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The little things can add up when it comes to transparency in reporting

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Part of that digging is going beyond the minutes distributed by a public body from a meeting. The minutes, which are public records (except minutes from executive sessions), provide a record of what a board did, not necessarily how or why they did it.

by Stan Zoller, MJE

It’s not clear how the saying got started, but one thing is for sure, it’s a truism. Little things do add up.
And they may be able to help take the pain out of big things.  Like prior review.

It’s no secret those student media unfortunate to have content reviewed by an administrator often face that comment “you can’t run this” without any reason given. Administrators who get the dubious task of reviewing student media are often devoid of any journalistic background or clear understanding how public bodies, such as school boards, work.

Which, if played right, can be an advantage for student journalists. There’s a way to curb the over zealousness of consumers of student media who like to banter that just because “this is what the school board is considering, doing or did,” the action is gospel. Just ask them, “How do you know?”

The mere fact a school board, or any public body, votes to approve or deny action, does not mean the public knows the full story. 

In fact, it’s safe to say they don’t.

The legendary H.L. Hall always made it a point to tell workshop participants he would challenge his students to “dig” when they were working on a story.

Sound advice.

Part of that digging is going beyond the minutes distributed by a public body from a meeting. The minutes, which are public records (except minutes from executive sessions), provide a record of what a board did, not necessarily how or why they did it.

That’s where the digging comes in.

There are several ways reporters, including student reporters, can find out the hows and whys. One way is to find out if a board holds workshop meetings, often called committee of the whole (COW) during which board members hold discussions about proposals or recommendations. These are often put together by staff or board committees. It’s conceivable staff, or committees, will make a recommendation the board will vote on at the next regular meeting.

The first recourse is to obtain the full meeting packet that should contain support documents. That’s the good news. The bad news is many boards will provide only a summary to the board. The even worse news is that it’s not unusual for staff members who present findings to a board to only read the memo included in the packet

While COW meetings give the public and journalists a chance to hear some discussion on a topic, they still do not provide full transparency as to what went into the recommendation.

The first recourse is to obtain the full meeting packet that should contain support documents. That’s the good news. The bad news is many boards will provide only a summary to the board. The even worse news is that it’s not unusual for staff members who present findings to a board to only read the memo included in the packet.

Not only does this hinder transparency, it does not answer any questions or provide additional insights. It also makes for a very boring meeting. Trust me on this.

An important thing to know about COW meetings – no formal action can be taken. board members can be polled, but that is just to get a sense as to where the board stands on an issue. Official actions are taken only at regular board meeting.

The best thing for a reporter to do, and this includes student journalists, is to, and I can hear H.L. saying it, “dig.”

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