Updated 19th November: Live reporting of council meetings are an opportunity for journalists to bring a wider public closer to politics. Sharing details of democratic discussions, debates and decisions that affect daily lives.
It is also an opportunity for a council and its officials to show openness and transparency in the digital age. To engage the public and shine a light on the workings of the politicians they have voted into positions of power.
But it’s important both sides understand and embrace what is happening and, as much as possible, see it as a positive force.
Here is my strategy for news organisations: Reporters when going to council meetings or similar public events can publish a web story beforehand, linking to and highlighting any high-profile agenda points, and including details of coverage e.g. live-tweeting plus linking directly to meeting agenda or related documents online.
Be prepared, seemingly obvious, but we’ve all forgotten: make sure any equipment is charged, and that you’ll have internet access, be aware of any rulings on where you will be reporting from.
There should be no issue with reporting from public meetings. Following the government policy of 10th April 2013, ‘Making local councils more transparent and accountable’, some guidance ‘Your council’s cabinet: going to its meetings, seeing how it works’, published on 14 June:
Will I be able to tweet or blog council meetings?
Similarly under the new rules there can be social media reporting of meetings. Thus bloggers, tweeters, Facebook and YouTube users, and individuals with their own website, should be able to report meetings. You should ask your council for details of the facilities they are providing for citizen journalists.
By pre-publishing a story on a meeting, this offers benefits:
a) chance for public to engage earlier, ask questions – may highlight more interest in a lesser agenda item
b) highlights our coverage/live tweeting, and
c) saves some time for post-meeting update
Live tweet before (to promote coverage) and during the event, then during the meeting:
- Only the main points are needed, add some colour, but keep serious in the main
- Important to add context where possible,names/organisations/subject titles
- Always highlight and correct a mistake – delete offending tweet if it would cause confusion/legal issue
- Remember each tweet stands alone, this is helped by using a pre-agreed hashtag, e.g. #pborocc for all Peterborough City Council meetings – make sure this relatively short, unique and doesn’t conflict with anything similar to avoid any confusion
- The hashtag then enables followers to comment specifically on the meeting and the news team can then collate them efficiently afterwards, eg. to produce a Storify
You may well not have time to respond/field questions at the time, although were checking mentions to help spot any errors.
Always good practice to respond to followers reasonable questions – even if after the event, even en masse where relevant.
- Publish story before the meeting – highlight Twitter updates, link to any relevant agenda docs
- Pre-tweet coverage – let users know they’ll see more tweets, but highlight regular hashtag to signify and let users interact/comment
- Tweet as and when newsworthy - at least any decisions made, tweeted quotes can aid updating story post-meeting
- Update & tweet story, adding main points initially to expand later, tweet story link with a pertinent question if relevant to encourage debate
More tips from Cambridgeshire blogger Richard Taylor: Tips for Observing and Reporting on Public Meetings in Local Government
Including his experiences with Huntingtonshire District Council:
Politely ignore council officers. Council officers may well try and prevent, deter, or obstruct you observing, recording, or reporting from, a meeting. Be polite, but don’t accept what they say, and insist on a ruling from the chair. If the chair seeks to address you in person, insist they make their ruling from the chair while the meeting is in session. People’s positions can change when they have declare and defend them formally and in public.
I used this strategy successfully recently at Huntingdonshire District Council; prior to the meeting the chair was adamant I would not be permitted to film and ordered me to dismantle my camera, but when sitting in the chair at the start of the meeting did allow filming.