In this chapter, we look at what is meant by "rounds" (called "beats" in American English). We look at the advantages and the problems of rounds reporting, and how to do it well.
In many newsrooms, reporters have the opportunity to concentrate on particular areas of the news. One person may become the political reporter, another the education reporter and another the agriculture reporter. Each of these areas is called a round because journalists used to go round to all of their contacts in their specialist area on a regular basis, known as “doing the rounds”.
Even today, reporters have to make sure that anything newsworthy in their round is reported; and they have to make sure that the readers or listeners are helped to understand the full significance of the news.
This is what is meant by the term round, or beat in American newsrooms. It is a specialist area. It is an opportunity for a reporter to become a bit of an expert, at least enough to ask the right questions, even if not to know all the answers.
In a small newsroom, with perhaps six journalists or fewer, everybody is generally expected to do everything. There is usually little chance for reporters to become full-time specialists in any particular field.
Even in a small newsroom, however, you can build up a reputation as the best person in a particular area. You can effectively become the education reporter, even if you have to do other kinds of stories, too.
Advantages of rounds reporting
The advantage of having a reporter assigned to a round is that they will know more about it than a general reporter. In particular, there are three areas in which a rounds reporter is likely to be more knowledgeable.
As we saw in Chapter 1, news is whatever is new, unusual, interesting, significant and about people. Reporters can only assess newsworthiness when they know whether something is really new; whether it is really unusual; whether or not it is significant.
The rounds reporter has the chance to know all this, by keeping in touch day after day, week after week, with all that is happening in the round.
To begin with, of course, the rounds reporter has no such advantage. When you are first assigned to a round, you will probably know no more about it than anybody else. You can start to remedy that at once (and we shall return to that a little later in this chapter), but there is really no substitute for experience.
The longer you spend on a round, the more you will find you know about it. You will know when something is new, and when it has been reported already; you will know when something is unusual, and when it is standard procedure; you will know when something is truly significant, and when it is of no importance.
News is about people - the people who make things happen and the people whose lives are affected by what happens. Rounds reporters have the advantage of getting to know the people on their round, and can therefore tell the news in more human terms.
Knowing the people on the round has another advantage, too. Some of the people you deal with will be honest, and others will be dishonest; some will be ambitious; some will be actively political, and others will not. As you learn the nature of each person, and find out their network of family and other obligations, you will be better able to judge where the truth lies. You will know when you are being used, and will be able to avoid writing an inaccurate story which a person wants you to write for reasons of their own.
When you know the history of your round, you can put the news in context. If $1,000 has gone missing from petty cash, that is news. If this is the second time in a year that $1,000 has gone missing from petty cash, then the news is bigger and apparently more significant: it looks less like incompetence and more like dishonesty.
It is an important part of the rounds reporter's job to put news into its correct historical context. This enables you to go on to the next step, which is to analyse and interpret the news, so that your readers or listeners can understand better what is going on in their society.
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Dangers of rounds reporting
The advantages of rounds reporting, which we have just described, do not come easily. They are won by the rounds reporter spending a lot of time with the key people in that round, getting to know all about them and the work which they do.
The danger of this is clear; it is hard to spend so much time getting to know people without starting to feel like one of them. The danger is that the rounds reporter forgets that he or she is an observer of the round, looking after the interests of the reader or listener, and starts looking after the interests of the key people in the round.
Police reporters are often asked by police to keep information secret, in case it harms their investigations. Very often, the police reporter can agree, on strict condition that the information can be made public at a later date. However, the police can gradually take advantage of this, asking that ever more information be kept secret; and police reporters can be drawn in to feeling that they are policemen themselves, and start keeping more things secret than they make public.
Similarly, political reporters can be told things in confidence by politicians. Sometimes, this can be a subtle attempt to exert control over reporters. At other times politicians may try to exert very obvious control over journalists, by buying them gifts or giving them other favours.
Instead of telling news in terms of the people who make the news and the people affected by it, the rounds reporter may begin to tell the news only in terms of the people who make it.
If you wish to be a good journalist, you must resist all attempts to sway your judgment, or to buy you. You must remember at all times that you are there to represent the interests of your readers or listeners, not the interests of the police, or politicians, or whoever your round involves. (See Chapter 58: Pressures on journalists.)
Do not worry whether or not these people like you. It is much better that you cultivate your close friends from outside your round, so that you do not have to worry about losing them. What should matter to you is not whether the people in your round like you, but whether they have a professional respect for you. That can only be achieved by doing your job honestly and well at all times.
There is another danger, too, from spending too much time with people in one area of life. The rounds reporter may begin to take things for granted, and to lose the sense of surprise and wonder which a reporter needs. Things which the reader or listener would find unusual and interesting can begin to look ordinary and dull.
The rounds reporter needs to make an effort at all times to see things as the reader or listener would see them, but also to understand things as an expert would understand them.
