- Reporters new to the beat can better prepare themselves by purchasing “Pen & Sword – – A Journalist’s Guide to Covering the Military” by Ed Offley, Marion Street Press.
- Get a subscription to National Defense Magazine; visit the National Defense Industrial Association’s site for reports and events; and become an avid reader of Defense News and Aviation Week, and any other trade publications relevant to your beat. A list of military journals is available via an Air Force site.
- If you’re in Washington, consider signing up for courses with Defense Acquisition University or the Graduate School. Defense Acquisition University offers how-to guides and free classes that will benefit all defense reporters.
- Learn the jargon. “You need to explain the terms. Don’t expect terms to meet certain things,” Hampton advises. For a translation of military jargon, consult the Dictionary of Military Terms.
- Hampton also recommends that new reporters use a database service such as LexisNexis, to which which some news organizations subscribe. (You might also be able to get free access from your local library). If not, it’s worth the investment on your own dime, Hampton said. “There’s no one-stop shopping,” Hampton said. “If you’re a brand new reporter, pay for a database service.”
- Join defense organizations and industry groups to make contacts. There are social groups associated with many defense activities, such as the Air Force Association and the Capitol Regional Budget Analysts, Hampton said. The annual Special Operation Forces Industry Conference can be a hotbed of story leads, but few journalists take advantage of such opportunities. “That social stuff really matters,” Hampton says.
- Connect with sources on social media. Troops can use Facebook and Twitter with some restrictions, and reporters have arranged interviews with top-level officials through Facebook messaging. Find the services’ social media sites here.
- One of the first things to do other than get acquainted with your local military public affairs types is to get an electronic subscription to the Pentagon’s electronic clip service called Early Bird. It covers both print and television transcript versions. You can contact the Early Bird staff via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s advisable to send them any military stories you have published to establish that you’re on the beat. (DefenseNews.com has a version of the EarlyBird. Subscription link).
- Each congressional office has a military legislative assistant. Reporters should find the members of Congress for their beat area and make contact with the assistant who handles military legislation. This is especially critical for reporters who may not have regular access to the Pentagon.
- Experts at think tanks can provide analysis and context on defense budgets and contracts. Among the most reputable are:
- The Brookings Institution (Michael O’Hanlon, national security policy and defense budget expert, and Peter Singer, 21st Century Defense Initiative).
- Project on Government Oversight (Nick Schwellenbach, director of investigations).
- Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment (Todd Harrison, senior fellow of defense budget studies).
- Taxpayers for Common Sense (Laura Peterson, senior policy analyst).
- Government Accountability Office auditors are good sources on defense management and weapons programs who can give insights into ongoing work and reports, Capaccio says. A complete listing of contacts is in the GAO phonebook (PDF).
- Other experts can be found through ProfNet.
- GlobalSecurity.org is a reliable source for weapons systems, defense programs bases, policies and budgets.
- The Project On Government Oversight website offers a list of federal contracting resources.
- The Federation of American Scientists is a good source for defense policy and strategy analysis.
Classes in national security strategy and planning will help journalists new to the beat sound more credible when they start reporting, says Lance Hampton, foreign policy specialist at the Office of the Secretary of Defense. “Moving from a small-town paper to a big-time D.C. beat, the questions are different,” Hampton says.
The Bird will keep you informed of stories and pertinent editorials that could give you contacts and ideas. The Navy public affairs staff, unlike the Army or Air Force, publishes its own compilation of daily clips; you might be able to get electronically. Call Navy PA in the Pentagon (703-697-5342).