If you’re a new to journalism and covering a beat that involves government meetings, you may find yourself struggling with how take a rather bland government meeting and turn it into a compelling story. This is a common problem many journalists face, as the material covered in these often sparsely attended meetings is important, but tends to get bogged down in procedure. Here are a few helpful tips to make the necessary details stand out.
DON’T USE JARGON
When you first start covering government meetings, you might get lost in some of the jargon. Bureaucrats like to use abbreviations and obscure terms. However, after covering several meetings you will actually start to understand the language being used by government workers. When you do, remember that readers don’t understand or have much use for government jargon. Readers don’t distinguish between easements and stream buffers and they don’t know what an R-12 rezoning application is. It can be tough, but the job of the local journalist is to break down jargon into layman’s terms.
BE CLEAR AND FOCUS ON ISSUES
Journalism is best when it makes the important compelling. Use simple sentences and simple language. Government officials and journalists tend to get bogged down in procedures and it obscures the facts of a story. Local officials may spend 30 minutes talking about milling and resurfacing, but that doesn’t mean the phrase needs to appear in your article. Readers want to know when the road will be open and how much taxpayer money it costs.
UNDERSTAND THE ISSUES BEFORE YOU WRITE
Your readers (and editors) can usually tell when you don’t understand what happened at a meeting. If you are unable to break down what happened in simple terms and find yourself relying on jargon or repeating word-for-word what was on the item summary, it is obvious you are unaware of what you are reporting on. This not only hurts your reputation, but the reputation of your news organization. It’s usually best not to leave the meeting until you have spoken to a source who can help you grasp aspects of the story that you don’t understand. If you’re still unsure, ask your editors. They probably aren’t as scary as you think.
LEAD WITH THE ISSUES
As I said before, government meetings are often sparsely attended. If you want to make sure readers skip over your article just like they skipped the meeting, make the first paragraph about the meeting and put the word “meeting” in your headline. If you want people to read about a meeting they didn’t go to, you have to start with the issues and how it affects them. What was discussed and what was said is the important part. The setting is usually not the most important detail. You want to be honest with readers and let them know the story comes from a meeting, but you don’t have to mention it right off the bat. Wait until you drop the first quote and use “said at last night’s commission meeting,” to bring the reader into the setting. Now, if the meeting was called specifically to address a controversy and it is a packed house, the meeting is actually the story, but that is probably only going to be the case about 2 percent of the time.
WATCH FOR POSTURING AND PLATITUDES
Politicians at all levels are guilty of political posturing. This tends to lengthen the meetings you attend and dulls your story if you quote them while they’re doing it. Be on the lookout for throwaway quotes like, “I am honored to serve with the fine people on this council” or “I think this proposal is a home run and it is my distinct pleasure to thank all of the departments involved in working so tirelessly on it.” An elected official thanking the academy for five minutes before voting on an issue isn’t newsworthy. Try your best to leave platitudes and unnecessary information out of your stories.