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.


Why community papers should be reporting on deaths from drug overdoses

This blog, used by permission of Ken Blum, originally appeared in Blum’s email newsletter, Black Inklings. You can join the Black Inklings mailing list by emailing your name, job title, newspaper and email address to [email protected].

A question.

If a person in your community passed away for any of the following reasons, would you report how it happened, including the name of the deceased?

  1. 1. Auto accident
  2. 2. Shooting
  3. 3. Drunk driving
  4. 4. Assault
  5. 5. Domestic violence
  6. 6. Drowning
  7. 7. Farm accident
  8. 8. Fire
  9. 9. Flood
  10. 10. Drug overdose

Likely, the answers are easy, until we get to number 10. Too many hometown newspapers hesitate to report deaths involving illegal opioids, unless those deaths occurred in unusual circumstances. Too often, the only report of an OD death is a submitted obit that avoids the cause of death.

“Died unexpectedly” is the most common statement, usually for deceased in the 16-35 age range. You see a lot of “died unexpectedlies” in community newspapers these days.

It’s not that the problem hasn’t been reported. It is that the quantity and quality of the reporting in no way matches the scope of the crisis in this country – not drug use, mind you, but overdose deaths from lethal and illegal drugs, particularly the most demonic and deadly of all, heroin and its monstrous new cousin, unimaginably 50 times more potent than pure heroin – fentanyl.

OD deaths are rampant and everywhere and anywhere.

Take my county – Wayne County, Ohio. It’s a progressive county with a nice mix of agriculture and industry. Population 114,520. Fine schools and colleges. Solid middle to upper middle class.

In 2015, there were 20 overdose deaths linked to heroin and/or fentanyl in my county. 20! There were eight deaths in the county that year from traffic accidents.

And there would have been many more if law enforcement agencies and fire departments did not have access to Narcan, a nasally administered drug that reverses the effects of opiates. In Wooster, the county seat, the fire department administered Narcan 40 times in 2015.

There’s a story behind every one of these deaths.

For example, a few miles away from my home a woman died of a heroin overdose supplied by the man who had reported her as unresponsive. Later, it was learned she gave birth to a baby at the home only hours before she was rushed to the hospital. The dead child had been placed in a cardboard box found in a bathtub.

Hard to write or read, but too important and tragic to ignore.

Again the OD epidemic is everywhere and anywhere in the U.S., from the ghettos of Detroit to the villages of Connecticut to the farm towns of Nebraska.

The most recent totals available are from 2014, when 47,055 drug overdose deaths occurred in the Unites States, 28,647 from opioid overdoses. That’s 14.7 per 100,000 persons in the country.

Let’s put that figure into perspective:

  • ●Let’s say your paper covers a very small rural county, 20,000 population. Expect three to four overdose deaths this year.
  • ●America’s total involvement in the Vietnam War lasted from 1965 to 1975, 10 years. During the longest war in our history, there were approximately 58,000 Americans killed in action and 2,000 missing in action, for a 60,000 total. Again, compare to American OD deaths for just one year – 47,055.
  • ●U.S. traffic deaths in 2014 – 32,675. Drug overdose deaths – 47,055.
  • ●Breast Cancer claimed about 40,000 victims in 2015. Most areas in the country – rightly so – host events supporting the fight against the disease, mainly the Relay for Life campaigns. Again, these efforts are worthy and needed.

Still, where are the relays for the 47,000 dead from drug overdoses?

It’s not like the days when heroin overdose deaths were the plight of desperate people living in desperate circumstances.

Today, no economic or social class, race, creed or age group is immune.

It’s so easy to get hooked. Take a dose as an experiment. Experience a high like you never imagined. Take another dose in a search for a repeat of that state of euphoria. And another. You’re hooked.

You may get off of it after a few hellish weeks. But the longing is still there. You give in. Buy the same dose from a dealer, although there’s no way to be sure what dose you’re buying, or maybe it’s fentanyl. Oops – the same dose you had been taking before now constitutes an overdose because you’ve been off the stuff for a while.

You’re dead.

Why don’t these people – people who may well be your friends, your neighbors, your parents, your children – just go to rehab and get off the stuff?

