Why do journalists cover the City Council? I am not asking about any one publication or place, but in general and maybe more specific to local communities. What says that covering the Council is a good editorial decision? Is it the riveting photos? The great b-roll?This is a question I posed to a journalist and former student of mine who was over for dinner the other night. I suggested that covering the City Council meetings seemed, at a cultural level, to be nothing more than a motion that upholds the interests of elites.
There seems to be little gained from a reporter picking three or so topics from a given meeting agenda, getting both sides to it, and printing it. These types of stories only take up space, keep other news items out, and busy reporters with news that we really don’t know if people care about.
Her response was deafening: “It’s our job to report on it.”
When I asked how she knew that and asked to see where the job description for a reporter said “cover city council meetings,” the only answer I got was that writing about city government and its meetings serves a civic purpose of telling people what’s going on in the community and what officials are doing. It’s democracy, stupid.
Meetings lead to democracy?
Generally, journalists’ argument that covering governmental meetings means supporting a free and open democracy is an old one. Tons of literature has been published about journalists and their sources – especially the institutional relationships between reporters and public officials — and what journalists say makes them talk to certain sources. (Take a look at Berkowitz’s Social Meanings of News and at Manning’s News and News Sources.)
Simply, journalists make news and work with others within their communities who have social authority, such as public officials and law enforcement, to find what’s newsworthy. Together, sources and media share in the limelight of legitimacy and self-proclaimed importance.
Meetings are just an added bonus to this arrangement. All in one room, journalists are fed what’s important and they get to talk to the people who make the decisions. It’s easy. It’s simple. It’s not very good journalism, though. These stories are often biased to the direction of the authority, the mainstream. They are narrowly constructed to topics of minimal interest and sometimes minimal influence.
Still, journalists who defend covering meetings (I wonder if the rule is for journalists to make them as boring as possible, too) feeds the notion of having a Public Sphere in which people are supposed to be engaged with their government. My journalist guest loved that idea.
Coverage equals knowledge, she said.
But what do citizens do with that knowledge, I asked.
Not for her to say, she said. Maybe, journalists are covering meetings that other people couldn’t get to and now they know what’s going on.
My other guest said that the newspaper covers the City Council meeting so that people have context to what happened there. It is better, he said, than posting the minutes from the meeting itself.
But what context is there when the press decides the two or three (of sometimes dozens) discussions that the council has during its regular meetings? I asked. And, what context is there when the press goes to the usual suspects for reaction: A council member who agrees with the decision, one who doesn’t, and maybe (if we are lucky) an audience member who may fuddle together some kind of thought about the issue. In this scenario, the meeting minutes seem to be a bit more objective and complete than journalism.
Can I get a TIF district?
I am not picking on my guests. I enjoyed the debate. And, in all honesty, there is nothing unique to their answers. I, too, once believed that I was going to cover meetings that others couldn’t get to. How else would people know about the new TIF district? What about the .50 cent increase in garbage pickup? Or the new business district that would bring in tax revenue? What about changes to the mill rate? But when I went into the world, I found very few people – outside of business owners and city officials — who knew, or seemed to care, about TIF or mill rates.
Still, the logic in the newsroom, and seemingly among many journalists I talk with, is that we provide information that people don’t know they want or should know. That if we give them the information, then they might care. But haven’t we written about TIF for decades? Maybe it’s not important to the average person, but there these stories appear — right on page one, above the fold.
Indeed, I do wonder how journalists know that people want to know about their local government. And I wonder how people use their knowledge that they may gain from news reports about local governance. They certainly don’t vote in large numbers, and they seldom volunteer in the community. A look at the City of Iowa City’s neighborhood association leaders, for instance, shows that roughly half of the associations do not have community leaders in place.
Still, my guests were fairly certain that covering the City Council serves two purposes: First, that people do want to know about the City Council. Second, that covering the council was a part of the media’s role as the Fourth Estate, providing oversight on government.
Why we really cover meetings
But I think journalists cover the City Council out of fear that if they do not the audience will rise up in complaints and concerns that they are not doing our job. It has become natural for news organizations to do these stories. It’s accepted and expected, but with seemingly little insight into why.
When I was at a newspaper in Wisconsin, I remember that editors were quite clear that a monthly weather chart we made (and which took hours to compile and edit) was created just to avoid the three or four phone calls we might get if it didn’t run. Management knew that the chart really wasn’t newsworthy (people could go to the National Weather Service for this information just like we did), but they didn’t want the contact with the public.
Editors didn’t want to nake a decision that would be different than what they had decided in the past, even if they decision might free up newshole, reporters, and resources to do real journalism. (Journalism educators also routinely send journalism students to cover the City Council for practice. God, what a way to tell students that this news business is boring and an unfair way to limit to them what news media is and can be.)
How are journalists to do meaningful journalism if they spend their time covering things just because it has become natural for them to do so? More importantly, how do they do new things, exciting things, when they have told themselves that covering public meetings is in their job description?
Maybe, if journalists broke from tradition to spend more time visiting parts of our communities that they have never been to before, finding stories of injustice or exploitation, or good yarns that people want to experience, City Council meetings would seem like a silly story idea.