Beat Reporting

Beat reporting, as opposed to general assignment reporting, gives journalists the opportunity to focus on one area. Many beats are defined geographically, others focus on important issues like health, education or the environment.

Beat reporters develop in-depth knowledge. They get to know experts related to their beat and create a thorough contact list of people to help them tell compelling and credible stories. Beat reporters should stay up to date on all major developments about their topic.

Being a beat reporter allows journalists to delve much deeper and pushes them to uncover enterprise stories. Beat reporters help bring context to stories and explain how each story affects the audience.

My biggest piece of advice is to document everything. You will forget a person’s name. You will misplace their contact information. You should write down what you did before you leave work every single day. I kept a word doc open all day and would add notes as I worked. Write down every interaction you have in person, on the phone, via email or social media. Include their name, title, phone number, email address, physical address and photo if possible. Include any links to related stories. This is especially helpful when there’s breaking news on your beat. But it also pays off in the long run because you can search for key words that perhaps never made it to your publication. This will help you with enterprise and in-depth stories.

I also encourage you to keep a digital folder with story ideas. Don’t rely on stacks of messy papers. This old school reporting style is inefficient. Keep everything on your computer so you can easily search. Also, back up everything onto external hard drives in case your computer crashes or gets hacked.

A great reporter always leaves a story with a new one in mind. While you’re conducting your interviews, ask people if they know of any other stories that you should look into. Most people like being useful and will often give you story ideas if you ask them. I also encourage you to ask your followers on Twitter and Facebook for story ideas and people to interview.

Not sure where to start? Bookmark USF experts who you can reach out to with questions about your beat. Congratulations, you just started.

Poynter’s NewsU provides a free resource for journalists called “Introduction to Reporting: Beat Basics.” Here are the key suggestions for beat reporters:

  • Make a contact list of all officials, activists, and experts related to your beat.
  • Add calendar alerts to remind you to regularly check in on people related to your beat.
  • Follow related people and organizations on social media.
  • Bookmark websites you should check regularly.
  • Add related meetings to your calendar. Decide which meetings you’ll attend.
  • Which public records and databases are the most helpful?
  • Who are interesting (non-official) people you can feature?
  • What are the most important issues on your beat?

Here are some of the resources Poynter suggest you use regardless of the beat you have:

Courts and Criminal Justice Links

Local Government Links

Neighborhood or Suburban Links

Police and Public Safety Links

A Closer Look At 3 Beats: Environment, Health, and Education

Environment Beat

Being on a beat like this means foreseeing cause and effect. There are times when you’re stories will just be a reaction to news events. But, your goal should be to uncover new stories.

One example is understanding that things like sea level rise will inevitably hurt coastal property value. When the value of properties drops, the amount of money local governments can collect from property taxes drops too. What does that mean for your audience? Property taxes pay for schools, police, fire departments, and much more. So the quality of those services will also drop unless local governments find ways to make up the loss. Governments often turn to tax hikes to meet the basic needs communities rely on. So, ask yourself again, how does sea level rise affect your community?

If you’re on an environment beat, you may find some inspiration and context in Al Gore’s 2017 film “An Inconvenient Sequel.” I encourage you to check out the website and pay attention to the multimedia layout. Draw inspiration from the story ideas and visual representation of data. Part of providing value to your audience is informing them on how they can take action if your story inspires them to do so. Here you’ll find a list of ways your audience can make a difference like:

  • how to lower your carbon footprint at home
  • where to join a town hall meeting
  • how to reach your governor about state regulations
  • how to push for clean energy in your city
  • find your elected officials’ stance on climate action

You should also subscribe to get emails from the National Wildlife Federation.

“An Inconvenient Sequel” is an update to the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” that Gore helped create in 2006. You can find dozens of environmental resources to use in your reporting here:  

Health Beat

If you’re on a health beat, you may want to watch the documentary “Fed Up.” The film was released in 2014. The trailer got more than 11 million views on YouTube by 2017. There’s clearly an interest in this content. The creators of this film did an exceptional job making easy to understand visuals about sugar in foods and what it does to your body. I encourage you to create similar multimedia content to help your audience quickly consume complex information.