Try this – don’t drink anything for a few hot days. Then try to stay away from a glass of water.

It’s even worse for an opioid addict who without a fix goes through nausea, sweating, shaking, muscle spasms.

So let’s get back to the questions at the beginning of this piece.

Why do so many community newspapers fail to report overdose deaths from illegal drugs?

My guess is the stigma associated with drug like heroin, and the newspaper’s sensitivity to the feelings of the family of a person who died from overdosing on the most stigmatized drug of all.

But what good does hiding the cause do?

Does it inform readers about the human tragedy of an epidemic that’s right under their noses, happening to people they know and respect?

Does it alert readers to the danger in their midst – not only the danger of taking opioids, but also the danger of the crimes associated with the culture of drug abuse, such as break-ins, robberies and any one of a hundred crimes to obtain the money to make a buy.

Does it help raise the community’s awareness of drug dealers in its midst, and encourage citizens to report suspicious persons to law enforcement?

And is it a violation of the fundamental ethics of journalism? A crime has been committed in that someone sold the illegal drug to the victim and possession in itself is a crime; there has been an investigation by law enforcement and an autopsy, and the most ominous result of all for that crime has occurred – a death in your town.

How can you not report it, including the name of the victim?

How does your newspaper handle deaths from drug overdoses? Has your newspaper made an effort to inform and educate readers about the impact of this epidemic on your town?  If so, please pass along your strategy to


Always look twice at stories reporting polling results

During our daily research for The Rural Blog, our daily digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, we came across a press release from the Texas teachers’ union, headlined “One-third of teachers moonlight to support families.”

My blogger wrote an item that began, “Thirty-one percent of Texas teachers have to work a second job during the school year—49 percent work during the summer—to make ends meet, says a survey by the Texas State Teachers Association.”

My B.S. detector went off. Did that many teachers really say they had to work a second job to make ends meet, or to give their family the support it needed, as the release implied?

I asked TSTA for the questionnaire used in the survey of 837 Texas teachers by a professor at Sam Houston State University. You can see the pertinent part of it here. It asked teachers if they had an extra job during the summer or the school year, how many hours it took, whether their quality of teaching would improve if their teaching salary allowed them to give up moonlighting during the school year, and how big a raise would allow them to quit moonlighting.

None of the questions said anything about teachers’ need to have a second job – whether to support their family to make ends meet, to maintain the lifestyle they thought their family deserved, or whatever. While the headline on the press release was accurate – a second job presumably supports the family – its implication led my blogger to make an unjustified leap, saying the moonlighters had to make a second job to make ends meet.

That’s what many press-release writers hope reporters will do: make a stronger point that helps the cause of the entity issuing the release. This is a lesson to avoid that – and to ask for the questionnaire on which a survey is based. It’s just good reporting. In this case, we saw that the teachers were asked whether they taught in an urban, suburban or rural district, so we asked TSTA to break down the results by those categories.

It’s especially important to get the questionnaires of election polls, which can be skewed by the sequence and phrasing of questions. You deserve to see every syllable spoken to the poll respondents, up to and including the last result for which a result is provided. And the pollster should personally certify to the accuracy of the poll and be available to answer questions about its methodology.

If you need help evaluating polls, email me at [email protected].




Rural hospitals in trouble: Resources for health care reporting

If your rural hospital is in trouble, it’s not alone. At least 66 rural hospitals have closed in the last six years, due to a combination of factors, such as changes in federal reimbursement and patients’ increasing preference for larger hospitals. About 300 are in financial straits, says the National Rural Health Association.

Is your hospital one of them? Could it be? Which of those factors are affecting it most? Do you know how to put its problems in a national context so you and your readers can better understand them?

The troubles of rural hospitals can be hard for rural news media to cover in detail, partly because they are special kinds of businesses and their managers and boards are often unwilling to be forthcoming about problems. Sometimes it’s difficult because your hospitals may be hampered by managerial shortcomings that may follow local tradition but hurt the bottom line.

It’s important to get managers and board members to open up, because few local institutions are as important or, in some communities, as much at risk. To do that, you must arm yourself with some basic knowledge so you know what questions to ask.

