Writing About Government? Readers Need You To Do This…

Writing about government
A board is not a herd. Showcase the individual members. // Port of San Diego

Writing about government bodies and boards—we need to talk about that.

And what I’m about to say applies whether you cover local, state, or federal government.

It applies whether you cover town and city councils, boards of supervisors, Congressional bodies and committees, or anything in between.

As a freelance journalist, political blogger, or whatever title you carry, it’s your duty to put the members of those bodies on display and let the people hear them.

When a motion or bill passes, the board as a whole has made that decision. But your responsibility goes beyond reporting the outcome and number of ayes and nays.

The public needs you to provide context, to let them know where the minds of the people’s people are at.


Unveiling Public Servants Is An Essential Service

Do not allow government officials to take cover behind final votes or under blanket recaps.

Think about how all-too-often, when we hear about the Republicans and the Democrats it feels like we’re talking about herds of single-cell animals. Like they all think, act, and move the same.

That’s really not how it works.

Even when politicians vote together, they often express opposing views first. Or they have different reasons for supporting a particular action.

The public needs to hear those things.

The public needs to hear the progressive views, the slights, the accusations. They need to hear the logic and motives along with the persuasions and explanations.

They need to know how their elected officials are moved to change their stance and why.

The public needs to know what these individuals think, what they feel, and who they really are.

And they need to hear the voices of the people’s people directly.

Unveiling public servants is just as important, and in some cases more important, than the ultimate decisions that they make.

Why It’s Essential

We don’t vote for political bodies. If your county is run by a board, if your city is governed by a council, that’s a given.

We vote for the parts of those bodies—the supervisors on the board, the members of the council. We vote for individuals.

So, it’s imperative that the public know who they are.

For a lot of people the best, if not the only, means they have to get acquainted with these folks is through the news.

And that’s why…

One most important functions of journalists who are writing about government bodies is to unveil the members.


Avoid Doing A Disservice

Furthermore, making blanket statements can be misleading.

For example, say council member Smith, frustrated by the litter problem in his district, blurts out, We need to make stricter litter laws in this county.

Council member Rice may agree, saying something like yes, we most certainly do.

Those are comments. And they only represent the feelings of two members, NOT the entire board.

But some writers will create a headline or report on that in a manner that suggests the board thinks there needs to be stricter littering laws.

Not only is that inaccurate, but it’s a mistake that does a disservice to numerous people.

Smith and Rice don’t get credit for being at the forefront of an issue where others may be slacking.

And their constituents don’t get to know that their elected leaders recognize their struggles and are speaking out on their behalf.

Plus, the council members who were silent may face backlash from their constituents for views that aren’t theirs.

And, as an outsider that mix-up for the silent members may seem like a minor issue. But some politicians get swamped with calls, complaints, and even public confrontations simply because they were lumped in with the herd. And they may not even agree.

I’ve sat through more board and council and committee meetings than I can count at this point, and I’ve heard numerous complaints about this from governing bodies.

It’s not uncommon to sit in a meeting and hear board members say something to the effect of, Since the press has the tendency to attribute our statements to the board, I want to make it clear that I’m speaking on my behalf, not that of the board when I say…”

And those gripes will sometimes make their way to editors, which can impact the impression of you and your experience.

So, when you’re writing about government bodies unveil the members and make sure when you attribute something to the whole, it comes across accurately.

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