The insidious corruption of beats

January 8, 2007

The reporter had a question. A colleague on the police beat had learned of minor wrongdoing involving town cops. But publishing a story on it would come at the cost of the reporter’s continued access to valuable sources within the police department. Worse, she said, her state’s law allows police to withhold practically all information about investigations that haven’t brought arrests.

“This means that reporters have to keep up a good relationship with officers in order to get anything on unsolved crimes, no matter how small or how serious,” she said in her posting to the online ethics site I participate in.

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.

It’s a conundrum, but it’s more than an occasional problem for a small-town paper. In fact, this conflict has been institutionalized into a routine reality traditional journalists face, thanks to the near-universal adoption of a particular way of organizing newsrooms. Here I’m talking about beats.

Under the beat system, reporters are assigned specific subject areas and, more to the point, responsibility to cover the public or private institutions that dominate them.

The upside of the beat system is clear. It encourages journalists to develop pockets of expertise so they can report knowledgeably on topics that require focus and specialization to understand.

But the beat system also requires reporters to get to know the people who control the information their coverage depends on, so they can call on those sources and rely on them.

And here’s where the problems begin. The reporter’s success in covering his or her beat depends on the cooperation of the people being covered  and not just their cooperation, but their good will.

If you deliberately set out to invent an arrangement less conducive to tough, adversarial reporting, it would be hard to beat beats. And indeed, bird-dogging the powerful wasn’t the reason the beat system arose in the late 19th century. Instead, beats solved two problems: Ensuring reliable conduits for official information to flow from leading institutions of government and business, and establishing low-cost sources of raw news for the burgeoning, mass-circulation press. Under the beat system, reporters turned up at appointed times and received the news of the day.

Note that as a justification for beats, the notion that good coverage required specialized expertise came only later. What came first was the wish for a stable network of cooperative relationships, which would work to the advantage of the subjects of coverage, news organizations and, to some degree, the public.

I may be alone in saying this, but of all the improper influences on the flow of publicly significant news  from commercialism to deliberate disinformation  the one that is almost never discussed and yet which may be more profoundly corrupting than any of the others is, in my view, the beat system.

The wisdom of beats rests on the idea that journalism can flourish in a setting where a journalist’s professional success utterly depends on the continuing cooperation of the same people that the journalist is supposed to badger, provoke, expose and, in sum, hold accountable on the public’s behalf. And that is totally illogical.

Seen from that perspective, we shouldn’t be surprised that journalism is so often timid and reverential to sources; the miracle is that journalists are ever tough and courageous, that beat reporters do defy their sources. But that’s a mark of their own guts and ethical maturity, and of the presence of determined informants within the institutions they cover. It’s not testimony to the wisdom of the system within which reporters operate.

Would journalism suffer if beats were abandoned? Running a staff would be harder, but life could get interesting. Time and again great stories have been broken by outsiders with clear eyes, who owe nothing to those who feed and water the beat reporters. Watergate didn’t come out of the Washington Post’s political staff, the My Lai massacre wasn’t uncovered by a Pentagon correspondent, and the White House press corps was complicit in the disinformation campaign leading up the Iraq invasion.

Beats have got to go. They’re an endemic conflict of interest. Fortunately, they are going, and while Internet scribes have areas of interest and expertise, they have so far resisted institutionalizing themselves in the sclerotic fashion of traditional news media. Reporters can be smart and informed, and still be free.

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