Technology has added a lot to reporting. It’s much easier in a high-tech world to look up information, access public records, track down sources and calculate what statistics mean.
But because there is so much information available to a reporter sitting in front of a computer screen, it’s tempting to minimize what ought to be a vital element of journalism: personal contact.
Something is lost when a journalist doesn’t see the people he or she covers on a regular basis.
There are very few beats anymore that can’t be covered primarily from the newsroom. Government beats are one exception. The beats that get the most daily, on-site reporter attention are at the higher levels of government — Congress, the White House, large federal agencies in Washington and legislatures at the state level.
But statehouse coverage has declined in recent years. News organizations have cut back on staffing. Column inches and air time have been reduced.
City halls don’t get the coverage they once did, either. The Denver City and County Building, for instance, used to have an active media room. I think the room is used mostly for storage now.
There are still press rooms at the Colorado Capitol, and there is also a comparatively large reporter contingent, particularly during times the legislature is in session. Still, it’s only about half of what it was, say, 20 or 30 years ago.
Generally speaking, it’s good to have a lot of on-site reporters keeping track of government. Reporters covering lawmakers can watch as bills are amended and deals are made. They can judge how people interact and whether arguments are convincing or aggravating. They can note the expressions on people’s faces, their tone of voice and body language.
Because these government beat reporters see the subjects of their stories day after day, they can’t afford to be reckless or unfair. Their sources definitely will let them know about any inaccuracy, misinterpretation or other foolishness. This helps ensure that readers are getting accurate information, too.
Some reporters find this daunting or compromising. There’s something to that argument.
If reporters get too close to their sources, they lose their edge. They may try to stay out of trouble or to be helpful. While these are useful traits in a social setting, they can be serious mistakes, even career-killers, in the professional practice of journalism.
More frequently, reporters can get caught up in the process and lose sight of what’s more important: how the process affects ordinary people in their everyday lives.
Reporters, who are human by nature, tend to do what other humans do. They tend to buy into the culture of the place where they spend most of their time.
If a reporter hangs around the newsroom, he or she gets immersed in a culture that rewards a negative approach more than a positive one. Journalism’s reward structure is built around exposing problems. You get more points with your newsroom colleagues — and the Pulitzer committee — by finding corruption and graft than by writing about, say, the good things that Habitat for Humanity does.
The other, cautionary side of this argument is that if a reporter spends all of his or her time on a beat, it’s easy to become sympathetic with the ideals and motivations of the people who make that institution run.
Not that this is altogether such a bad thing. After all, most of the people who run schools or city councils or legislatures make a sincere effort to live up to their responsibility of trying to solve problems. It’s important to understand that.
That’s why it’s important to get out of the office. A reporter needs to see firsthand if all the process and policy-making are actually having any effect — positive or negative.
Reporters certainly can dig up all sorts of information, even embarrassing, intimate and possibly criminal information, by knowing how to work the Web. But they have to be wary. There’s a lot of unsubstantiated rumor and uniformed speculation on the Internet. The use of computer databases is no substitute for fact-checking.
It is no substitute, either, for that human contact that keeps ethical journalists aware of how their work affects people.
It used to be kind of a standing joke that journalists went into the business because they were so bad with even simple arithmetic. They were “people persons” not “number crunchers.”
But now with the growth of computer-assisted reporting, there are more and more reporters who actually can work with statistics and even figure percentages.
I’m old-fashioned enough to prefer the “people person” approach and to think that even the number crunchers need to pry themselves away from their telephones and computer screens for the occasional reality check.
News doesn’t happen in newsrooms. You really should try to get out more often.
Fred Brown, SPJ past president, is co-chairman of the SPJ Ethics committee and a newspaper columnist and television analyst in Denver. He can be reached at EthicalFred@aol.com.