Although “journalism” is a singular term, which may imply a homogeneous entity, it is helpful to think of it as an umbrella term for a number of distinct forms, practices, and genres. Put another way, journalism has many looks, can be produced in many ways, and can be about many things.
There are many ways to categorize different types of journalism. One helpful schema involves three dimensions: media vehicle, beat, and method. A single story is likely to be shaped by its categorization within each dimension. For example, you may have a television (media vehicle) segment about politics (beat) reported through a breaking news approach (method). That story would be tailored to meet the expectations (and advantages) of each of those dimensions, from its storytelling structure to the depth of the report.
There are a number of different media vehicles that can be used for conveying journalism. These include text-oriented (e.g., newspapers or online articles), audio-oriented (e.g., radio or podcasts), and visual-oriented (e.g., television or photography).
The media vehicle matters because it offers certain technical affordances (possibilities and limitations). For example, photojournalism relies primarily on still photographs to convey the essence of a development or issue. A photojournalist may need to capture multiple facets of a complex issue through a single, representative photograph — perhaps a melting glacier with a skeletal polar bear in the foreground. Put another way, the photojournalist may need to aim to convey a thousand words with just one shot. (They also write accompanying photo captions, but those rarely exceed a couple of sentences.) Alternatively, the photojournalist may be tasked with producing a photo essay, wherein they piece together multiple photographs that capture different dimensions of an issue in a manner that conveys a narrative. Photojournalism shoots can involve candid, heat-of-the-moment reporting (e.g., documenting a battle in a conflict zone) as well as documenting daily life for a particular group of people (e.g., homeless veterans).
Similarly, news produced for a television newscast is likely to differ in important ways from news produced for an online news article. For example, a story about local opioid addiction rates may need to be condensed into a three-minute TV segment. That might involve just 200 words of voice-over narration on the journalist’s part. In contrast, an average article on the BBC’s website is roughly 750 words in length. (If they’re writing for The New York Times, that’s closer to 1,000 words.) The shorter length for the newscast requires the journalist to hone in on a narrower aspect of the issue, or perhaps offer a more superficial account of its many aspects. Moreover, the style of writing differs: Writing for the ear is distinctly different from writing for the eyes.
Reporting jobs are often oriented around either beat reporting or general assignment reporting.
Beats are niche categories of journalistic coverage in which individual journalists may specialize. A beat can be a topic, a person, or an institution, though they are most commonly niche topics. For example, a political journalist might cover the politics beat, the election beat, or the Kamala Harris beat — or all three. Beat reporters immerse themselves in their beats and gain specialized insights and knowledge of the key stakeholders, actors, trends, and influences within those beats over time. As they do so, they become experts in those beats, and that expertise appears in the stories they identify and cover. Moreover, by virtue of repeatedly covering the same topics or people, beat reporters tend to develop deep and specialized sourcing networks, often resulting in elevated access to some sources and exclusive information.
Beats are not just genres. They may require distinct approaches to newsgathering and involve different audience expectations for storytelling structures. Consider the film beat: It may involve a mixture of reported and objective pieces (e.g., news about the latest film Ryan Gosling has signed on to), short lifestyle features (e.g., a non-combative and abridged interview with Gosling about his morning workout routine), and subjective opinion pieces (e.g., a review of Gosling’s latest movie). By contrast, the courts beat is more likely to have inverted pyramid-style stories detailing incidents and events derived from reviews of court documents, or reports about arguments in an on-going case. (Audiences are unlikely to expect short interviews with judges about their morning case review routine.)
Common beats include business, courts and crime, education, film, food, health, international affairs, music, politics, science, sports, style, and technology. Some outlets (especially niche publications) have even more specialized beats, like Big Tech, Medicare, or Green Energy. Many journalistic outlets organize their staffs and their editorial content based on distinctions between specialized beats, meaning that they will have a reporter (or group of reporters) who occupy a particular physical space in the newsroom and publish primarily on a dedicated portion of the news product (e.g., a “Science” section) based on their beat. While many journalists focus on a single beat, some journalists may be tasked with covering multiple beats — especially during times of newsroom cutbacks.
Not all journalists are assigned to a beat, though. Some journalists’ expertise lies in their ability to quickly learn new topics and make sense of them for non-specialized audiences. These journalists are often called general assignment reporters because they may be tasked with covering an entertainment story one day and a court story the next. The need to cover such a wide array of topics often comes at a cost, though: General assignment reporters are typically more likely to get facts wrong (especially with an unfamiliar topic), may struggle to offer deep coverage, and their sourcing network for a topic may be sparse or superficial. Nevertheless, many journalistic outlets will complement their beat reporters with at least one general assignment reporter in order to have a frequent and predictable stream of news stories and to help round off the outlet’s news coverage as needed.
Journalism may also be distinguished based on the approach to reporting that is used. Examples of common approaches are breaking news reporting, straight news reporting, feature reporting, enterprise reporting, investigative reporting, and advocacy reporting.
Breaking news reporting involves covering a development with a particular emphasis on timeliness. Breaking news stories depict current events, recent developments, and information that is generally just coming to light. For example, this might include a shooting outside a bar. Breaking news stories are often updated regularly as news develops and as journalists uncover new information about the sometimes ongoing event. Put another way, breaking news reporting doesn’t aim to deeply report multiple aspects of a development and package it as a single, stand-alone news product. Instead, it concedes its incompleteness and focuses on unearthing and describing the most recent developments.
