendship and lead to a too close and too symbiotic relationship between political beat reporters and their sources. Beat reporters have been said to adopt the value system of their sources and of viewing the reality they report about through the prism of their sources. If both meet repeatedly, they may come to perceive each other like colleagues or professional friends rather than as representatives of different systems. It is, for instance, a common practice in the political beat that sources invite beat reporters to small parties in restaurants or to their private apartments to inform them about their views and explain their activities (Rieffel, 1984). While this is a high-gain opportunity for reporters, the obvious risk is that in such a cozy atmosphere, overly close relationships develop that later compromise the reporters’ objectivity toward the sources’ views. In other words, political beat reporters run the risk of losing their professional distance and being subject to instrumentalization and manipulation through political public relations instead of distancing themselves from this point of view (Lacy & Coulson, 2000; Mancini, 1993; van Dalen, 2015). They can unwittingly become mere “vehicles of official viewpoints” (Revers, 2014, p. 38) and, at the extreme, the “unofficial spokespersons” of their informants—similar to sports reporters who appear as fans of the teams they cover (Marchetti, 2005).
A different extreme is an exaggerated watchdog role. In this case, reporters are completely adversarial toward their sources, which can make their political coverage cynical, full of mistrust and suspicion. They then run the risk of endangering their relationships with their sources and lose access to their sources of information. Furthermore, they can also contribute to political cynicism and weaken the democracy (e.g., de Vreese, 2004). So even though reporters should keep a professional distance from their sources, they must be careful not to let the distance become insurmountable.
Losing professional distance can also happen if political beat reporters, promoted by their close relationship with the political elite, start feeling they are part of that political elite or even political partisan actors themselves (Page, 1996; Patterson & Donsbach, 1996). Their privileged position close to the center of political power provides them with extraordinary capabilities “to influence political outcomes” (van Dalen, 2015, p. 1). Some are not beyond misusing this position, consciously or unconsciously, to realize their own political interests instead of reflecting the political constellation. Beat reporters from certain political beats (e.g., those covering armed conflicts or minority issues) are sometimes accused of behaving like activists and advocates of a political cause rather than detached observers, blurring the boundary between advocacy and journalism. The associated problems are discussed in the broad literature on concepts like the separation of facts and opinion (Schönbach, 1977), different forms of bias (e.g., media bias, news bias, partisan bias; for an overview see Eberl, Boomgarden, & Wagner, 2015), and instrumental actualization (Kepplinger, Brosius, & Staab, 1991). Due to this power and these threats, in conjunction with its extraordinary visibility, the political beat is scrutinized more often and criticized more strongly than other newsbeats (van Dalen, 2012).
Naturally, there will always be political beat reporters who successfully “walk the tightrope,” but many will at least occasionally fall short of their professional standards. Also, collective errors cannot be ruled out, with severe consequences (Entman, 2004). Nevertheless, most scholars attest that the political beat in its entirety usually fulfills its functions to a satisfying extent—at least in democracies.
In nondemocratic and only formally democratic countries, the situation is different: Under such circumstances, politicians often have the upper hand, also thanks to good opportunities for repression, punishment, and corruption: The so-called brown envelope journalism—a colloquial term for bribing and corruption in journalism aiming at favorable coverage—is said to be most lucrative in the political beat (Ciboh, 2017), probably due to its extraordinary influence and the vibe of comradeship. Several authors have described such systems and the associated problems for different countries (Voltmer, 2006), including China (Kuang, 2017), Nigeria (Ciboh, 2017), Mexico (Macias, 2012), and Russia (Koltsova, 2001). Even though such studies are scarce (or at least often not published internationally), political beat reporters clearly cannot perform their democratic functions under such circumstances. The contrast with the conditions and problems in democratic systems is obvious. This emphasizes that, in democracies, the political beat—despite all the problems it faces—regularly does a good job. However, since the Internet has started to change the face of journalism in general, there is an ongoing discussion about how the changing circumstances have made it harder to fulfill these functions even in democracies, including for the political beat.
