Reporting When the Beat Changes

I saw something on a newspaper’s website this week that made me turn my head. I screenshotted it and made a note to reexamine it later. I came back to it today, a few days after I first saw it, and I’m still slightly perplexed. What caught my eye was a headline which read, “Rose McGowan’s rape allegations against Harvey Weinstein ‘a bold lie,’” lawyer says.” The article was in the paper’s entertainment section.

Obviously, the subjects in the story are celebrities and it’s an article about something that’s happening in the entertainment industry. But placing the article in the entertainment section seemed a bit strange to me—because rape allegations are not entertaining in the slightest.

This instance stood out to me, but it’s hardly the first time I’ve seen something like this. More and more, when I look at the entertainment section of a website I see articles about #MeToo, #TimesUp and the anti-sexual harassment movements that are sweeping Hollywood.

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Celebrities wore black on the red carpet in support of the Time’s Up movement. (Image: Rob Latour/REX/Shutterstock via IndieWire)

What I find interesting is that it is often entertainment journalists (who are accustomed to covering TV, movies, music and celebrities) who are writing these stories. I don’t want to make a sweeping statement about entertainment journalists—most are excellent at writing about serious topics relating to entertainment (even if I take issue with the placement of the article in the entertainment section). But it’s interesting, nonetheless, to note the intersections of entertainment news with, well, non-entertainment news.

In this vein, The New York Times made an effort to cover the red carpet differently during the Golden Globes. In their Jan. 7 “The #MeToo Moment” newsletter, they explained their approach: they sent a photojournalist to cover the red carpet like a news event; and they sought to report on “smart, critical quotes from celebrities” instead of anecdotes about their outfits. The shift towards covering an entertainment event more like a news event is a fascinating one; and one which, in all honesty, is probably long overdue.

Still, not all coverage seeks to make those changes. A recent SNL skit mocked fashion shows in the wake of the #TimesUp movement. As a panel critiques photos of women on the red carpet, one panelist declares, “I am going to say she looks empowered.” Another says, “I don’t even see a dress. I see a CEO.”

The intersections of different areas of news are what I’ve come to think of as a widespread case of “shifting beats” (in case you don’t know, a beat, according to Poynter, “defines what you will cover” as a journalist—a beat could be sports, fashion, politics, or even something more specific. The Associated Press recently announced their plan to introduce a marijuana beat.).

Beats aren’t just shifting in entertainment reporting. I’ve noticed it a lot in sports reporting, too. A few weeks ago in one of my journalism classes, we discussed an Associated Press article about a woman who said she was sexually assaulted in a bathroom during a Pittsburgh Penguins game. The last sentence of the article gives the final score of the game. In my class, we discussed that the writer may have been a sports journalist, so accustomed to including factual information about the game that they thought it had to be included. Regardless, the sentence is strikingly unnecessary, and its inclusion trivializes the issue of sexual assault. The story isn’t about the game, or the score. It’s not even about sports (unless it was tied into a larger issue of sexual assault happening at or during sports games, which it wasn’t). The story is about sexual assault, plain and simple.

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Dallas Cowboys players kneel during the anthem. (Image: Christian Petersen/Getty Images via CNN)

The intersection of sports with other forms of news was also especially apparent a few months ago, when NFL players took to kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality against black people. U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted, “The NFL has decided that it will not force players to stand for the playing of our National Anthem. Total disrespect for our great country!” Many others commented on the players apparently disrespecting the American military, while ignoring that the true cause of their protests. This issue was hotly debated, and it became a compelling example of the crossroads of politics and sports.

Some argued that sports have no place in politics; others responded that sports have always been political. In my opinion, it’s hard to look at what is happening right now—former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nasser being sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing over 200 women and girls; Adam Rippon, an Olympic figure skater who is gay, criticizing the decision to have U.S. Vice President Mike Pence lead the American Olympic delegation because of his track record on conversion therapy—and say that sports don’t intersect with political issues.

I think entertainment and sports are two places where we can clearly see beats interchanging, but it’s happening everywhere. As a journalism student, I’m fascinated by the ways that news organizations are responding to this—and as a consumer of the news, I’m also interested to see how organizations and individual journalists rise to the challenge of covering ever-shifting, intersecting topics.

If, when life hands you lemons, you’re supposed to make lemonade, when the beat changes, you have to adapt in the best way possible. The example of The New York Times’ new approach to entertainment coverage is a good example of this—but including the outcome of a sports game in an article about sexual assault? Not so much.


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3 thoughts on “Reporting When the Beat Changes

  1. Respectfully, I must say I’m getting sick and tired of this kneeling bit that disrespects our flag and military then there is the #Me Too Movement which I’m also sick of. To many came forward that it makes me wonder if all they wanted is money. Also makes me ask the question Why did they wait so long to come forward? Have you noticed that all the award shows which should be about music and honoring the winners have turned into political forums and ways to “bash” people and put them down?

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