Newswriting Reporting

20 tips on covering speeches and meetings

You are the eyes, ears and brains for your audience when you cover a City Council, County Commissioners or a school board meeting. The following 20 tips help you produce an accurate, informative news story on deadline.  These tips also work for speeches and panels.

Use a smartphone and a notebook

Take a photo of the council or commissioners with their name plates. Take photos of people you interview so you can better remember them.

Take notes by hand to be safe but record the meeting. DON’T leave your phone unattended; someone could take it. The other reason to stay by your phone is you can write down the time someone says something interesting. Then you don’t have to listen to the entire recording to find the quote.

At the start of any interview, record people spelling their names, hometowns, addresses. You can also let people print their names on your notebook. Always get contact information.

Before the meeting

Read at least a previous month’s worth of stories about the entity you’re covering. You’ll know what’s new and old business. Know who runs the meeting.

Read the minutes (official notes) from the last meeting. Some bodies also videotape their meetings. Watch the most recent ones.

Get a copy of the meeting agenda and go over it. Government bodies that hold meetings have to publish an agenda 72 hours before the meeting begins. Get familiar with any ordinances or laws, streets or neighborhoods mentioned on the agenda.

Right before the meeting

Sit where you can see all the actors – the council, commission or school board members, plus government officials (like lawyers and city managers) and citizens who speak during the meeting. Also sit where you can best record the meeting.

During the meeting

Use the copy of the agenda to take notes on who’s speaking about what. Write down any quotes that provide color – quotes that have passion, pointed opinion, humor, etc.

Note people who speak from the audience and record their best quotes.  They’re already passionate about a subject or they wouldn’t be there. Be sure to understand why they are stakeholders in an issue.

Right after the meeting

Ask council or board members follow-up questions, especially for clarification or any comment or vote that may be misinterpreted. Also get reactions from citizens who attended the meeting. Also get contact information (phone and email), if not for this story then for possible follow-ups.

If there’s time, interview in person or by phone residents who didn’t attend the meeting but are likely to be affected by what happened. In all of the above circumstances, identify yourself as a reporter covering the meeting for your publication.

Writing a meeting story

Don’t write in chronological order. Tell readers the most important action that happened and its implications, then the second-most important thing that happened, etc. Ask your editor if you should use bullet points for minor news the entity also discussed.

Your first sentence – the “lead” – should tell readers the newsiest event of the meeting. Don’t begin “The council met” or “A meeting was held.” You and your readers already knew that. Start with a key vote or action: “The council voted last night to widen Elm Street.” “The council delayed voting last night on widening Elm Street after residents who lived on the street complained.”

Next tell the readers the implication of key votes or the government body’s action or inaction. Explain why what happened is important.  What does this action or inaction mean to the entire community, or to a neighborhood? Are they winners and losers because of the action (not just the politicians involved)?

If a vote isn’t unanimous, tell readers who voted for or against a measure and who spoke for or against the measure during the meeting.

Include the next steps – for the city, school district, county, etc. Include when the next meeting takes place.

Make numbers real for readers. After reporting the council passed a $5 million bond, write how much each taxpayer or household now must pay.

Use quotes like sprinkles on ice cream. They should be interesting and flavor to your story. A weak quote: “The final vote was 5 to 4,” the mayor said. A better quote: “With this vote, we can make Elm Street the showcase it should be,” the mayor said.

Make sure every name is spelled correctly and every dollar figure is correct. Check and recheck your math. Don’t be afraid to use a dictionary or recheck information.

If you have time, print your story to proofread. Also try reading it out loud to identity awkward phrases.

By Kathleen McElroy

Kathleen McElroy is associate director of the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. Before receiving her Ph.D. in 2014, she was an editor at various publications, including The Huntsville Item, Bryan-College Station Eagle, Austin American-Statesman and The New York Times.