One place you can start learning more about rural hospitals and their problems is The Rural Blog, which has published more than 300 aggregated stories about hospitals in the last nine years. Last year, stories about rural hospitals led the list of most-read topics on the blog.

Two recent stories on The Rural Blog are good examples of how to cover rural hospitals. The stories were written by Harris Meyer of Modern Healthcare, but they were written for a general audience. Both were about small hospitals in Appalachia, but their problems are common across the nation.

At the Pineville Community Hospital in Kentucky, which had hired a management company to save it, Meyer found an administrator who was willing to be frank about how he is doing it – even to the point of telling an older surgeon that it was time for him to retire.

Meyer walked around the hospital with the chief nursing officer, and they encountered an internist who vented to her “about some of the changes being asked of him.” The nursing officer said later, “We have an older medical staff, and they are set in their ways.”

See what you can find out just by walking around? And Meyer went beyond the staff, talking to patients, board members and community leaders who “see the Pineville hospital’s future as pivotal to the future of the town,” as he put it. Too many times, stories about trouble at hospital are done too late, after it’s too late to save it.

Our excerpt of Meyer’s Pineville story is on The Rural Blog. The story is available with free registration. If you’re really interested in covering health care, Modern Healthcare is a good source for background knowledge.

Meyer’s other story was on the Jellico (Tenn.) Community Hospital, which serves many Kentuckians because it’s near the Kentucky border. Tennessee has not expanded Medicaid under federal health reform, but Kentucky has, and that has helped keep the hospital afloat.

In states that have not expanded Medicaid, hospitals are the leading pleaders for it, because it brings them more business and reduces the write-offs they make for indigent care. That’s just one example of how state policy can affect local hospitals.

Health reform isn’t a cure-all. While it has decreased the number of uninsured Americans and charity cases at hospitals, it has also led to an increase in the number of high deductibles they can’t collect, a particular problem in rural areas where hospitals are already struggling financially. John Lauerman reported on that for Bloomberg Business. Rural hospitals have closed their maternity facilities, a phenomenon reported by Kaiser Health News, another excellent source of story tips and background knowledge about health care.

Early this year, iVantage Health Analytics reported the 210 “most vulnerable” rural hospitals by state, along with data on critical-access hospitals (a definition you need to know) and data on how many health-care and community jobs the hospitals provide.

In reporting on hospitals’ problems, it’s also important to report on those that do it right. We did that a few months ago, excerpting a report that listed the nation’s top hospitals, which included 24 rural hospitals. Those could be good examples of how to address problems.

If you would like help reporting on hospitals or other facets of health care, please ask us. We’re at 859-257-3744 and [email protected]. In addition to The Rural Blog, we publish Kentucky Health News, which includes original reporting and other story ideas, approaches and sources.


What can I do if our school board members won’t answer questions?

Question:  We have a problem with access to school board members.  By policy, they don’t talk with the press.  They refer all interview requests to the superintendent’s office.  During board meetings, they have set aside a time for public comment, but they don’t allow questions even then.  You can say whatever you want, but you can’t query the board.  They do not violate the Texas Public Information law in their meetings, but there’s no opportunity to find out what they are thinking about the votes they are taking.  How can we get them to take questions from us or give us some interview time?

Answer:This is an interesting situation without an easy answer.

First, let me say that it is typical of most boards and commissions not to respond during public comment periods. The public is generally given a specific time to voice concerns, and most officials do not respond, or get into a debate, during this period. Typically the board president or leader will thank the speaker and sometimes they will indicate they are referring it to a staff member for consideration. So I wouldn't worry about that too much.

But having elected officials who refuse to comment on any public issue, and who refer those questions to someone who works for them, is very odd. As a journalist, you can't make them talk to you, but you can make it obvious to the general public that the board is refusing to discuss important issues. Is there a particular issue right now that you are writing about? I'd suggest you do an entire story on the fact that the elected officials refuse to discuss matters of interest to the community. You might also submit an open records request for any emails exchanged among the board and the staff on that topic. That would be one way to get their attention.

