Reporting on council meetings

How to cover a council meeting

So you’re covering a meeting – maybe a city council or parish council -as a news story for the first time, and aren’t sure where to start as far as the reporting is concerned. Here are some tips to make the process easier.

Get the Agenda

  •  Get a copy of the meeting’s agenda ahead of time. You can usually do this by calling or visiting your local town hall or by checking their website. Knowing what they plan to discuss is always better than walking into the meeting cold.
  • Minutes -find out if this has been a long-running issue.

Pre-reporting

  •  Once you’ve got the agenda, do a little reporting even before the meeting. Find out about the issues they plan to discuss. You can check the website of your local paper to see if they’ve written about any of the issues coming up, or even call members of the council or board and interview them.

Find your focus

  • Pick a few key issues on the agenda that you will focus on. Look for the issues that are the most newsworthy, controversial or just plain interesting.
  • If you’re not sure what’s newsworthy, ask yourself: which of the issues on the agenda will affect the most people in my community? Chances are, the more people affected by an issue, the more newsworthy it is.
  • For example, is the council considering raising council tax by 3%, that’s an issue that will affect every homeowner in your Newsworthy? Absolutely. Similarly, is the local education authority debating whether to ban some books from school libraries after being pressured by religious groups, that’s bound to be controversial -and newsworthy.
  • On the other hand, if the town council is voting on whether to raise the town clerk’s salary by £2,000, is that newsworthy? Probably not, unless the town’s budget has been slashed so much that pay rises for town officials have become The only person really affected here is the town clerk, so your readership for that item would probably be an audience of one.

Planning Meetings

  • Many of the best stories appear in the weekly list of planning applications. Here, you can find first-class human interest stories.
  • Visit the planning department for further details if necessary.

Report, Report, Report

  • Once the meeting’s under way, be thorough in your Obviously, you need to take good notes or recordings during the meeting, but that’s not enough. When the meeting has ended, your reporting has just begun.
  • Interview members of the council after the meeting for any additional quotes or information you might need, and if the meeting involved soliciting comments from residents, interview some of them as well. If an issue of some controversy came up, be sure to interview people on both sides of the fence as far as that issue is concerned.
  • Seek permission or check your council’s stance if you plan to do any conspicuous film recording

Identifying Councilors

  • Make a seating  plan, put names to bums and keep it in  your contacts book.
  • Get pictures of them from the net and stick those pictures into your book, together with their party allegiance, phone numbers and email addresses
  • Get phone numbers and email addresses for everyone you interview. Virtually every reporter who’s ever covered a meeting has had the experience of getting back to the office to write, only to discover there’s another question they need to ask. Having those numbers on hand is invaluable.

Confidentiality

  • Confidential items -are ones that central government or a court has said should not be disclosed.
  • Exempt items are those which the council has decided to keep away from the media because they involve personal matters, such as employees’ contracts or material that is commercially sensitive.
  • Don’t ignore them -get legal advice!

Parish/Town Councils

  •  A constant source of stories for local papers
  • Usually meet monthly, are less formal and are often the starting point for issues which later become major stories

Understand what happened

  • The goal of your reporting is to understand what exactly happened at the meeting. Too often, beginning reporters will cover a town hall hearing or school board meeting, dutifully taking notes throughout. But at the end they leave the building without really understanding what they’ve just seen. When they try to write a story, they can’t. You can’t write about something you don’t understand.
  • So, remember this rule: Never leave a meeting without understanding exactly what Follow that rule, and you’ll produce solid meeting stories.

Get Rid of Jargon

  • Humanize your Keep the words council or committee out of your intro if you can.
  •  ‘Thousands of Midthorpe householders face bills for new wheelie-bins’ is much better than ‘Midthorpe District Council’s Environmental Health Committee decided at a meeting last night to introduce revised refuse collection procedures ‘
  • Banish jargon in council-speak, houses are dwellings, paths are footways and public seats are street furniture. Turn these words into easy, everyday language your readers can understand.
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