Among the problematic consequences of the beat system is, furthermore, that it can foster “pack journalism.” Pack journalism can be said to take place when large groups of reporters hang around a news site and “engage in copycat reporting by using and sharing news information, and lazily refrain from confirming the data through independent sources” (Matusitz & Breen, 2012, p. 897). The behavior of journalists who cover the same beat, behaving as a pack, thus creates a form of communitarian journalism (Craig, 1996) that spreads a uniform discourse and impoverishes the public perspectives on the issue. “Put another way, stories propagated by pack journalists are one-dimensional and one-sided, without diverse perspectives, opinions, or facts” (Matusitz & Breen, 2012, p. 900). Pack journalism results in pressure toward conformity and thus borders the sociological phenomenon of groupthink. The stories from the “pack” are identical or similar in diction and perspective and the reporters behave like a heard of sheep, following a consensus regardless of whether it is backed by the facts. Reporters in pack journalism are characterized by a loss of independence, good judgment, and credibility. Even journalists who are in doubt about the dominant storyline become hesitant to raise contrary views in fear of disturbing the group consensus or being the odd ones out. They might also fear pressure from their editors if they refuse to support the frames used by the “pack” (Matusitz & Breen, 2012). With regards to the White House reporters, Ullmann (1991) describes the origins of the pressure: “Peer influence and second guessing by editors who can decide a story line . . . [encourage] conformity” (p. 5).
In the recent past, journalism in its entirety has faced far-reaching changes, induced by digitization, the Internet, and media convergence. No beat was unaffected by those developments. Along with this came changes in everyday work, “with less face-to-face or voice-to-voice communication between reporters and their sources, and email filling the gap” (Berkowitz, 2009, p. 112)—although there are differences between beats—as well as cutbacks of resources (Kumar, 2008). The digital transformation brought the availability of a myriad of online sources. For beat reporters, this means additional opportunities to gather news outside their usual routine, but it also represents a requirement to incorporate the new online sources. Dick (2012), who considers online beat reporting as news gathering using the Internet rather than traditional ways, suggests that sources of a local online beat should include news aggregators, the online presences of a wide range of administrative sources (e.g., local government sources, political sources, and stakeholder sources), and “social sources” (e.g., blogs, social networking services like Facebook, microblogging services like Twitter, wikis like Wikipedia, and sharing platforms like YouTube and Instagram). This shows that growing an online beat expands thorough news gathering and the time it takes (although it might make superficial news gathering quicker), and the questions remain if reporters find better information there, given that most is textual and noninteractive. Another opportunity for reporters brought about by the Internet is to grow a network of knowledgeable amateurs who can serve as background sources for the beat.
The 24/7 publishing logic of the Internet has accelerated the pace of journalistic work, accompanied by new sources and publishing channels like Twitter that meanwhile demand journalists (as well as politicians) to constantly tweet news. The political beat has probably been more strongly changed by Twitter (e.g., Broersma & Graham, 2016; Nuernbergk, 2016) than other beats since journalists and politicians are extraordinarily affine to Twitter—a kind of a new elite medium that might, even though being publicly visible and accessible for ordinary citizens, even strengthen the elite focus of the political beat. However, Twitter and other online messenger services have not affected the importance of personal communications between journalists from the political beat and their sources (Maurer & Beiler, 2018). Another change might have affected other beats more strongly than the political beat: Bloggers as new competitors have entered the scene, and the borders between journalism and its sources have become blurred (Berkowitz, 2009). However, the vast majority of bloggers lack direct access to politicians and the networks of political beat reporters.
There is also the question whether a new breed of reporters, who work exclusively or largely online, have fundamentally changed the way the beat system works. However, today it seems that the beat continues to provide the context in which online and traditional journalists work. They differ with respect to the use of techniques of news gathering and dissemination. Some studies suggest that online reporters (employed by traditional media organizations) perceive a lower status than other journalists do and that they are overwhelmed by constant time constraints. Thus they might not regard themselves as real journalists but rather as recyclers of news items found online whose accuracy cannot be verified due to a pressure for immediacy rather than authenticity (Vobič & Milojevič, 2014). This is different for a special subgroup of reporters working online: journalists involved in data-driven reporting. Data-driven reporting can be seen as a new specialty of journalism cross-cutting the traditional beat structure. Instead of sourcing stories with officials, it usually relies on large amounts of data (such as geo data, financial data, and other large datasets) that are secured by investigative journalists who visualize it to tell a news story. Recent research suggests, however, that this form of reporting is more likely to complement traditional news reporting than to replace it, because it is resource-intensive and heavily reliant on the availability of interesting “big” data (Loose, Reimer, & De Silva-Schmidt, 2017).