Are there any teacher groups or citizen groups that are complaining about the lack of communication from the board? Those would be important voices to include in the story, and would drive home for readers that this is not about a journalist getting his feelings hurt but a failure to communicate about matters of importance to the general public.

I would also recommend that every time you have a story, you should seek out comments and include a line in the story that the individual board members would not comment.

Good luck.

Newswriting Reporting

How to develop a ‘document state of mind’ in the newsroom

Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, discusses how to create a “document state of mind” in the newsroom of a community newspapers. Mark’s instruction is adapted from a workshop hosted by the Texas Center for Community Journalism on investigative reporting at community newspapers.

Newswriting Reporting

How to bulletproof your news story

Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, teaches how to “bulletproof” a news story. Mark’s instruction is adapted from a workshop hosted by the Texas Center for Community Journalism on investigative reporting at community newspapers.

Ask an Expert Questions and Answers Reporting

Two high school football players failed a narcotics screening. Can we run a story about it and what are the limitations?

Yes, news media can safely publish information about student-athletes without violating the law.

However, publishers may run into some legal difficulties based on the sources of their information. 

The First Amendment, with very few exceptions, protects the publication of truthful information.  Even when somebody engages in an unlawful act, such as illegally recording a private cell phone conversation, the publisher is not going to get in trouble for broadcasting or printing this information — as long as the publisher had no part in the illegal activity.  This was the case in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on this very situation, Bartnicki v. Vopper, 532 U.S. 514 (2001). 

As long as the information published is newsworthy and isn’t an outrageous and highly offensive violation of a person’s privacy — which are more typically personal medical or sexual matters — then the publisher won’t open itself up for civil litigation on privacy grounds, either.

That said, the source of this information could run into some legal problems.  The Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA, also known as the “Buckley Amendment”) protects the privacy of student educational records.  Schools that receive federal funds can lose funding if they violate the provisions of FERPA, and the U.S. Department of Education can investigate unlawful release of student records. 

Records of school-related drug tests would certainly be protected by FERPA, and any school official releasing these could be in violation of the law.  A publisher receiving this information can legally publish it, of course.  But that publisher may very well be called upon to identify the source of that information under federal subpoena.  With no federal reporter shield law in place yet, publishers would have little choice but to reveal the identity of the source or face contempt of court sanctions.

The best way to deal with this would be to get sources on record that are not linked to the school administration — the players themselves, teammates, parents, or anyone else with specific knowledge of the reasons for their dismissal from the football team.

Ask an Expert Questions and Answers Reporting

When local agencies don’t notify us of news releases and or a press conference, more than once, what is the best course of action?

Unfortunately, there is no legal requirement that notices and press releases be distributed evenly. If a quorum of officials is present, a public notice must be posted at the appropriate place but there is no posting requirement for a press conference. I’d recommend that your first course of action would be to sit down with the official or officials in charge and discuss the issues. Explain that you want to be fair about your coverage, and you’re disturbed that they are trying to exclude your readers from the information that they believe is important. Make them realize this is not about you but about members of the public who rely on you for information. Sometimes that will give them the opportunity to rant and rave at you, and then you can all move forward.

As we all know, however, rational arguments do not always work. That leaves the old-fashionioned reporting approach:

  • Are there public officials who are more sympathetic to you who could alert you to these events? Cultivate those people, and make sure you protect their identities, or they likely will be cut off, too.
  • If you believe a press release has been issued, make an open records request for it. If they delay in giving it to you, file a complaint with the Texas Attorney General’s office. (Information that has already been released publicly is considered public under the law and can’t be withheld, generally.)
  • Make an effort to show up regularly at every event and activity you hear about. I realize this takes a lot of staff time, but perhaps you could do this on a short-term basis until basic courtesies have been re-established.
  • Do they have a working Web site? Constant checks to the Web site can also alert you to activities.

Rebuilding lines of communication can be very difficult. Quite honestly, sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it except to continue covering issues the way you believe they should be covered. You can also point out in your coverage that officials have refused to provide information, or refused to discuss issues. But that shouldn’t stop you from continuing to cover the things that are important in your community.


Ask an Expert Questions and Answers Newswriting Reporting

Sometimes the direct quotes in my stories look dull when they hit the paper. How can I come up with better quotes?