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How to do a round
Let us imagine that your editor has just given you a round - let us say that he has made you education reporter. What should you do in order to do this job well?
Let us look at the steps you should take in order to be a good rounds reporter.
We have already seen that one of the main advantages of having reporters assigned to rounds is that they become more knowledgeable in that field. We have also said that, on the day you are first given your round, you will probably know no more about that field than anybody else.
You have to start by doing some preparation work: not just during working hours, but in the evenings and at the weekends, too, if you are serious about being a good journalist.
You need to find out about the history of the subject of your round. For your education round, you can ask at the public library about any books or papers which they may have on the history of education in your country. A good source of information might be the teacher training college or education faculties at universities. In many developing countries, missionaries played a large part in setting up education systems, so you can write to the head office of each mission and ask them for pamphlets, books and other information. If you tell them who you are and why you want the information, they will probably be very willing to help. If so, they might be a useful source of information again in the future. Put their details in your contacts books (see Chapter 15: Newsroom books).
You need to learn the laws and regulations under which the education system operates. Get hold of a copy of the Education Act and read it. It will not be easy, since legal language is very hard to understand, especially if you are a second language user. So ask the Ministry of Education whether they have a summary of the Act, in simple language; or arrange to meet a lawyer who can explain to you what the Act is all about. This is not easy, but it is vital if you are to ask intelligent questions and explain to your readers or listeners why things are happening in your education system.
You need to find out who's who. Who is the Minister of Education and the Secretary of the Department of Education? Who are the influential teachers? Are there any organisations which represent the interests of teachers, students, or parents? If so, who are the leaders? All these people are likely to be your contacts.
You also need to understand the structures of organisations in your round. What is the relationship of the Minister of Education to the Secretary of the department? Who has the most power? Who can order who to do something? At what levels are decisions made and how are they carried out down the chain of command? Once you understand the structures of organisations you can go straight to the correct person for information - and you can explain to your readers or listeners how the system works in practical terms.
You will need to take every opportunity to become more knowledgeable and better educated about your round. Read books and magazines on the subject; attend conferences; attend part-time classes at college if they are available. The more you understand the subject, the better you will report it.
Any reporter is only as good as their contacts. If you do not have ways of finding the news, you cannot tell it.
You will need to establish contacts, people who understand who you are and what you want, and are prepared to cooperate with you.
Many young journalists feel uncomfortable or embarrassed about asking people to provide them with information. They may feel shy or inferior compared with such an important person, and find it difficult to ask for anything at all; or they may feel like a beggar, asking for charity. A journalist does not need to feel like this at all.
A young female doctor may have to attend an important person - perhaps the Prime Minister. It will not help the Prime Minister if the doctor is so shy that she cannot ask the Prime Minister to remove his shirt for the examination. So the doctor does not think of herself as a young woman, but as a professional person; and she does not think of the Prime Minister as an important person, but as a patient. In this way she can command proper professional respect and do her job - and so give the help which the Prime Minister needs.
Is the job of journalism worth doing? Is it important? If you have got this far into the book, you must think so. In that case, remember at all times that you are a professional journalist, and approach important people with the self-confidence which that brings. You will still be courteous, of course, just as the doctor will be.
You will also be helped if you remember that many of the people you wish to be your contacts can benefit from having direct access to a journalist. There may be times in the future when they will be cross with the things you must write - especially if you have bad news to tell - but there will also be times when they will be glad to have the opportunity to get their point of view across to the public.
So, you believe that you are doing an important job and you are aware that many of these people want to know you as much as you want to know them. Now you must get acquainted.
Start by arranging to visit each of them in turn. Explain who you are, and that you have just been appointed education reporter. Explain that you want to do a good job, reporting honestly and accurately all that is going on in the field of education. (Your potential contact will surely approve of that!) Then say that, in order to do this, you will require their help and cooperation. Will they help you in this way, please? It would be a strange person who refused such a request.
You then need to explain the nature of the relationship you are suggesting. You will visit or telephone from time to time, either to ask specific questions or just for a general chat about what is going on; but you will also want your contact to take the initiative and telephone you whenever anything important is happening. Above all, in return for your special attention in this field of education, you will expect your contact to give you information (quietly, as a tip-off) before they give it to any other journalists. In return, they can have your cooperation in a number of fields, which we shall return to at the end of this chapter.
You will also need to explain clearly and honestly that your first duty is to your readers or listeners, not to your contact. It is unlikely that there would ever be a conflict between the two duties, but if they did ever conflict - for instance, if your contact asked you to keep a conspiracy secret, so that he did not get into trouble - your clear duty would be to do your job and write the story. It is important that your contacts understand this from the very beginning.
