Science writing is a great place to develop a beat, build expertise in an area of research, and report in depth on new, interesting work. Many beats are naturally circumscribed by scientific disciplines, such as anthropology, astronomy, energy, environment, or health. Other beats may be defined geographically (for example, the Lower Midwest, or the Pacific Rim), or by narrower areas of specialization within a scientific discipline (climate change, exercise science, or cancer biology), or both (environmental issues facing the American West). Still other beats center on the culture of science itself—for example, a journalist might focus on issues such as scientific publishing and reproducibility, science policy, sexual harassment in science, or science careers.
Specializing in this way is nothing new. The word “beat” has been used to describe this type of journalistic work for over a century. It began showing up in the late 1890s in the U.S. to describe the different sections of news that reporters focused on, writes Michael Quinion, a former BBC studio manager and freelance reader for the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s hard to establish the word’s origins, but Quinion notes that it might have derived from the way policemen’s feet hit the ground while “beating the streets” on their routes. Reporters similarly “beat a path” along familiar topics. They also gathered stories on foot at the time, which may have added to use of the word “beat” in journalism.
Carving out a beat in science journalism, in particular, offers numerous advantages. Compared with reporters who consider themselves generalists, beat reporters develop a deep understanding of the context of new scientific findings within a specific area. This contextual knowledge sharpens their ability to judge when a new finding is newsworthy and when it’s simply a small step in the field, says Tina Hesman Saey, a senior molecular biology writer at Science News. Over time, beat reporters also build up a well-curated list of experts in their field of focus—people they can call on to comment on a new study or provide context for breaking news. Those connections can also enable beat reporters to find out about new research before it’s published and before other reporters get the scoop, Saey says.
Picking a niche can also be a smart career move. Honing a specialty helps freelance writers build their business, becoming go-to reporters who editors can turn to for credible stories in a specific area. “Beats are really beneficial for building up your clips and your reputation in a field, and that makes it easier to pitch editors stories, because you know exactly what’s interesting that’s going on in that world,” says Christine Yu, a Brooklyn-based freelance sports-science reporter.
Going to the Sources
At its core, beat reporting is essentially about covering stories in a certain area often enough that knowledge of the territory, its most interesting aspects, and its denizens become second nature to the reporter. Reporters trying to build a beat can fast-track this process by cultivating an extensive contact list—sources who they can reach out to for background information for stories they’re considering pursuing, as well as for expert comment on assigned stories.
Yu suggests writers start by seeking out researchers cited by any study they’re covering. Reporters can then grow their list by asking sources they interview to recommend other people with related expertise. Reporters can also reach out to public information officers at universities and other research institutions for help adding to their list of experts, she says.
It’s also a good idea, while reporting any story, to lay the groundwork for future projects. During interviews, query sources about who else is doing interesting research in their field, beyond those whose work is most relevant to the story at hand. And, Saey suggests, “If you call someone for comment on someone else’s paper, spend a little time talking with them about their own research and ask them to keep you in mind when they’re publishing something new. That probably works only 10 percent of the time, but that’s still a significant percent—and as you expand your network, you’ll have more and more people who are keeping you in the loop.”
Periodically checking in with sources via email to learn about new developments in their work or in their field is also key to strengthening connections and digging up new stories. Just don’t overdo it—emailing once a year or so without a particular story is about right, says Dina Fine Maron, a wildlife crime reporter at National Geographic. “People have limited time and don’t want to feel taken advantage of,” she says. When doing these follow-ups, be specific about what you’re looking for and remind them of a connection you have, such as a story you previously interviewed them for or a study of theirs that came out afterward, Maron suggests. “Say something like, ‘Hey, I see you did X. I’d love to learn more about that and also pick your brain about what else is exciting you at this moment.’”
Scientific conferences are also a good opportunity to cultivate sources on a beat. Journalists should take the opportunity to meet the presenters, who are typically important people in the field, and talk to graduate students and postdocs, who could be future leaders and sources in the beat. Journalists can approach a scientist if they find a presentation particularly interesting and let the researcher know they’d like to chat in more detail about the work at a later date. Attending poster sessions at conferences can also give reporters an idea of which preliminary research is gathering attention, who likes to chat with journalists, and which researchers are able to explain their work in a way that’s useful for journalistic purposes, Saey says.
