Sunday, March 08, 2009

You're So Pretty. Can I Come In Now? 

As I tell my students, one of the biases that is profound upon the news gathering/news production process comes from the media "beat" system, put in place long ago as a way to bring efficiencies to the news. You assign a reporter to a particular agency/institution/corporation where news is highly likely to happen. From this all sorts of problems emerge: For instance, the reporter comes to identify with the source and over time (and not a long span of time), comes to like the person, thus is not as likely to write critical stories. Or, even worst, as a result of the competitive nature of the news business, the source can leverage the reporting by threatening to cut access to one reporter if the reporter refuses to play ball. Rather than all reporters on the beat standing together, the opposite works. And then, there is the problem of the Beat Sweetner.

Because a reporter is told by his or her employer to gain access to his or her new beat, they feel flattery is the best way in--hence the sweetner. As this article by Michael Calderone in "Politico" argues: "The problem...is that beat reporters 'are kind of captives to this bureaucracy, [and] they know that some laudatory pieces at the outset will pave goodwill in the future.'" The problem? Jonathan Alter, of "Newsweek" argues: "It's emblematic of the way Washington journalism often works. The problem is when a reporter puts the ease of their working relationship ahead of the interests of the reader."

The problem begins at the outset of a new administration, or when new control comes to the Congress. All reporters look to buy future cred with the power structure by writing puff pieces or flattering profiles. One way to break the conflict of interest is to have a reporter who is not covering the beat write the piece (or better yet, why write puff pieces anyway? Aren't they supposed to be the watchdogs?) Another way to break up the symbiotic relationship is to term limit reporters. Break it up by cycling reporters every year or two.

As Calderone notes, it is not a problem that this is done during the honeymoon period of a new administration, but anything after the first 100 days (although it would be great to get away from the "first 100 days metaphor") or the first six months, whichever your prefer, is doing a disservice to the reader or viewer.

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