Publishers’ Auxiliary/June 2009
Newspapers devote a great deal of resources in covering government meetings to keep readers abreast of decisions that affect their everyday lives. It’s little surprise that the coverage prompts its share of complaints.
From an elected official: Where was my quote? From someone who spoke during a contentious hearing: How come the “other side” received more attention? From a resident who did not attend the meeting: How come the decision was made without public input?
In reality, meetings should represent just one element of aggressive public affairs reporting. The final votes taken by a school board, city council or county board, for example, are usually the exclamation point on a long process that demands scrutiny at numerous steps.
Solid reporting of public affairs begins well before the gavel convenes a meeting.
Here are some tips to make coverage more relevant to readers and to help editors and reporters avoid the pitfalls of superficial coverage by only covering the meeting where the final vote is taken.
● Tour the town: Names and places are at the heart of all stories. Familiarize yourself with the neighborhood where sidewalks are being proposed.
● Seek other community voices: Governing bodies make the decisions, but the policies can have a varying impact on different sectors of the community. Check with the chamber of commerce on what a proposed sign ordinance means for the business community.
● Do your homework: How is this riverfront plan different from the half-dozen others proposed by previous blue-ribbon commissions?
● Write an advance: Major issues warrant an outline of what’s at stake and the impact of a “yes” or “no” vote – before the meeting is over and it’s a done deal.
● Pay attention to committees: Too often reporters focus on the final meeting in the process – for example, the vote taken by a city council, county board or school board. In reality, the discussions that shape an outcome often take place in committees. Identify and cover the key meetings whenever possible; at minimum, review the minutes.
● Utilize the editorial page: Encourage and expand the exchange of ideas and supplement newsroom resources. Invite and highlight point/counterpoint commentaries; solicit letters to the editor on important issues. Use all avenues to engage and inform the community on all perspectives of issues.
● Identify elected officials: List elected officials, as well as key appointed officials, who will play a role in reaching a consensus. The broader the conversation, the stronger the final decision will be.
● Profile key players. Feature individuals who may not be casting a vote but still play an important role in the process. A chemical dependency counselor may be spearheading a new drug and alcohol policy in the schools.
● Be proactive: Pursue the story when it is news. Don’t wait to be spoon-fed by the governing bodies, allowing them to release the story on their terms.
● Web links: Draw attention to other credible sources of information when appropriate. Preview all links to be sure they meet your standards.
Make no mistake: Substantive and meaningful coverage of public affairs takes hard work and planning. But the rewards are a more inclusive and dynamic process for setting policy by the electorate and policy-makers alike.
The guidelines for meeting coverage are especially important as governing bodies begin to set their budgets. The challenging economy is dictating widespread and deep budget cuts at all levels of government, in all types and sizes of businesses, and among households. In many communities, setting government budgets will mean a series of workshops that will result in a document that can easily reach 100 pages.
More often than not, reporters will see these documents for the first time either a few days in advance of – or, worse yet – when they walk into the meeting where the budget is adopted. The reporter then must immediately turn around a report with little time for follow-up questions or clarification.
No sooner is the story published and someone from city hall calls: “What meeting were you at?”
Such scenarios can be avoided if editors and reporters are proactive in developing relationships and expanding the public dialogue on the range of important issues before public bodies.