The film’s website has a list of sharable statistics like:

  • Individuals who drink one to two sugar-sweetened beverages per day have a 26 percent higher risk of developing type II diabetes.
  • 98% of food related ads that children view (3920/year) are for products high in fat, sugar, sodium.

The site also lists some of their sources:

  1. Kick the Can
  2. Lasater G, Piernas C, Popkin BM. Beverage patterns and trends among school-aged children in the US, 1989-2008. Nutr J. 2011;10:103
  3. Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine: Trends in the nutritional content of television food advertisements seen by children in the United States
  4. American Academy of Pediatrics
  5. Obesity Action Coalition
  6. Via: Forbes
  7. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: Food and beverage marketing to children and adolescents research brief
  8. Whole Health Source

Looking for story ideas? Here are just a few you can find on the “Fed Up” website.

Education Beat

Poynter suggests using the following resources on your education beat:

Higher Education

The CNN film “Ivory Tower” looks at student debt and higher education institutions. It reveals how the business of higher education changed in the past few decades.

PBS NewsHour interviewed filmmaker Andrew Rossi about the rising costs and if college is still worth it.

CNN’s website provides several breakout stories related to the film. There are lots of powerful statistics and animations. Much of this information was collected in 2014, so you’ll want to confirm updated numbers if you use any of these. I encourage you to review them here:

Here are some of the videos I found most valuable:

College Sports

The EPIX original documentary “Schooled: The Price of College Sports” interviewed former student athletes and experts about the business and controversy around college sports.

Campus Sexual Assault

The documentary “It Happened Here” explores campus sexual assault. The film features five young survivors and shows what they’re doing to change the way schools handle sexual assault.

Here are some resources from the film’s website:

Public Schools

A great resource for education reform is TEACHED. The non-profit project is a series of films about racial inequality in America’s education system. I encourage you to raise your awareness by checking out their videos. They may inspire you to think of new story ideas.

Here’s one of the video descriptions from the TEACHED YouTube channel:

The latest in the TEACHED short film series, “Code Oakland” examines the evolution of Oakland through the eyes of social entrepreneurs determined that youth of color not be left on the sidelines as Silicon Valley expands into the city that is home to the second largest black community in California. Kalimah Priforce, whose first success as a social justice rebel was a hunger strike at the age of eight, and Kimberly Bryant, a successful electrical engineer turned founder of Black Girls Code, are organizing large-scale hackathons to teach youth how to redesign the future through coding. Joined on the national stage by #YesWeCode founder Van Jones, their work represents the cusp of a movement changing both the face and use of technology in America. But is Silicon Valley ready to be hacked?

A National Disgrace

Dan Rather created an investigative documentary about public schools called “A National Disgrace.” Here is the full film and description from The Rathers Reports YouTube channel:

This special two-hour report documents a pivotal year and a half in the Detroit Public Schools, set against a backdrop of history and the plight of one student desperate to succeed despite the odds. “A National Disgrace” is part historical documentary, part investigative report and part personal profile detailing the political strife, corruption, and systemic breakdown during the tumultuous 2009-2010 school year when the state of Michigan imposed new leadership on the school district. The result is a searing portrait of a local tragedy that asks the question, does the situation in Detroit demonstrate how we view public education? Is the real “national disgrace” the fact that something like this could happen at all?


Charter Schools

Standardized Testing

Additional Resources

Additional Reading

Reporter Organizations

Published by JeanetteAbrahamsen

I am an instructional designer and TV news instructor at the University of South Florida. My passion for innovating learning led me to pursue my PhD in Curriculum and Instruction with a concentration in Instructional Technology. I love creating media to enhance eLearning and foster online engagement. I teach students to create multimedia stories for broadcast, web and social media platforms. I lead the Florida Focus class where students produce daily news shows that air on Tampa's PBS station. My reporting classes collaborated with Tampa's NPR station to produce award-winning stories. I am an Emmy Award-winning journalist. I produced thousands of hours of TV news in some of America's largest media markets at Tampa's NBC station, San Diego's ABC station and the San Diego Union-Tribune. I also produced immersive 360-degree virtual tours at the University of South Florida and reported for Hashtag Our Stories.

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