Reporting a meeting has to be one of the most boring assignments a reporter will ever have. It’s ironic because it’s also one of the most important jobs, too. City councils, school boards, state legislatures, congress all make decisions that affect our lives and spend our — the people’s — money. They make these decisions in meetings wrapped by agendas, filled with tedious procedure and painted in sermons of officialese. The reporter’s job is to distill these official riddles into plain English that everyone can understand.
It’s not (completely) their fault
The first key to understanding all these meetings is that — for the most part — it’s not their fault. They, the city council or school board for example, have all these rules they must follow. Laws vary by state but almost universally there are laws governing when and where agendas must be posted, what they can and can’t talk about, when they can vote, who is allowed to speak, where these meetings may be held.
The list is endless. Plus these elected officials are held criminally responsible if these laws are not followed. Most of the open meeting laws are there to force councils and boards to act more publicly. I wholeheartedly support open meeting laws. They are key to keeping an eye on government. However, these rules can and do lead to a lot of official noise in these meetings.
Bring a recorder
Have the right equipment for covering these meetings. Of course a pen and notebook. Maybe bring a laptop if they allow it and you are fast typist. Definitely bring a good voice recorder. I would use a digital voice recorder that can easily transfer to your computer to listen to after the meeting.
Most open meeting laws allow reporters to record meetings, even video tape them. Do it.
But don’t rely on the voice recorder. Your written notes should be the best source for writing your story. The voice recorder is there to help catch those difficult quotes or discussions where everyone is talking and you hear something you want to understand better or quote accurately.
I usually would write down the time I turned on the recorder. When I hear something I want to transcribe — the mayor says something very quotable — I would note the time and what to listen for. When I’m listening to the meeting later, I can calculate how far into the recording is the quote I’m looking for.
Don’t think that a voice recorder is there so you can listen to the whole meeting again when you get home. That’s like going back to the dentist for a second root canal because you thought the first one was so fun.
Take good notes. Use the recorder for accurate transcriptions only.
Get the paperwork
Usually you can get your hands on the agenda. If possible, try and get all the paperwork — in advance — that the officials are discussing. The officials often refer to these documents during a meeting. It’s much easier to follow what they are talking about if you have the same paperwork as reference. Try working out a deal with the municipal authority to get the paperwork in advance. It might cost a little money, but it’s worth it.
I will say that you might get some resistance to this idea. If they don’t want to give you the paperwork, start filing open records requests (see your state law). Persistence will pay off. Eventually they will get the picture that you are not going away and it might be more convenient to give you the paperwork along with the other officials in the meeting.
If they try to get hard-nosed about it, complain publicly in an op-ed piece. I did and never had a late council packet again. Having the paperwork will make writing your article easier and more accurate. So take the time to get it.
Law of inverted importance
I have coined a law (just now) called The Law of Inverted Importance: All items on the agenda are listed in reverse order of their importance.
In other words, the further down an item is on the agenda, the more important the item.
The top items are always routine stuff to get out of the way. The middle items are usually things that require a little discussion, but nothing too controversial. The items at the end of the agenda are usually the meat of the meeting.
You need to reverse the order. The biggest mistake a novice reporter will make is to report on the meeting in agenda order — like they are the official recorder for the city or school. Your story should start with the most significant event of the meeting and work it’s way down through lesser items. Some items — like “the council ratified minutes from the last meeting” — should be left off completely.
Tell a friend
So what is the most important item in the meeting? That’s easy. What would you tell someone, a friend or relative, happened in the meeting. Who is the first person you call after a meeting? When you call them, do you say, “Hey, guess what, they just ratified last month’s minutes and then they voted to hold a public hearing, and then….”
No you wouldn’t. No one would.
What really happens is you call someone and say, “They just raised water rates by $20 a month.”
There’s your lead.
Break it up
One thing I’ve found that helps is to write down one sentence of every major point I want to cover. I start with the lead point and work my way down. When I’m finished I go back and write a paragraph or two about each point. Sometimes I need to write more about a controversial item. Sometimes I can combine a few items into a single paragraph.
And use subheadings. Space things out. We are writing for the web now. There is no physical page limit. Use subheadings to make it easier for your readers to find what they want. Subheadings are a lost art in the newspaper business — it’s more magazine-like. Well, print is dead. Get used to this new medium and use subheadings (like this article does). Your readers will thank you.
Please bury this in obfuscation and officialese
One official was angry at me when he read my report. “It wasn’t in order,” he said. “It should be in the order we had on the agenda.”
What rubbish. What he really wanted was to bury the important stuff to the bottom of my story.
Most officials never want controversial stuff written in plain English. Don’t believe me? Go read the official minutes of a meeting. There at the bottom is something like this:
The board met and discussed administration contracts. They took no action.
Big whoopty do.
What really happened in plain English.
The school board met last night and did not renew the superintendent’s contract. This is a possible indicator by the school board that they may not be satisfied with the superintendent’s performance.
When I wrote something along those lines as the lead in the story the whole school board came down on me.
“What do you mean we didn’t renew his contract — we took no action. No action! Do you understand?”
Yes, I understood perfectly. Just because they didn’t like having what happened written in plain English doesn’t mean it was false. I just didn’t use their “obfuscation”. Instead, I said it like it was. Guess what, a few months later that superintendent “resigned”. Which is code for, “The super saw the writing on the wall and quit before he was fired.”
Officialese will end us all
Officialese is a perversion of the English language. It’s pretentious, obscure and wordy. Officialese is used to hide the true meaning of a text.
The official version of events, taken from the minutes:
The male youth representative having the name of John and the female youth representative having the name of Jillian, did, at their first convenience, make an effort to gain altitude via the method of bipedal locomotion either in rapid or semi-rapid fashion up the incline in an effort to reach the peak of said incline in a further effort to retrieve the cylindrical metallic object with extruded curved convenient palm device to convey the liquid form of oxy-dihydride — a substance known to exist several poisons — to return said oxy-dihydride down the incline until the former position is achieved.
Wow! In plain English you would say:
Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water.
If you think I’m joking about this. That nobody would take such simple meaning and turn it into something as inscrutable as that. Look an the new healthcare bill. It’s nearly 2000 pages long. I can’t even imagine how much obfuscation is going on with that document.
Fight officialese. Say things in plain, short sentences.
Avoid copying the officialese from the documents you receive. Tell-tale signs are long, run-on sentences, lots of prepositions, and stuff that makes you scratch your head to say “huh?”.
You are the citizen proxy
I’ve heard people say, “If the citizens want to know what’s going on, they should attend the meetings themselves.”
That’s absurd. People have lives to live. Our job is to act in their place. We are their eyes and ears. We must try to cut through the officialese and obfuscation to tell people what is really going on, where their money is being spent, and what their elected officials are doing.