Straight news reporting aims to synthesize recent developments and contextualize them into a stand-alone news product. It is similar to breaking news reporting in that it emphasizes the timely presentation of information in a clear, quick, and straight-to-the-point manner — often by using a story structure like the inverted pyramid. However, compared to breaking news reporting, there is more of an emphasis on sense-making and contextualizing information, with the expectation that a story will be more complete and not require constant updating (even if the event is still developing).
Feature reporting allows journalists to take a more creative approach to the information they present. While the newsgathering methods may be similar to those of traditional reporting, the newswriting approach is quite different. First, they are typically written with a more open-ended and less-strict story structure. Feature stories often apply creative storytelling techniques, such as playful or poetic language, narrative structures, detailed anecdotes, and multi-part vignettes. Second, because of their more open-ended writing styles and less strict relationship to timeliness, feature stories are often long-form and evergreen. Evergreen stories are not tied to a specific time peg, or timely event. They are designed to maintain their relevance to audiences for a longer period of time.
Enterprise reporting relies heavily on original reporting driven by a journalist. It is called enterprise reporting because it requires an enterprising journalist who is able to develop their own story ideas, sources, and means of gaining access to information. (The opposite of enterprise reporting would be reporting that relies primarily on press releases, press conferences, or news that is given in some way to a journalist rather than uncovered by that journalist.) Enterprise reporting often involves creative and advanced reporting methods, such as public records requests, data collection and analysis, and access to historical documents. The result is often, though not always, a longer-form and in-depth news product.
Investigative reporting is a particularly rigorous form of reporting and one of the most powerful types of journalism for advancing the public’s knowledge. Investigative reporters dedicate themselves to the sleuth-like pursuit, through a wide variety of investigative techniques, of information about a niche topic that is often difficult to access. The subjects of investigative reporting are frequently topics of deep conflict and vast public importance, such as political or corporate corruption, violence, crime, financial malfeasance, or other cases of wrongdoing and injustice. Investigative journalists dedicate weeks, months, and even years to the dogged pursuit of a specific person, entity, or topic in order to bring their subject to public light. This type of journalism is strongly associated with watchdog journalism because of the role it plays in holding powerful actors accountable. In this case, investigative journalists are the metaphorical watchdogs who seek to make the actions of the powerful transparent to their audiences. (However, watchdog journalism is a broader form of journalism that also includes traditional, day-to-day reporting on the mundane matters of governance, such as attending School Board meetings.) Investigative stories often take the shape of long-form stories (or a series of shorter stories) because of the amount of reporting and information they comprise.
Advocacy reporting is a form of reporting that distinguishes itself by formulating a clear opinion, or substantiating an existing one, with timely, factual information. This approach outwardly rejects the norm of neutrality, and instead aims to promote a cause or intervention. For example, advocacy reporting may focus on illustrating the plight of young undocumented immigrants by including anecdotes about the challenges they face, statistics about the prevalence of the issue, and offering the journalist’s evaluation of a key policy presently being considered by lawmakers. Such reporting is typically labeled as a “news analysis” or presented as an author’s column in an Opinion section. However, it may also be the approach to reporting that defines the identity of a journalistic outlet (and is therefore not segregated from the other reporting done by that outlet). Not all opinion pieces warrant the label of advocacy reporting, though. Many are better categorized as “opinion writing” if they do not follow at least some of the staple practices of journalism, like verifying information.
Another way of categorizing journalism is through the distinction of “hard” and “soft” news.
Hard news journalism refers to breaking news and reports about serious or hard-hitting topics that are both timely and of civic interest. They are usually based on factual information and rigorous research. Political journalism, business journalism, and watchdog journalism are all typically recognized forms of hard news.
Soft news journalism refers to reports about predominantly lifestyle and entertainment affairs, or other topics of human interest. While such journalism may involve rigorous research, it is also more open to interpretive and literary accounts. Sports journalism, entertainment journalism, and celebrity coverage are all typically recognized forms of soft news.
Although this categorization schema is quite popular — it is not uncommon to hear those terms in the newsroom — it is also arguably over-simplistic and does a disservice to certain genres. Specifically, hard news is often used to connote a superior form of journalism, and is often talked about within the industry as being more important (and pure) than soft news. However, consider the case of a rigorously reported investigative piece unearthing corruption in a multi-billion dollar sports league, resulting in criminal prosecution of league executives. It would be a disservice to label that as soft news — with its implied inferiority — simply because it is “a sports story.” Conversely, a puff piece on a politician designed to help a journalist gain access hardly warrants the label of hard journalism.
Instead, it is more fruitful to view journalism through a more nuanced typology that takes into account dimensions like the media vehicle, beat, and reporting method associated with that piece of journalism. This focuses less on a shortsighted heuristic for determining a story’s import based on its genre and instead allows us to think more about the norms and expectations associated with a journalistic form.
One way to categorize different types of journalism is to focus on three dimensions: media vehicle, beat, and method.
The media vehicle matters because it offers certain technical opportunities and limitations, and will have some associated norms. Most media vehicles can be sub-categorized under text-oriented, audio-oriented, and visual-oriented, but hybrid forms also exist.
Reporting jobs are often oriented around either beat reporting or general assignment reporting. Beats refer to niche categories of coverage that journalists may specialize in.
Journalism may also be distinguished based on the journalist’s approach to reporting. Common approaches include breaking news reporting, feature reporting, and investigative reporting.
Journalism is also sometimes categorized under labels of “hard” news and “soft” news, with the former encompassing genres like crime and politics, and the latter genres like entertainment and sports. Although popular within the industry, this typology is arguably overly simplistic and problematic.