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Covering Public Policy

This site focuses on the skills and specialized knowledge required for insightful and successful coverage of the public process covering covering specialized journalism skills, but also subjects such as political science, law, economics, statistics and even psychology.

As you'll see, knowledge about what we cover is just as important as journalism-specific subjects.

There may be journalists as well as journalism educators who disagree with some of these recommendations. And we've likely left out important points in government and political reporting. So, feel free to contact us by clicking the button below.

Author: with help from with numerous colleagues, teachers and sources

About Phill Brooks

I'm Phill Brooks, an award-winning statehouse correspondent for KMOX and an emeritus faculty member of the University of Missouri School of Journalism where I established the country's first State Capitol newsroom for a converged group of journalism students providing statehouse stories for newspapers, radio stations, TV and new media.

My public policy journalism adventure began in 1972 when I returned to University of Missouri Journalism School to pursue a graduate degree that focused on public policy. Take a look at the courses panel for the public-policy courses I found the most valuable.

I covered Missouri's statehouse for a local radio station while in graduate school and then went on to be National Public Radio's congressional reporter covering, among other things, the start of the Richard Nixon Watergate scandal.

After a few months, I was recruited to establish the nation's first statehouse journalism school program in a state Capitol. It grew to became the Missouri Journalism School's first fully converged newsroom of print, radio, TV and new-media students.

My students provided statehouse stories for Missouri newspapers under an agreement with the Missouri Press Association, Missouri public radio stations, the university's commercial TV station and one of the world's first all-news website.

I was far more than an academic teacher, I provided near daily reports for the then CBS-operated station, KMOX in St. Louis as their statehouse correspondent (a position I still hold, although I've become very-much a part time reporter) as well as reports to the CBS Network on issues of national interest.

My KMOX reports and multi-week investigative documentaries on statehouse issues won numerous awards. I also served as the executive editor for a weekly half-hour report on statehouse issues for all of Missouri's public TV stations.

Click here about the courses that benefited my understanding about public policy.

Click here about my most important public policy mentors.



 

Public Policy Basics


 

Using and Developing Sources

Like almost any beat, sources are critical to effective coverage.

But having sources you can trust and are candid is particularly important for public policy reporters because of the degree that process and players in government so often try to hide information or manipulate coverage.

So what follows are some suggestions:


 

Interviewing Public Officials

Click here for a panel on news conferences. 
 

News Conferences

 

Dealing with Untruthful Answers

Dealing with sources who mislead, misrepresent, are unresponsive or simply lie is a regular experience for public policy reporters.

Realize, the jobs of many of the people we cover depends upon public support either because they are subject to re-election or work for those who are.

So, they've got a direct financial and/or career interest in assuring public support and diverting stories that would cast a critical light on themselves or their bosses.

This is such dominant issue for us that it is a separate panel on how to deal with a false statement from a public official.


 

Dealing with Government Secrecy

Secrecy, of course, is not just a problem for government and political reporters. Businesses and sports coaches keep secrets.

But government is the public's business. And there are laws providing a right of access to government documents and meetings.

But there are some public officials who will do all they can to block you from even knowing what information is held by government.

Below are some tips on how to deal with officials keeping secrets:


 

Finding Public Policy Stories

Finding public-policy stories that are not prompted by news releases and press briefings by public officials pushing their own agenda is one of the most important and empowering skill of a public policy reporter.

Below are some suggestions:


 

Government Information Resources

In this panel, are brief references to some of the more valuable information resources in covering public policy.

Those items that are brief are described in greater detail in other panels.


 

Covering Government Events

So much of government coverage involves events. They are so frequent and often manufactured by public officials that they present unique issues for public policy reporters.


 

Time Management

Time management is a critical skill in covering public policy, particularly government.

The governmental process can run into the late even hours or the early hours of the following morning.

Compounding the problem is that these grueling hours can be a daily, normal routine in government.

