By Jim Pumarlo
How many newsrooms have received complaints about coverage of local public affairs – specifically meetings? It might be the city council, school board, county board or one of the numerous other government bodies under your microscope.
From an elected official: “You didn’t give the full story. Where was my quote?”
From a person who spoke during a contentious hearing: “How come the other side received more attention? Again, how come you didn’t quote me?”
From a reader who did not attend the meeting: “Why was the decision made without public input? We’re always kept in the dark.”
Editors and reporters constantly evaluate how they deliver the news, especially when it comes to public affairs. The most meaningful stories are those that interpret the practical impact of policy-making. The need to communicate those decisions looms even more important as access to local government is diminished during the pandemic.
Newspapers can no longer simply regurgitate a body’s proceedings from beginning to end. Newsrooms also must look at the continuum of coverage, going beyond the blow-by-blow reports of meetings.
Here is one list of ideas to enhance coverage of public affairs.
Tour the town. Familiarize yourself with the agenda – at least the major items – prior to a meeting. Names and places are at the heart of most decisions. Connect with the subjects firsthand.
Identify the news. Write the headline and a summary paragraph. It will help focus your writing. If you don’t know where you’re going with a story, your readers will be lost as well.
Rate the news: Some stories warrant front page. Some belong on inside pages. Other actions can be mentioned in a package of briefs or in bulleted items. Some agenda items, even if they prompted discussion, should never see the light of day in your publications.
Avoid chronological reports. Announcing that a group met is not the lead, especially when a story appears two or three days after the meeting.
Put items in descriptive terms. Brighten writing by making the content more understandable. For example, which sentence are more readers likely to connect with: “The city is looking to develop a three-acre parcel of land” or “The city is looking to develop a parcel of land about the size of three football fields.”
Translate statistics. Reports are often filled with numbers, and percentages can be meaningless. For example, a 5-percent increase in garbage fees is better reported as the specific dollar impact on households, retailers, manufacturers.
Include the voices of those affected.
At the meeting: As one editor smartly phrases it, write for those at the back of the room and not the front of the room. Be selective when quoting the officials around the table. Pay attention to what the audience says.
After the meeting: Deadlines might dictate reporting only the actions taken by a body. Provide follow-up stories on the impact of decisions. How will families be affected by higher school extracurricular fees? What’s the impact of an ordinance to eliminate all neon lights on storefronts? How will rezoning affect agricultural properties?
Pay attention to committee action: You may not cover every meeting, but be aware of key discussions. Certain committee decisions may foreshadow what likely will be the final vote on a topic.
Track issues. Prepare a summary paragraph of an issue that can be inserted in all stories. Track key dates and votes on the issue to insert as a sidebar, where appropriate.
Providing accurate and meaningful reports is the primary task. But words may well go unread unless equal attention is given to presentation. Editors and reporters should review agendas to brainstorm ideas for graphics and photos.
And don’t stop with the print edition. Coverage should span the range of digital platforms at your disposal. Are you tweeting meetings? Are there opportunities to post video? What about creating a hash tag to convene and enhance a communitywide conversation on topics of particular importance?
The web is useful on two fronts. It allows for immediate reports and places nondaily media on equal footing with daily competition. It has no space constraints and therefore allows for publication of variety of reports, speeches and detailed statistics.
The strongest coverage of public affairs is two-pronged: solid advances to inform readers and promote robust community discussion, and follow-up reports that provide meaningful interpretation of actions taken by elected bodies. As part of any beat, reporters should have regular dialogue with elected and appointed officials. Some of the most important stories can occur between meetings.
Make no mistake: Producing solid coverage of public affairs demands hard work – and the effort will reap dividends for everyone. Citizens will be more engaged in policy-making. Elected bodies will appreciate the additional attention to and participation in their decisions. And newspapers will increase their relevancy to readers.
Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at email@example.com.