“For me, scientific meetings are basically like a one-stop shop,” she explains. “You have sources, you have material, and you have potential story ideas all in one place.”
Another way to find and follow potential sources on a beat is through Twitter. Following sources on the social media platform can help beat reporters find out what news or papers researchers are sharing, Maron says. Social media management tools, Twitter lists, and advanced search features are all useful for customizing who and what to follow online.
Staying on Top of Trends
As they become immersed in their areas of focus, good beat reporters go beyond what individual sources are doing in their fields to connect new research to the bigger picture and uncover stories about broader trends. The classic way to stay on top of new research in a beat is to sign up to receive press releases and table-of-contents lists for both high-profile and lesser-known journals in the field. But keeping up with these subscriptions can quickly become overwhelming, so beat reporters come up with ways of restricting the time this takes every day. Some writers recommend reading alerts in weekly batches. Others take an hour to check notifications and new developments every morning. “Basically, I’ve learnt the value of skimming,” says Jessica Fu, a food and agriculture reporter at The New Food Economy.
Reporters can also deepen their immersion in their beats by scouring trade publications, Fu says. For example, Fu says she got an idea for a story on invasive black carp causing problems in the Mississippi River Basin after reading, earlier this year, about incentives to catch and sell the fish in the publications Seafood News and Undercurrent News.
For beats that rely heavily on new studies as story pegs, like chemistry or medicine, reporters can look at embargoed news and get a pretty good idea of what their week will entail. Writers on these beats can also get scoops by combing through preprint archives for new research findings.
Journalists covering the environment or wildlife beats are more likely to focus on policy debates. Instead of checking journals for new studies, reporters on these beats may track advocacy groups or nonprofit think tanks such as The Humane Society or the Environmental Investigation Agency to find out what’s important in their field, Maron says. Setting up Google alerts can also help reporters monitor when new information is shared by relevant institutions or when specific policies are mentioned on the web, she adds.
Akshat Rathi, a senior energy reporter at Quartz, recommends note-taking apps like Evernote or Notion.so for jotting down news alerts, press releases, and other findings that catch your eye when you’re doing background reading. Rathi also periodically sends out a newsletter to keep his sources updated on new features he’s reported, and often includes surveys to poll them for other trends they’d like to see him cover.
Fitness and sports-science reporters like Yu often rely on a different method for finding trends that readers may be interested in: Instagram. “There’s a pretty big and active fitness community on Instagram, so if I see something cropping up more and more frequently, that’s something I’ll take note of,” she says. To follow up on trends she’s spotted, Yu then turns to Facebook and other social media platforms for further research or for finding sources who’d be willing to share their experiences with her.
Keeping It Fresh
Beat reporting’s advantage—and also its challenge—is the necessity of continuously evolving and finding new story angles on the same topics, says Nicole Mortillaro, an astronomy reporter at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Mortillaro found that as announcements of the discovery of Earth-sized planets orbiting other stars became more regular in recent years, she experienced a phenomenon that she calls “exoplanet fatigue.” But finding newer angles, such as how scientists were exploring exoplanets by studying their atmospheres, helped her overcome feelings of apathy from reporting on similar topics over and over again.
When journalists switch beats, however, they run into a different problem: They often have to retrain themselves to find unique story angles in their new field. In Maron’s case, when she switched from writing about medicine to covering wildlife poaching, she relied on her old skills to critically analyze new animal-trafficking policies, rebuild her network of sources, submit FOIA requests, and piece together enterprise stories.
Reading other writers’ work in the same beat also helps reporters learn to ask better questions and think about their beat in new ways, Fu says. “I think that one of the best ways to keep myself sharp is to read other really good work,” she explains, “because that encourages me to write about things I hadn’t written about before and inspires me to be curious about new subjects.”
Knvul Sheikh is a freelance writer and a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Audubon, National Geographic, Popular Science, Scholastic, Scientific American, and more. Knvul has lived in the foothills of the Himalayas in Pakistan, swum in the tropical waters of Singapore, and backpacked across the South Island of New Zealand. She is currently based in New York City and can be found on Twitter @KnvulS.