After you have established contacts, you must keep in touch with them. Often you will just telephone, but remember that there is no substitute for personal contact: call in and see them as often as possible. Build their trust in you and their respect for you, by taking great care to understand whatever you are told and to report it accurately. Do not ever be ashamed to admit during an interview that you have not understood something. It is better that you admit this in private, and have the matter explained, than to demonstrate your ignorance in public, by writing a silly story.
When you go on holiday, try to arrange for another reporter to cover your round while you are away. You do not want there to be no news about education for two weeks, just because you are away.
Let your contacts know that you will be away. If another reporter is going to cover your round, tell your contacts who it will be.
Finally, be cautious when any of your contacts is a press officer. Your relationship with such a person will not be the same as with most other contacts. You will need to remember at all times what the press officer's job is, to understand their motives. See Chapter 18: Media releases, for a more detailed consideration of this.
Use your news sense
However good your contacts are, you cannot expect them to have good sense. They are not journalists. So you cannot always expect them to know when something is newsworthy.
There are two answers to this. First, you can spend some time explaining to them what you mean by "news", and the sort of information which you are looking for. Second, you need to spend time regularly just chatting with your contacts, asking them what is going on. Do not just ask them: "Is there any news at the moment?"
As you chat, you may find out things which are unusual and interesting, but which are not major policy issues. These are the news stories which you will spot, but which a public servant may well overlook.
For example, on one visit to a headmaster you may notice that he has a gold medal in a frame on his wall. If you do not remember seeing it before, you will ask him about it. This can make an interesting news story, although the headmaster may not have thought you would be interested.
Your news sense will also tell you the right time to follow up what has happened in a running story. If you learn that a cost comparison is to be done on using white-boards and spirit marker pens in schools rather than blackboards and chalk, you can ask when they expect results. When you know, make a note in your diary for that time: "January 13: Ask Secretary Education about white-board costs."
When the time comes, make sure that you call in to see the Secretary, and during the conversation you can casually say: "Oh, by the way, what was the outcome of that cost comparison you were having done on using white-boards in schools?" You are now showing real interest in your round, and will get information which other journalists will only find out about by reading or hearing your reports.
In any field of human activity, experts develop their own jargon. Other experts in the same field will understand them, and the use of this jargon enables them to talk about complicated things in fewer words.
However, anybody who is not an expert in the field is excluded by this jargon. What does a computer expert mean by a "serial port"? What does a policeman mean by "sus" or "GBH"? What does a doctor mean by a "contusion"?
As you become more expert in your round, you will hear a lot of jargon, and you will understand what it means. Indeed, you will start to use it yourself in talking to your contacts. You must take care that you do not use it in your reports; you must translate it into plain language first.
For example, U.S. military spokesmen in time of war use a great many jargon words, many of which are chosen with great care to soften the real meaning. They will talk of "ordnance" when they mean bombs; they will talk of "collateral damage" when they mean civilian casualties; they will talk of "neutralising", when they mean killing. It is understandable that people whose job is to do unpleasant things on society's behalf should mask harsh reality in this way; but it is the job of the journalist to say clearly to the reader or listener what all this means. Journalists should talk plainly about bombs, and about civilians being killed and injured. See Chapter 11: Language & style - words, for a more detailed consideration of jargon.
Incidentally, journalists should also avoid passing on their own jargon to the public. We know what we mean by an "intro", but the reader does not. We tend to use the word "story" to mean a news report, but most people use the word "story" to mean something that is not true. It is better to refer to "reports" than to "stories" when talking to the reader or listener, and save the word "story" for jargon within the newsroom.
Give and take
We said earlier that you do not need to feel like a beggar in your relationship with your contacts, because you can give as well as take. This is important. If you only take from your contacts, and give nothing in return, your contacts will soon lose interest in you.
What, then, can you give? There are three things.
First, you give the opportunity for your contact to get their point of view across to the public. If you never use any quotes from a particular contact, or if you misrepresent what they say, then you are not giving in this way.
Second, you can give good news about what is going on in your contact's organisation. A lot of reported news is bad news, because bad news travels much faster than good news and is therefore easier to gather. However, people are also interested in good news, as long as it is real news. Always be on the lookout for good news stories about your contacts, and encourage them to tell you about good things which you can publicise. They will like this, and of course it is likely to enhance their prestige.
Third, you can do little favours for them, like getting them a print of a photograph which you published, and which they liked; or getting a photocopy of a back-issue of your newspaper; maybe even giving them a copy of the program in which they appeared.
Take care here, though. There is always the danger that a dishonest person could ask you to do something dishonest as a "little favour". Do not be naive. Whatever you do, imagine yourself being asked later by your editor, your parents, your wife or husband, your priest, about what you have done. If you would be ashamed to admit it to any of these people, then it is probably wrong.
Specialist rounds reporters improve the quality of their newspaper, radio or television station
Rounds reporters must be careful to stay emotionally detached from their round
To do a round well you need to:
- do preparation work
- establish good contacts
- rely on your own news sense
- translate the jargon
- be as helpful as you can
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