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American Journalism Review
Covering Washington Beats  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   July/August 2001

Covering Washington Beats   

Data compiled by Lucinda Fleeson and researcher David Allan.

By David Allan & Lucinda Fleeson
David Allan is a former AJR editorial assistant.      Lucinda Fleeson is director of the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program at the University of Maryland. She has trained journalists in Eastern and Central Europe, Africa, Latin America and, most recently, Sri Lanka, where she was a Fulbright Scholar. Her training manual for teaching investigative reporting in developing democracies has been published in 18 languages by the International Center for Journalists.     

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   » Where Are the Watchdogs?

IN APRIL 1999, the Project on the State of the American Newspaper published its first survey of which newspapers and wire services regularly cover 19 federal departments and agencies that deal with everyday issues such as food safety, taxes, airline policy and workplace rules. The tally showed that over the previous decade, many newspaper and wire services had stopped assigning full-time reporters to many of these beats. When we revisited the same 19 departments and agencies for this month's story, we found that the trend away from full-time beat coverage had deepened somewhat. Not only had coverage declined at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Internal Revenue Service, but there were also defections from traditionally obligatory beats such as the State Department and the Department of Defense. In all, coverage had dropped at eight beats and increased at five.

We found some increased vigilance at agencies now in the news. In April 1999, we reported that there was not one full-time reporter devoted to the Department of the Interior. Since then, the Washington Post and Denver Post have reactivated those beats to focus on the Bush administration's controversial environmental policies. Likewise the Wall Street Journal and New York Times have added coverage at the Federal Communications Commission, which is undergoing a policy revolution. Some increases came as a result of newcomers to the field who assigned reporters to Washington beats because of regional interests. The Hartford Courant, for instance, added a reporter at the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as at the Defense Department.

In April 1999, we reported that financial beats--anything to do with the stock market--were more numerous than ever before; two years later we found that the Chicago Tribune, Scripps Howard and the Washington Times had shuttered those full-time beats.

We defined beats as full time if a reporter devoted at least two-thirds of his or her time to a department or agency and closely related issues. Some cases involved judgment calls. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, technically does not have a full-time reporter in its Washington bureau covering the Federal Aviation Administration, but has seven reporters stationed around the country devoted to various aspects of aviation--so we counted the Journal as full time. Knight Ridder does not have a Justice Department reporter per se, but has created a new federal law-enforcement beat, covered by a former policeman--so we counted that as full time. Some papers had shifted coverage--the Los Angeles Times, for instance, dropped its IRS reporter, but added a Social Security Administration beat; the St. Petersburg Times closed its full-time Washington watch on Veterans Affairs but added a Food and Drug Administration reporter.

We did not include business-information services such as Bloomberg, whose reporters cover much of Washington but for specialized audiences.

We began our census in the summer of 2000 and then rechecked and updated it to catch any shifts due to the changing of the guard in Washington. The figures here are as of May 1.

Department of Agriculture

Department of Defense

Department of Interior

Department of Labor

Department of Veterans Affairs

Environmental Protection Agency

Federal Avaition Administration

Federal Communications Commission

Food and Drug Administration

Internal Revenue Service

Justice Department

Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Social Security Administration

State Department

Supreme Court

Treasury Department, Federal Reserve, Federal Trade Commission and Securities and Exchange Commission

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