It can be exhausting and, more importantly, lead to mental fatigue after several days.

Further, the almost ritualized nature of the governmental process can compound dreariness. You need to be mentally alert because sometimes, in a seemingly ritual routine process, a major story can emerge that you could miss if exhausted or not mentally focused.

Below are some ideas for managing your time.


 

Writing about Public Policy

Government and politics present unique issues for journalists in how they write their stories.

The process is unbelievably complex. Unlike areas like sports, few in the general public care about the complicated process.

Beyond that, you often will encounter deliberate efforts to promote words and phrases that disguise the actual impact of a proposal or rule.


 

Making Public Policy Stories Powerful

This panel offers a few suggestions on how you can make your stories about public policy more meaningful and powerful for your readers, listeners and viewers.


 

Budget Basics

For government, the annual budget is one of the most important legislative actions.

A major policy initiative approved by the legislature means little if not funded or significantly underfunded in the budget.

What follows in this panel are basic components in the budget process. The next panel will address how to cover an exceedingly complex process.


 

Covering the Budget

Before reading this panel, be sure to check out the previous panel about budget basics. There are concepts in that panel that will make this panel more understandable.


 

Statistics

Numbers and statistics are major components for many public policy stories.

And, unfortunately, politicians and agencies will hand out statistics that, to put it mildly, are not quite meaningful, if not flat misleading.

At the time this panel is being written, the U.S. is being inundated with misleading and down-right false information about COVID-19.


 

Ethics

It is not the purpose of this panel to explore the long list of journalistic standards and ethics.

Instead, this panel will identify some of the more significant or unique ethical issues faced by those of us who cover public policy.


 

Useful Courses on Public Policy

If you truly are serious about becoming a public policy journalist, be sure to concentrate part of your courses on the complex array of subjects you will encounter.

Below are the public policy courses Phill pursued in his graduate and undergraduate years:

Phill: Click here to see some of the non-academic mentors who also helped me better understand the issues and processes of the governmental system.

 

Learning from Sources

Do not make the mistake of treating sources as just a resource for a particular story you are pursuing.

From a source you can learn such more including the history and background of issues far beyond the immediate story.

And from your interest in learning more about a source's area of expertise or responsibility, you may also develop a far more valuable contact who will alert you to emerging issues in her/his area of responsibility and feel more confident to go off the record to provide a deeper understanding of an issue you're covering.

So, don't limit your contact with a major, cooperative source only to formal interviews or just when pursuing a specific story.

Phill: Below, in alphabetical order, are a few of such non-accademic sources as demonstrations of what you can learn beyond just getting a story. There are many more, but these were the most profound for me.

As a footnote, I've limited the list to those who are deceased so I'm not violating confidentiality agreements.

  • Merrell, Norman: I met Merrell the first year he entered the Missouri Senate.

    A former school teacher and administrator, Merrell offered to regularly tell me what he was learning about state government and the legislature because I was a faculty member teaching journalism students about state government reporting.

    Every year, we had an extended discussion enough weeks after the legislative session to reduce temptation to break the confidentially agreement. All completely off the record, but to help me better understand how the system works.

    Little did I know when I first met Merrell that he would become Appropriations Committee chair and then Senate President Pro, the chamber's top leader -- a position Merrell held for a record six years.

    So from those sessions, I gained an incredibility deep understanding about the secret aspects of the legislative process as well as how legislative leaders negotiate and pressure both governors and state agencies.

    I also learned about the kind of deals that are struck with special interests to move legislation.

  • Ratchford, Brice: He was president of the University of Missouri system.

    But he also was more engaged with the legislature than any university administrator I've seen. He'd regularly go cat-fishing with the Senate's top leader, rural Sen. Pat Patterson, although both acknowledged it was much an excuse to drink beer by the river.

    We had a weekly phone call every Sunday for no other purpose than Ratchford telling me what of interest had gone on. Much of it, obviously, involved higher education. But it helped me better understand the politics of higher education and governing a large agency.

