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Covering Student Government

October 26, 2007

Keeping watch over “governmental” organizations in power is a primary role of journalism. Some of the best stories on your campus come from those who have power over students, namely your administration and your student government. Watching these entities is an essential role for student journalists. The following are tips for reporting about student government.

  • Don’t just cover administration. It’s important that you cover both your administration and student government. This makes your campus newspaper more well-rounded.
  • Attend all meetings. You must have a staff representative at all student government meetings to cover them properly. It helps if the same persons covers them week after week.
  • Know the law. Understand open records/meetings laws in Vermont and what information you have legal rights to. Be willing to fight for this information if necessary.
  • Rotate the beat. It’s easy to get “moldy” if you cover any area too long. Rotate your student government beat at least every academic year.
  • Focus on people. Nothing is more boring than reading a story that says “so-and-so voted this” then “so-and-so voted that.” Wait, something is more boring… “so-and-so met Tuesday.” UGH! Instead, write about how students are affected by whatever happened at the meeting. This advances the story and tells students why they should care.
  • Don’t let government officials set the paper’s agenda. If student government or administrators are calling the newspaper office to report a story it’s likely positive. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t cover those things, it just means that you should go beyond the obvious in your coverage. The student newspaper should report about the news on campus as it applies to student journalists, not serve as a public relations tool for administrators.
  • Don’t allow editors to participate in Senate. Students should not participate in activities they are covering. This means that members of your editorial board who might have to vote on how to cover touchy administrative issues should not be members of any governing body.
  • Don’t try to focus stories on every issue covered at a meeting. Instead choose one or two major topics and bullet the rest at the bottom of the story or in a graphic. Use phrases like “in other Senate news…” or “at the same meeting…” to lead off these sections.
  • Don’t forget follow-up, smaller stories when necessary. Just because something isn’t Page 1 the next day doesn’t mean it’s not worth covering
  • Break big news online. Don’t wait for the next paper to publish to break major news. Breaking news immediately is the purpose of a newspaper Web site. The last thing you want is to get “scooped” by the rumor mill. Follow this online coverage with in-depth stories in the print edition.
  • Host staff training sessions. Focus on items like Robert’s Rules of Order and making routine stories interesting to help them understand how to cover student government meetings.
  • Ask hard questions and get them answered. You’re not always going to feel comfortable asking every question. Consider this a challenge and ask them anyway. Ask questions until you either get them answered or every source who could possibly know refuses (on the record) to tell you.
  • Get governing documents. These documents will serve as ongoing records. They should include things like the governing body’s budget, phone lists, constitutions, amendments, etc.
  • Follow the money. Students spending money that other students pay the university is a breeding ground for good story ideas.
  • Keep opinions on the editorial page. Your opinions belong in only one section of the paper; it’s labeled “opinion.” Never put your opinions into your newswriting.
  • Hold your staff to the same standards. Remember that you must adhere to the same high standards as your student government. This means that if you write a story about them getting in trouble for something then you’d better make sure your staff doesn’t repeat the same offense.
  • Focus on the same goal. Remember that in the end you and your university’s governing bodies have the same goal – you want to make university life as good as it can be. Focus on the goal that unites you and it will help you have a positive working relationship.

The preceding comes from a handout presented by Kenna Griffin, visiting instructor in Oklahoma City University’s Mass Communications Department, at the Fall 2007 convention of College Media Advisers and Associated Collegiate Press. For more, check out Griffin’s awesome journalism blog.


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