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What journalists should know about covering government

There are lots of ways in which we differ from typical journalists. We research and write for a variety of non-journalistic organizations, whether they are governments, membership organizations or think tanks. We give speeches and when government officials call asking for counsel on a variety of topics, we don’t hesitate to help.

The other difference between us and a lot of reporters who are covering government is that we’ve been doing it for a very long time and have some personal historical perspective.

Recently we wrote a blog post for The Fels Institute of Government, where we’re senior fellows, about the troubled partnership between government and the press. That piece was mostly geared to people in government or those who want to be.

Here, then, is the other side of the coin – what we’ve learned that we’d like to share with people in the press who are covering state and local government. Their numbers are diminishing, sadly, and so we think it’s important that the remaining cadre of statehouse and city hall reporters are as close to exemplar as possible. Some thoughts:

  1. Don’t expect rapid change when new policies or practices are introduced. Articles that take governments to task for the absence of results shortly after a new policy is put into place can miss the fact that it takes time to implement almost any new policy — and if the results aren’t immediate, it doesn’t mean that it’s a failure.  By the way, this was a comment we made to Kim Geiger, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, when she interviewed us several weeks ago about the political realities encountered by Gov. Bruce Rauner’s “superstar team.”

  2. Social policy issues are complex and despite the publicly absolutist stance taken in political discussions, government practices and policies are rarely all bad or all good. They usually have some elements that are working well and others that cause problems. A flaw, or even a bunch of flaws, in a new policy may not signal the need for the policy to be abandoned. It’s kind of like the proverbial dike with a hole. The solution isn’t  to tear down the dike, but to stick a finger in the opening.

  3. Government officials who are trained to deal with the press (actually just about anyone who is trained to deal with the press) have learned to skirt questions asked so they can answer entirely different questions of their choosing. At various times we’ve had media training, and this is exactly what we’ve been told: “Don’t worry about the questions you’re asked. Just answer the question you wanted to be asked.” We try hard not to let government officials get away with this frustrating  bait and switch.

  4. Tamp down on cynicism. All journalists covering government have been lied to at various points in their careers, but in our experience — and we’ve had thousands of interviews covering every state and large city and county in the country — we’ve  found that most government employees are diligent, hardworking and inclined to be as candid as they’re permitted to be.

  5. Just because a policy or new program is passed by the legislature and is signed by a governor doesn’t mean it’s actually going to happen. If a bill isn’t funded, the fact that it passed may only be symbolic. We wish more journalists would follow up on important new policies to see what’s actually happened after some legislator ballyhoos this grand accomplishment.

  6. Most ideas in government have been tried before. Just check out our new slide show on transparency on the home page of this website and you’ll see all the new ideas about budget transparency that were on exhibit in 1908. Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with trying them again. “Whatever government tried before in performance management, can be tried again, with the new technologies available,” John Kamensky, Senior Fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government told us some years ago (John is also an advisor to Barrett and Greene, Inc.)


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