Posted by: rcieri | September 22, 2008

An Analysis of Local Reporting and Beats

Sept. 22, 2008
By Rachel Cieri 

Local and beat writing is characterized by deep, “shoe-leather” reporting for which the journalist had to immerse him or herself into the community. This type of reporting requires an excellent feel for what is happening in the community as well as the attitudes surrounding it. While some believe that a good reporter will remain unattached and objective, others think that he or she should lead the community toward the public good. Great local and beat reporters use both to their best advantage.

Help is a long wait away at 18,286th on the list
By Debbie Cenziper

In her work on exposing mishandled public housing funds, Debbie Cenziper brings out the voices of the community from the poorest areas in the county. By delving into both paperwork and dilapidated apartment complexes, Cenziper found that millions of dollars allotted to build affordable housing we never put to use while less fortunate families suffer. To evoke empathy in readers, Cenziper investigated the stories of two households struggling to survive through unlivable conditions, devoid of any other options because it is the cheapest place for them to live.

The lead draws the reader in by painting the scene of one family’s plight and moves on to show their struggles in light of the bigger picture. The writing is strong, decisive and to-the-point, giving telling detail of the state of the housing and its inhabitants. The reporting is localized not just to one issue but to one particular building, the cheapest around, but numerical data is used to bring the story into perspective. By zeroing in on these two families and then “zooming out,” Cenziper helps the reader envision the scope of the issue; thousands of families are living just like those depicted here. The ending draws the reader to the conclusion that there is really a problem with having no housing for low-income families because there is literally nowhere else for them to go.

CIA holds terror suspects in secret prisons
By Dana Priest

With a beat like intelligence, it is difficult for a reporter to relate issues to the typical audience. Priest, however, found the subject that would most interest the average reader – human rights. In order to find this information and ensure its credibility, Priest had to do quite a bit of digging, exemplary of shoe-leather reporting. Priest’s story was not based on a single source. Rather, she had multiple sources for every fact she claimed. What was even more impressive was her ability to explain the complicated issue to the average reader and do so in a compelling way. She used several anecdotes to put human faces on the nameless prisoners at “black sites,” and she related the story back to human rights issues that an average reader would care about.

Priest managed to find quotes that both enhanced the story and maintained the secrecy of her sources’ identities. While she could not publish much of the specifics of the story due to confidentiality and security issues, Priest did weave in whatever concrete facts she could to lend credibility to the story. The only weak aspect of the story was its ending, which is a somewhat cliché quote.

A wife’s struggle with cancer takes an unexpected toll
By Amy Dockser Marcus

One of the challenges in beat reporting can be finding new and interesting ways to cover the same type of material. Marcus did just that in exploring the challenges faced by cancer survivors and their families. The lead drew the reader in from two angles;  it personalizes a generalized issue, and it blatantly states a huge attention-grabber, the word “cancer.” Most stories concentrate on the battle against cancer with surviving is painted as a happy ending, but sometimes, Marcus discovered, this is not the case. She located one couple that exemplified what hundreds of others are experiencing, and she used numerical data from a study on divorce rates after cancer diagnosis to show the scope of the issue. While the storytelling aspects are strong and it is backed up by numbers, the article lacks interviews from other members of the family or people close to the couple.

 An outsider’s perspective could have gleaned important information on the various states of the marriage over time that the couple was not willing to share. The quotes, however, are well-chosen for their depth and ability to characterize the situation, and it appropriately avoids jargon. The ending is particularly strong. The description of the split second of doubt on the wife’s face and her measured reaction leaves the reader with a glimmer of uncertainty about the marriage, reflecting the feelings of hundreds of other couples in the same predicament.

All she has, $150,000, is going to a university
By Rick Bragg

In this case, local reporting was not for the local newspaper. A story from southern Mississippi was written for the New York Times, but it still carried the flavor of local reporting because Bragg captured the importance of place in the story. An 87-year-old black laundress from a poor family in a small town gave the majority of her life’s savings to a local university, on the condition that it be used for scholarships for students with similar backgrounds.

The lead of the story appeals to the reader because of its simplistic, storytelling rhythm. The article continues in the same manner, giving telling details of Oseola McCarty’s life such as her “cutting the toes out of shoes.” The well-chosen quotes show McCarty’s way of speaking in matter-of-fact statements, never wasting words like she never wasted money. The story evokes a particularly emotive response because it suggests that the first recipient of the scholarship fund will “adopt” McCarty, who has lived alone for most of her life. In Bragg’s word’s the student was “filling a space in the tiny woman’s home that has been empty for decades.” The ending hints at McCarty fulfilling her dream of seeing a student graduate because her gift, putting a happy ending on this real-life fairy tale.

Local reporting and beats can be written in an unlimited number of ways, but their common thread is the importance of a common theme. With local reporting, it is often the importance of place, while beats relate the story to a particular subject. The key to this seems to be a balance of storytelling with valuable factual information, giving the reader what he wants to read while telling him what he needs to know about the community or subject.



  1. You will be burning up the shoe leather on all of your assignments for our class, as well! I hope you enjoyed studying these great reporters as you prepare for your big assignments for JCM 300.

    You should start isolating your “Top Three Tips” on this particular assignment each week into a little info box. Type it in Microsoft Word and then use Grab to make it an image that you can drop into your layout with your synthesis in WordPress. Ask me if you need help. I would like to see everyone doing this on these assignments from now on (and even going back to insert them in the first three assignments).

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