From the perspective of the recipients, the most important source of political news is still the mainstream media, even in times of digitization (Strömbäck & Shehata, 2014; van Dalen, 2012). Therefore, and due to the political beats’ aforementioned cost-effectiveness and branding potential for media companies, Skovsgaard and van Dalen (2013) argue that the effect of the new commercial pressures on political journalists is lower than on other beats. According to the authors, the structural changes have even strengthened rather than weakened the political beat at the cost of other, less pivotal beats like science or agriculture (see also Reich, 2012).
Empirical Research on Beat Reporting
Since news production on a beat is a sensible process that news organizations and sources usually prefer to keep away from the public eye, empirical insights can only be obtained by using a variety of methods. Some studies focus on actors while others examine the news product, and a few combine both methods. Actor-centric studies have used surveys of local city hall beat reporters (Lacy, Coulson, & St. Cyr, 1999), reconstruction interviews (Reich, 2012), or in-depth interviews (Doyle, 2006). Most interesting are in-depth interview studies that manage to include reporters and their sources. An impressive example is Davis’s (2007) study of Westminster lobby journalists and British members of parliament that involves more than 60 in-depth interviews with reporters and sources. Studies focusing on the news product employ classic content analysis of newspaper articles, especially news stories related to a specific beat (Lacy & Coulson, 2000). In reconstruction interviews, reporters explain to the researcher how they gathered the information for a story they have written. Of course, this method presupposes that reporters can be matched to stories and agree to participate in an interview, which is far from certain. Reporters could be afraid that this method jeopardizes source protection. Securing the anonymity of sources in reconstruction interviews is a cumbersome procedure, as explained in detail in Reich (2012). Some studies have employed a combination of surveys and content analysis (McCluskey, 2008). Moreover, there are ethnographic studies involving participant observation of reporters from a specific beat (e.g., reporters in a U.S. state capitol; Revers, 2014) or even studies using experiments with journalists (Donsbach & Patterson, 2004).
There are very few studies surveying reporters from a specific beat and their sources using standardized questionnaires with identical items. An exception is the study of Baugut, Fawzi, and Reinemann (2015) about local beat reporters in German cities. This design has the advantage of allowing for comparison of attitudes of beat reporters and sources, which enables a test of the convergence assumption. Another method that is rarely employed is using different types of network analysis. Here, new designs involving online methods could be promising, for example tracing journalists’ and sources’ online networks with their Twitter handles. Examples of such studies with very large populations exist (Ausserhofer & Maireder, 2013), but they have not yet been tailored to specific beats. If such an online network analysis based on journalists’ Twitter handles could be matched with interviews of the same reporters, journalist–source networks could be revealed with greater precision.
So far, research on beat reporting has—as with nearly every area of communication science—focused on stable, high-income democracies, particularly the United States and other Western democracies, even though some related work has been done in non-Western settings (e.g., Ciboh, 2017; Koltsova, 2001; Kuang, 2017; Macias, 2012; Voltmer, 2006). Most empirical studies investigate single beats in single countries at certain points in time, with special attention to the relationship between journalists from single beats and their sources. Comparisons of journalists from different working areas much more often focus on those working for different media types rather than those from different beats (for exceptions see Reich, 2012; Skovsgaard & van Dalen, 2013). Moreover, even though previous studies have undoubtedly contributed to our understanding of how the media in general and beat reporting in particular work and why coverage is the way it is, we might be able to understand these mechanisms even better if the focus of research is broadened: Even though it seems obvious that beats will differ depending on structural circumstances (e.g., in the national media systems, political systems, economic systems) and cultural differences, comparative studies are scarce in this area so far (for an exception see Maurer, 2017; van Dalen, 2012). To better understand how beat reporting works and how it is influenced by the circumstances under which it arises, future studies should more strongly investigate cross-national differences in and long-term developments of beat reporting. Particularly comparisons with countries beyond the Western world, including nondemocratic states, would be insightful, as the examples from different countries given by Berkowitz (2009, pp. 107–108) show. In doing so, we can learn much about mechanisms and conventionalities that we usually do not scrutinize since they seem so natural to us. Taking a real global perspective would significantly help to identify and remove the current blind spots of research on beat reporting.
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