Beat reporting is an essential part of sophisticated journalism. Developing expertise on a “beat” enables a reporter to report and write with authority and add layers of richness and depth – whether it’s reporting about baseball, about medicine or about business. Yes, all journalists have to be generalists and do general-assignment reporting on a moment’s notice. But a journalist who is not skilled in a particular subject won’t have the added measure of knowledge and confidence to really make the story the very best it can be.
My beat, for most of my quarter-century as a reporter, has been the law. I’ve been in courtrooms since I watched my first trial at the age of 18, and I started out as a part-time court reporter for The Daily Intelligencer in Doylestown, Pa., when I was a sophomore at Temple University. Being in a courtroom is as comfortable, for me, as being in my own living room. I know how events will unfold. I can recognize good lawyering and good judging. I am familiar with the language of the law – and it does not frighten me. The confidence and ease I’ve developed from covering the law has enabled me to go deeper and deeper into complex issues and investigative matters. I know how a competent, fair court system functions; therefore, I also know when a particular court is not functioning. That knowledge helps me to write the more challenging stories about the legal system – which is a core function of the First Amendment.
Along the way, I’ve also built a pretty good working list of sources – with cell phone numbers, home numbers and even an occasional parent’s phone number. Like building a beat, developing good sources is an essential component of good journalism. A good source is someone who can help a reporter figure out what is happening behind the scenes.
In a court case, for example, a reporter can gain a better understanding of strategy by cultivating prosecutors and defense lawyers. And don’t forget the judge! Along the way, some of these people will become sources – those trusted people who trust the reporter with special information, sometimes information that is sealed or part of grand jury proceedings. Increasingly, however, this is becoming a trickier situation as some federal prosecutors have initiated criminal investigations in an effort to find out the identity of the leaker. This is bad for journalists, not to mention the sources. There is no federal shield law to protect sources so journalists need to have careful conversations with sources and with editors about sensitive source material. Above all, reporters and editors have to be on the same page about the sanctity of the promise to keep secret the identity of the source. And a reporter has to be willing to face the consequences of refusing to disclose a source.
I try to keep a fair degree of independence from sources. I do not consider sources as “friends”; when I meet with them, it is usually over lunch or coffee, rather than dinner or a social event. This helps keep some distance. Even so, it is hard to write a negative story about a source who has a history of providing important, confidential information or documents that were vital to a story or stories. I can only remember being in that situation on two occasions. In one case, I just went ahead and proceeded with the story because the source had become the focus of a public court proceeding. The source had provided very important information on one long-running story. In the other case, I wrote some stories about another source who also had gotten caught up in a court case, and then decided that it would be better if another reporter did an in-depth story. This source had provided lots of information on a variety of stories over a period of years. The long history of providing information to me made it more difficult to write a succession of stories about this person.