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Public Meetings

other topics under JUDGMENT: Avoiding Bias, Be Enterprising, Dealing with Profanities, Polls, Surveys & Studies

For many radio journalists, their first "beat" involves covering regular meetings of a governmental board such as a city council or school board. Properly reporting board meetings demands a significant investment of time and effort, but that effort will be richly rewarded through informing the public about their government and developing a sense of judgment about what makes news.

Know thy board members

Make sure you know who the board members are. Study up on their backgrounds, careers, the neighborhoods they represent, their political experience and political affiliation. You are coming to these meetings as an outsider, and only by demonstrating familiarity with the people and issues involved will you gain the respect and trust you need to do a proper job as a reporter.

Being present at the meeting is only part of your job. While you should try to record all of the meeting's activities from the call to order to adjournment, rarely do the public deliberations provide compelling actualities. Your best opportunities for sound will come after the meeting has ended, through interviews with individual board members and members of the public. Ask them for reactions to the decisions taken, remembering to get reactions from both sides. Moreover, do not "play favorites" by interviewing the same board member meeting after meeting. Sometimes political caucuses designate one board member to speak on their behalf, but that's a decision for the caucus to make, not for you. By demonstrating knowledge and fairness, you'll readily be granted the interviews you need.

An agenda for reporting

Board meetings follow an agenda that is usually available at least a day and perhaps even a week in advance. Some boards will oblige news organizations by mailing or faxing the agenda to them, though others may treat reporters like any other member of the public and require them to stop by the board's offices or city hall to pick up a copy. Get the agenda and study it before the meeting. Not only will you know what issues will be coming before the board, but you will also have the opportunity to do a preview piece ("Should skateboarding be banned from downtown? City council will take up the issue at tonight's meeting....") to air the day of the meeting.

Keep your focus

Far too many news directors view board meetings as inherently dull, even though these meetings demonstrate the workings of government. Reporters only reinforce this view by failing to write interesting scripts. Perhaps this is because so many meetings go on...and on...and on for hours, and reporters lose focus on what the important issues were. Countless stories end up sounding like the following, slightly modified from what I heard on a small-market station:

This 21-second reader misses the story. The lead should not be that the school board heard a report, but rather that violence was on the rise in city schools. There are a number of ways to bring the real story -- violence in the schools -- to the fore. Here's an example using a question lead:

Listen to this script!

Remember that even though you may have sat through a meeting lasting 4 or 5 hours, you are condensing that meeting into a 20-, 30- or 40-second story. The issues facing the community provide you with your subject matter. With those issues forefront, you should be able to craft interesting stories that inform your listeners about their government and their community.

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