It’s always frustrating to read direct quotes from local officials that really don’t add much to the stories, such as when a local city or county official, trying his or her best to stay on point, is asked for reaction to a local measure that just passed and says, “We think this is in the best financial interests of our residents.” Or when a local craftsman, whose initiative and talent have produced murals that have spruced up some unattractive downtown buildings says, “I’m proud of all the community support we’ve received.” Or when the star or coach of the high school team says of a big win, “We just had to come together as team.”

Sure, these folks made those statements, and surely they’re accurate, but just as surely these lines don’t add much to the reader’s understanding of the issue. They don’t add insight to the story, and they don’t move the story along.

And moving the story along is what direct quotes are intended to do. Direct quotations are supposed to enlighten and entertain the audience and illuminate the issue being covered, not to mention indicating a sufficient probe into the situation at hand.

Sometimes, though, a reporter can settle for the first words that come out of the source’s mouth. One of the reasons for these types of accurate but non-meaningful direct quotes is that too often the reporters ask open-ended questions that fail to direct the nature of the response. The question posed might be, “What’s your reaction to the vote?” Or, “How do you feel now that the project’s completed?” Or, “Tell me what this victory means.” By asking this question, the reporter has left it up to the source to come up with a meaningful sound bite, and, depending on the source’s political position or articulateness or experience with news media, the results can be politically-correct or drab or, in the case of the coach or ballplayer, clichéd from too many nights of ESPN SportsCenter.

If the direct quotes illustrated so far are indicative of the best one’s available, it either means the reporter had a tin ear, didn’t have ample time or didn’t engage the source in a meaningful interview. And sometimes, in the latter situation, it’s because the reporter might not have been knowledgeable enough or confident enough or comfortable enough to ask more challenging questions.

Let’s take the first example, the local official who has touted the fiscal wisdom of the government’s vote, and let’s say it was to cut back on operating hours of the local library.

And let’s say the reporter is knowledgeable and confident enough but hoped to get a meaningful response from the open-ended question. Well, that obviously didn’t work, so here’s a follow-up, a close-ended question that more narrowly defines the range in which the official can respond: “How does the money saved justify the inconvenience to library patrons?” And if the source replies, “Well, it was a tough call.” Now, you’ve got something to work with, and to that the reporter could follow up with, “How was it a tough call?” And let’s say the response there is, “We know we’ve got a lot of elderly residents and working-class parents who’ll find it harder to get there on the reduced hours, but we had to make cuts somewhere.” Now your direct quote reads:

“It was a touch call,” Jones said. “We’ve got a lot of elderly residents and working-class parents who’ll find it harder to get there on the reduced hours, but we had to make cuts somewhere.”

And now you’ve got a direct quote with some meat to it, that comes from an official source and registers with readers who may support the measure and those who oppose it. And you’ve gotten some insight into how the local government works, which isn’t always the case when relying purely on what’s said at the governmental meetings. And, if there’s not much time for the interview, that’s the line of questioning that ought to kick-start the conversation instead of the open-ended question.

The same goes for the local artist. Instead of asking for his reaction, ask why he or she was motivated to undertake such an endeavor or how the project will benefit the community. Those questions will prompt some soul-searching by the artist that should provide insight to the readers. And if the answer is that “so many people have volunteered their time and money, it makes this project all the more rewarding,” then voila!

And the coach? Ask how the team, as initially described, came together. A simple “tell me how they did it” should kick-start that line of questioning. And if the reporter noticed that the team was more selective on pitches or made more passes before attempting to score, ask the coach how those actions contributed to the win. Bottom line, ask probing questions that prod the source to give more meaningful answers that will have meaning.

And the more questions that are asked that push for meaningful answers, the more follow-up questions should leap out at the reporter. And that translates into more interesting copy for your readers.

Remember, some of these sources may have a vested interest in staying as non-committal as possible, or they may not know exactly what it is the newspaper is looking for, or they may live in a world where the cliché is crystal clear to them but babble to your readers.

The key for the reporter is to engage them in conversation, to be inquisitive, and to be interested in finding out and understanding how and why your community thinks and acts like it does. Try it, and you’ll like it.