    And I had an insider's view the higher budget struggles with the legislature and the intense competition among the independent public universities.

    Like with Merrell, it was completely off the record, but I was free to pass along to reporters on the home campus town of MU story ideas, so long as I kept the source private.

    None of those reporters suspected I had a direct pipeline to the university's top administrator. They just assumed I was passing along information from the statehouse.

  • Robb, Harold: He was an MD psychiatrist and director of the Mental Health Department.

    My relationship with Robb began pursuing documentary investigations into mental health institutions. In addition were breaking news stories about the conflicts Robb had with non-medical members of the Mental Health Commission.

    He eventually gave me carte-blanch access to state mental institutions.

    But just as rewarding were the hours he spent teaching me about mental health medical issues, personality disorders and symptoms that I've found far more useful than I suspected.

    A British navy veteran of WW II, Robb had a direct and tough perspective of mental health issues that made my sessions with him even more rewarding.

  • Wyrick, Don: He was the longest serving warden of Missouri's penitentiary.

    My first contact with him came after an evening phone call from the PIO for the Corrections Department asking if I would be one of the few reporters to sit in on a negotiating session with a group of penitentiary inmate leaders.

    At issue was the department director's decision to desegregate cell housing. It had created such tension that there were legitimate concerns about a prison riot.

    The meeting with inmate leaders was effort to find a compromise. They immediately demanded reporters be presence. Thus the request for my appearance.

    Wyrick was a tough, old-fashioned and hard-nosed guy who had risen through the ranks in prisons. He openly defended physical abuse of inmates when there was no other option to control behavior.

    To this day, I wonder why Wyrick opened up so much to me. He even gave me unsupervised full access to the penitentiary at any time, night or day.

    The only condition was that I tell Wyrick anything I learned. Wyrick had a reputation for a widespread network of snitches.

    Of course, without guards present, I developed my own network of snitches of inmates who passed through their visitors story tips to me. Using visitors to prevent guards reading mail or overhearing phone conversations to me.

    The compromise we reached was that I interview Wyrick before producing any story -- an easy compromise to make since getting the other side is essential in journalism anyway and our agreement precluded identifying my inmate sources.

    I made most of my trips to the pen in the evening, not just because it was easier to find inmates I wanted to interview when then confined to their cells for the night, but (to be frank) also for security.

    From that access to inmates without guards present and from the candid conversations with Wyrick, I learned volumes about the reality of prisons, the conflicts guards face and criminal behavior.

    I discovered that despite the reputation of guards, some had soft spots in their hearts for some inmates.

    My students also learned from Wyrick who was a regular guest for my seminar guests at the seminars for my statehouse journalism students.

    In fact, it was one of my students who asked a blunt question to Wyrick about use of physical abuse to control inmates that led a surprise admission.

    As a footnote, it turned out that inmate resistance to desegregation of cell assignments involved sexual orientation. Inmates simply did not want to disclose to guards who would be making the assignments their sexual orientation or fears.

    The solution to peaceful desegregation was to have inmate leaders make the cell assignments without disclosing reasons to the guards. Of course, that also further empowered the power of inmate leaders.

    Another footnote about my deal with Wyrick. The story about which he had the strongest disagreement was one generated by an inmate telling me there was a mentally deficient inmate who regularly was assaulted to grab whatever he had purchased from the prison canteen -- a story confirmed by other inmates.

    Their concern that this normally genteel inmate eventually would violently resist and get killed. Harold Robb confirmed for me that sudden violent reaction was a real possibility.

    When I talked to Wyrick, he adamantly denied anything like that could be happening in his prison.

    After my story was broadcast, Wyrick confessed to me that digging into the issue, he discovered it was a problem. Turned out I maybe was a snitch.

    It led to a series of stories about inadequate mental health screening and treatment in prisons.


  

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