For my last column as director of MU's State Government Reporting Program, I want to describe some of what I've sought to teach my students about public policy journalism during the last four decades.
While this is not a complete list, maybe it will give you a better understanding of what makes government reporters tick.
* Learn the Process and Policy: To effectively cover government and politics, you need to have a deep understanding of some pretty complicated issues like political behavior, governmental budgeting, the techniques of special interests, business, political psychology, race relations and constitutional history -- to name a few.
So, I urge my students to concentrate their courses in political science and public administration.
For example, one of the most significant issues for government reporters is the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It establishes a right of "equal protection under the law" that is a factor in a huge number of issues we cover.
* Focus on Balance: In public policy, there almost always will be more than one side -- often several sides. You need to learn to divorce personal opinion in covering those issues. That's not always easy for my beginning journalism students.
* Find the Motivation: One of the most important and difficult tasks of an effective public policy journalist is to find the real motivation behind an idea.
So many legislative issues involve battles between extremely well-financed special interests -- like the battle between electric utilities and big business over raising electric rates that consumed the final days of the Missouri Senate.
The phrase "follow the money" from the Woodward-Bernstein Watergate investigation into Richard Nixon is one tactic that helps identify motivation.
How you ask a question also can help. Don't, I teach my students, ask "why did you sponsor that bill?" Rather, ask "what prompted you to sponsor that bill?" That latter question is more likely the reveal the real motivation behind a legislative effort.
History Matters: Most of the issues before government have a long history. You cannot produce a comprehensive story or fully understand the conflicting pressures on an issue without knowing the history.
Read the Bills: Staff descriptions and legislative debate do not always fully or accurately describe a bill. After a while, you can learn to quickly read and understand the seemingly obtuse language of law.
Process Matters: The governmental process often seems like a tedious soap opera.
But you cannot fully understand a policy issue unless you listen to the often tedious debates. My most successful students are those who dedicated hours to sit through the process -- sometimes until the sun was rising the next morning.
Avoid Gotcha Journalism: It is so easy to demonize public officials. They get money from special interests.
This seedy side is so easy to uncover that it's easy to overlook that special interests are spreading their money to everyone.
Yes, there are criminals in politics and government. But don't make that the sole objective of coverage. The vast majority of folks we cover are dedicated public servants who have sacrificed to serve the public.
When you treat them and their offices with respect, many -- not all, but many -- can become tremendous sources.
* Watch "West Wing" DVDs: I pleasantly was surprised at the last reception with my students when so many talked about being inspired by a TV show that began when they were children.
They could cite the names of key characters like C.J. Cregg and Josh Lyman. And more importantly, they remembered the plots.
With high-level political consultants, West Wing was so accurate it's a tremendous teaching tool about the details of the issues and processes we cover.
It obviously had been an inspiration for my students in ways I think brought them to my statehouse newsroom and I hope will continue to be a vision for their careers.
* Courage: One of the most important lessons I teach my students is to be tough and aggressive in asking the questions top politicians want to avoid.
To teach that lesson, I'm just as tough with my students.
It's not an approach accepted by all. A journalism school colleague accused me a few years ago of being a "toxic environment" because of my toughness.
My students knew better. I was honored when they awarded me with a "Caution: Toxic Environment" highway sign with their signatures on the back of the sign. It's now proudly displayed in my statehouse newsroom.
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