The array of local and regional policy bodies that need better public reporting presents a huge challenge to news organizations and journalists. These governmental bodies do important work that has lasting impact on the real issues facing citizens.
But, they are also subcultures that are difficult to penetrate, and enveloped in dense language and obscure procedures. Meanwhile, news organizations have limited resources and expertise to cover the actual policy that emerges from local governments. The policies themselves are often extremely technical and founded on legal frameworks and contexts that are rarely stated in formal decisions themselves.
What is an aspiring public policy journalist to do? I wrote most of the following recommendations as feedback to a digital journalism student who had been assigned to cover a local city council, and I created this post in hopes that a larger audience might find my recommendations useful.
As painful as it might seem, you really need to attend some meetings. Most policy meetings are tedious time-wasters at which only a few significant things that happen. But sitting through a few meetings provides tremendous amounts of learning about how local governments work, their rituals, the barely hidden antagonisms and alliances between and among elected officials and citizen advocates. Not just as a reporter, but also as a citizen, it’s really worth it to personally witness the practices of governance.
You don’t have to go to all the meetings. Most local governments now provide some level of video coverage on public access channels or online or both, and you can tune into a meeting and get valuable information without blowing two or three hours of your life. Spend that time fixing a snack or washing the dishes or folding laundry or chatting on Facebook or whatever. Just stay tuned and be ready to pay close attention when the important stuff happens.
Get the agenda. Another way you can economize the scarce resource of your personal time is to get the agenda from the municipality’s website, and then scrub through the online video to find the good stuff. Any available reports or information packets are also tremendously useful.
Among the most important things to attend to at a council meeting: are there any substantive votes? In any given meeting, is there a public hearing? Does the council take a vote on a meaningful policy issue? What is the nature of the debate, and the outcome of the vote? These are the sweet spots of local policy coverage, and should nearly always be your lead.
Always count the votes. Sometimes, elected officials and citizens stage overheated theatrics about issues that have no chance of passing. Know how many votes it takes to pass a measure, and make a practical assessment of the likelihood of success. Often, the real decision has actually been made in staff recommendations formulated before the meeting. Actual suspense about an issue is rare, but really awesome when it happens.
I might get a little blowback from traditionalists for my take on public meetings. Doesn’t real journalism require bodies on the scene? Don’t we need to get direct quotes from the key players? Aren’t these meetings sacred acts of democracy and public engagement?
There are trade-offs in my approach. But in a time of scarce journalism resources, it’s better for informed observers to help contextualize the work of local governments than to let that important work completely disappear. If we, as journalists, can work more efficiently and build a deeper understanding of the intricacies of policy, then we will all benefit.