A few years back, when I was working for another newspaper in another town, I wrote an article about a rezoning request that came before the county commission in a public hearing. I don’t recall what the people wanted to do with the property, but what they wanted was being hotly contested by other people in the area where they lived. I covered the meeting and heard public comments from both sides, and wrote them into the story, explaining what had happened and what the commissioners eventually decided to do.
A couple of weeks later, I ran into some of the people on the losing side of the rezoning issue at another meeting. They had a bone to pick with me. They said the article I had written was unfair. I asked them how it was unfair, seeing as how I had used comments from both sides of the issue. They told me it was unfair, that I had included both sides of the issue in my story. They said they only wanted people to see their side of the issue. I just shook my head and walked away.
On another occasion, I covered a government meeting where a citizen signed up to speak. He was complaining about how a certain regulation the county was enforcing was unfair to him and others like him who had gotten around the requirements of the regulation by doing something different. He said the county was forcing him to pay for something he shouldn’t have to pay for.
After the article came out, a friend of mine who worked in the code enforcement department for that county came by to see me. He had read my article about the meeting and what the man had said. Then he said he felt the article was unfair, because I hadn’t called him and gotten his side of the issue.
I told him I was covering and reporting on what had been said in an open, public government meeting, not doing an investigative story where I would seek out both sides of an issue. I told him that if he had wanted to counter what the man had said, that he, too, should have come to the meeting and signed up to speak.
Both times, when I reported on what both sides said and when I reported only on what one side said, I was covering a meeting. When journalists cover meetings, that’s what we do, we report on what was said. Now, if we have information related to what is being said that we feel will help our readers understand what the people were talking about, we’ll often add that to the article. But our job is to cover the meeting; it is not to decide which side of an issue we’re going to cover in a meeting, and it’s not to seek out spokespeople for the other side if only one side of an issue is talked about in a meeting.
I’ll admit that often it may seem that we are taking sides in a meeting. That usually happens because of the rules the governing body has instituted. For example, during the public comment portion of the meeting, the governing body usually has a rule that they will not respond to comments made by speakers. It also happens on agenda items during the meeting, in which the governing body doesn’t allow the public to speak. On both occasions, we’re only going to hear and report on one side of an issue, so it may appear we’re only giving one side, but only because the other side won’t speak or aren’t allowed to speak.
But that is something everyone needs to understand. We’re there to cover what is said and done in a meeting. Unless it is a public hearing where everyone is allowed to speak, we’re only going to hear and write about what one side says. That’s our job. And if it is a public hearing, we’re going to write about what both sides say. That’s also our job. We write what is said in a meeting.
Larry Stanford may be reached at 706-647-5414 or on Twitter @LarryStanford7.