While there are no shortage of opinions on the proper size and role of the federal, state and local governments, the need for journalists to effectively report on their activities is unquestioned. Doing so requires an understanding that goes way beyond any civics class you may have taken in junior high school — you have to know not just what the pieces are, but how they relate to each other, their responsibilities and even specialized language they might use. And as with any beat, journalists who cover government need to cultivate contacts, fight for information, and remember who their primary audience is.
Here are 10 suggestions for covering government effectively. If you have additional suggestions, please send them our way.
Learn the structure
Every geographic area and every level of government has a specific structure: Common Council in the city of Syracuse, County Legislature in Onondaga County. Some have a city council with a city manager, in addition to the mayor. Many counties have a Board of Supervisors. There’s city government, county government, state government, federal government. Each of them will have departments — such as development, tax assessor, zoning and sewer boards, boards of education, social services. Each will have different responsibilities, powers, procedures and players.
Know the responsibilities, powers and procedures
These are the mechanics of how the different government institutions work. They are basic areas of coverage, and sources of stories. If the zoning board violates its own procedures (often the law) to give a big break to a friend of the mayor’s, that’s a story. If a crucial piece of legislation or a proposal gets hung up in a committee, that’s a story.
Learn the language
Government is full of jargon: “rider,” “annexation,” “incorporation.” Build yourself a dictionary of these. But in your stories, always remember to translate the jargon for your audience. Ordinary people don’t necessarily what an “unfunded mandate” is, so use ordinary language to explain it.
Learn the official players
Know the names of the mayor, city manager, fire chief, police chief, attorney and the heads of key agencies. Understand their backgrounds. Know their friends, their connections. Any of these can lead you to stories.
Learn the unofficial players
A powerful real estate broker can be a major player in government action on development. Political party activists can shift votes on issues. Advocacy or public interest groups often try to influence government action — for example, the American Civil Liberties Union, National Rifle Association and the Chamber of Commerce, to name just a few. While unelected, such people and organizations can wield a lot of power, and not necessarily for the public good.
Cultivate sources at all levels of government
Clerks and police officers on the beat know a great deal about what’s going on in government. You probably won’t be able to quote them, but they can give you good tips to follow up. Often they’re risking their jobs to talk to you, so you need to protect them. And of course, you can’t produce stories from them unless you’ve independently confirmed the information.
Listen to and report on the “other voices”
Government actions affect all of us. But many of us aren’t organized into groups, or our groups don’t have much political clout — for example, single mothers or an ethnic minority. Covering government also means explaining how government actions affect different parts of our community and the people in them. And you need to know different people to bring those perspectives to your stories. Diversity of voices and perspectives equals fuller, deeper, more honest coverage.
Create your own “beat book”
These can be files on your laptop or good, old-fashioned notebooks (the best ones are those to which you can add extra pages). Good reporters have many, many contacts across the spectrum and at all levels of government. File story ideas, tips, new sources, new issues to follow up. Always have a “rainy day” story idea just in case.
Know and use sunshine laws and the FOIA
In addition to the First Amendment, the press and the public have other specifically detailed rights to find out what the government is doing. Some documents, some meetings, some actions can be kept secret. But many can be brought into the sunshine by assertive reporters and news organizations who are willing to use the laws and the Freedom of Information Act. To learn more, a good source is the Poynter Institute’s free FOI course on NewsU.
Cover government up, down and across
Traditionally, government reporting has focused on “buildings” or “bodies”: City Hall, cops, the county legislature. It’s reporting from the top down. That’s a necessary part of covering government. That’s how we fulfill our roles as witness and watchdog. We have to be there to keep an eye on what government is doing — and telling the public, so people know how to hold government accountable and how its actions will affect them. Yes, you have to go to those sewer district meetings.
But government action also bubbles up from the public — neighborhood concerns over traffic, parents’ worries about school cuts, a complaint over questionable police behavior. That’s another reason for having diverse acquaintances and contacts. You’ll hear about these things from a ride on the bus, a dinner in a local café or at a church social. Then you can follow the story up the levels of government.
And you can also cover government across the structure by thinking in terms of “issues”: health care, crime, education. They often cut across several different layers of government. Cast your net wide in terms of contacts, curiosity and ideas.
The 11th Commandment
Always remember that you work for the public, not the government or who signs your paycheck.
Charlotte Grimes is the Knight Chair in Political Reporting and Professor at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
Tags: ethics, law, training.