When I was a beat reporter, I worried about getting too close to my sources. It’s hard not to be friends with people you speak with often on a cordial and sometimes informal basis. It’s hard to not feel like you owe people favors because they feed you tips or good quotes. Every newspaper’s code of ethics talks about accepting freebies, but what about the gifts of good information?
I can’t ever remember pulling punches out of friendship, but it would be legitimate to ask if I ever unconsciously altered the tone or tenor of my coverage because of a personal relationship with a public figure.
I know a former reporter who saw an elected official hit a parked car once and then walk off without leaving a note. The reporter didn’t tell a soul for years, and eventually confessed to me as an act of contrition. Small incident, but under the circumstances (law and order type of politico), was newsworthy. The reporter dealt with this official everyday and needed that pipeline of easy access. It’s hard for me to pass judgment on my friend, because I knew and liked the same politician.
The beat system is what creates these kinds of relationships. Edward Wasserman says beats need to go.
In an age when there are no deadlines, and everything should be published to the web first, and reporters must move adroitly and quickly, beats make very little sense.
As Wasserman alludes, the no-beat system puts more pressure on editors to make smart decisions about assignments, putting the right people on the right stories, and giving the go ahead to the right enterprise pieces, but journalism is moving at a pace now that demands efficiency and high level functions. Beats are bureaucratic and cumbersome.
UPDATE: Follow from Romenesko:
Steve Brill adds to the discussion of beats: … “I always found that sources would still cooperate after a ‘bad” story’ — and respect you more — if you didnâ€™t suck up to them or compromise for them, as long as you also made sure to treat them fairly, which includes giving them a real, explicit shot to rebut anything negative you might be writing.”