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Thread: News media coverage of planning commissions

  1. #1

    News media coverage of planning commissions

    As a member of a local planning commission, now in my sixth year of service, I'm often disappointed by how shallow the coverage is of planning decisions. Our local newspaper accurately reports the vote and then jumps to a tirade by one irate group or another without ever addressing what we did to address the issues within the context of the law.

    What have others done on behalf of their planning commissions and how well has it worked in terms of getting better coverage of planning issues?

    BTW: I asked this question at this week's (9/22/04) annual meeting of the Idaho Planning Association. It was noted newspapers are more interested in selling controversy and not interested in the facts. I found this answer more common than not among professional planners. I think it is more an expression more of sarcasm than helpful. So, if anyone has any ideas I'd welcome them.

    I'd especially like suggestions for how to approach the newspaper on this issue in a way that is not seen as being critical or corrective, but rather is helpful to the paper and its readers.
    Last edited by djysrv; 24 Sep 2004 at 1:07 AM.

  2. #2

    Registered
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    Idaho Falls used to have better and more sympathetic coverage of planning issues than most places, especially most places in Idaho. It must be getting harder to sell the Post-Register, or are the Bradys no longer in charge?

    I have found that one must court the reporters, editors, and even publishers a little to help improve coverage. I have also found that everyone suffers if the electeds won't do this or, especially, if it appears that anyone is trying to avoid publicity. I don't like seeing my picture in the paper, but I have learned that the more open and even accommodating I am, the better the coverage I get. It also helps a lot to have short, simple written materials that reporters can copy from. They almost always will. I happen to be blessed with a friendly local paper here, but we just adopted a potentially controversial new regulation and the coverage was incredibly accurate because I wrote up a two-page question and answer format summary. I did it mostly for the public, who also calmed down a lot after reading it, but it had a major positive impact on the press coverage.

    It is also important to give positive feedback. If they write a good accurate story, you need to tell that.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    I don't actually have experience dealing with a newspaper on behalf of a planning commission but I was thinking something along the lines of what Lee suggested. I have had a class in journalism and my sister has a degree in it and worked for a time on a publication as part of her job when she worked for a county extension office. I think the thing to remember is that journalists typically have very tight deadlines: they don't have months to research and write something (the way you described doing a magazine article in a different thread). They are often writing stuff that will be published the next day (or within the week) and has to be turned in well before the paper is published so it can be printed.

    Also, journalists will write about what they understand. Planning issues are kind of obscure (a common complaint in Cyburbia is that "no one knows what planners do") and journalists tend to be "people watchers", so the controvery is probably something they can readily sink their teeth into. Some specialized news services hire journalists who only do a particular kind of writing because it requires highly specialized knowledge -- such as law, something you specifically mentioned in your post. I think if you approach it as "helping them do a better write up of the facts", most journalists would be thrilled to have something to work with rather than trying to make it all up when they don't really understand it all.

    Journalists seem to get lumped in these days with the papparazzi and are often rather villified. But many of them have very high ideals and sometimes journalists risk life and limb or choose to go to jail rather than back down from their ideals (like protecting a source or photographing something that a government wants covered up). I think if you assume that you are dealing with an idealist who has the misfortune of being assigned to report on something they are ill-equipped to understand, you can develop a good working relationship with the press. "Befriending" (so to speak) one particular journalist over time and establishing good rapport might make the paper one of your best allies. Local papers are usually not really in it for The Money and are genuinely trying to serve the public. They aren't usually anything like The Enquirer.

    Last, it might help to understand how a news article is written. The headline is supposed to sum up the essence of the whole story so that you get some kind of meaningful information from it if that is all you read. The first paragraph is supposed to repeat the information in the headline, but with a little more detail. Subsequent sections of the story are supposed to elaborate upon what is in the first paragraph. Journalists are taught to answer the "5 W's and an H" (who?, what?, when?, where?, why?, and how?). The first four are usually pretty easy to answer. The "why? and how?" parts are a lot harder to answer. It sounds to me like those last two are not being properly answered by a journalist who just doesn't have adequate specialized knowledge to do so effectively and you could help by providing some background on the "why and how" (why? because the law says .... how? we discussed it with our attorney and ....).

  4. #4

    Registered
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    One interesting approach is that my Department (an Economic Development Project Manager (love them titles) and myself) write a bi-weekly colum in the business section of the local newpaper on planning and economic development issues.

    http://dailyrepublic.com/business/mi...umas/biz16.txt

    (This particular column was a little light in tone. But hey, our candy festival is a fun event)

    The other local paper (Vacaville) even has "copied" the format a bit .

    We even do brief segments on the local television access channel program covering these topics.. Plus, out local Planning Commission and Councila re televised in full.

    Michelle is right, though. You learn to trust some reporters who have some interest in the issues and write balanced or at least fair articles. Others, you learn, must be handled with kidd gloves.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by BKM
    Michelle is right, though. You learn to trust some reporters who have some interest in the issues and write balanced or at least fair articles. Others, you learn, must be handled with kidd gloves.
    Uh, yeah: when I say "assume you are dealing with an idealist", I mean "do not act all suspicious and paranoid and give them reason to hate you on sight". I Do NOT mean "bare your throat to the wolf/vampire and believe them when they say they just want to give it a little kiss". There is a huge difference between taking an "innocent until proven guilty" stance on the character of a person and failing to protect yourself. Obviously, there are journalists who have no ethics. But the ones who are idealists do get kind of cranky about people assuming that all journalists will casually destroy you because it makes for a better read.
    Last edited by Michele Zone; 24 Sep 2004 at 9:04 PM.

  6. #6
    Corn Burning Fool giff57's avatar
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    Find a reporter and explain why planning issues are important. Once you get them hooked you won't have a problem.
    “As soon as public service ceases to be the chief business of the citizens, and they would rather serve with their money than with their persons, the State is not far from its fall”
    Jean-Jacques Rousseau

  7. #7
    Cyburbian Plus Zoning Goddess's avatar
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    We have a "local" section within our city's paper. I have found that one of the columnists in that section provides a much more non-partisan account of zoning issues than do the regular reporters. There is no getting around the fact that kids, big crowds, or sobbing NIMBYs (and believe me, I have sympathized with the nimby crowd a lot, this is not a derogatory term in this post) at a public hearing, will skew the news coverage.

  8. #8

    Regarding News Media & Planners

    Well, these are useful comments so thanks to everyone who contributed to this thread so far. We had more conversation today at the annual meeting of the Idaho Planning Association.

    Aside from a few horror stories, most people at the meeting advocated having planning staff explain the issues to reporters BEFORE the planning commission meeting so the media aren't guessing why 150 people have shown up for the hearing.

    I'm going to followup with the planning staff here on this idea. It looks like a useful approach.

  9. #9
    Cyburbian Emeritus Chet's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by giff57
    Find a reporter and explain why planning issues are important. Once you get them hooked you won't have a problem.
    Thats the best advice ever. At an old job, our newspaper was a weekly, and the deadlines were 2 days after Plan Commission meetings. I made it a point to get to know the beat reporter and have lunch with him when there were complicated. At my last job though, the reporter was useless, and no amount of coaching would help.

    Off-topic:
    At one point, I even tried to be a whistle-blower and they didnt catch on to the enormity of the problem.

  10. #10
    Member KEViNO's avatar
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    Making News

    I'm a private planner and also appointed by Council to a Planning Commission.

    A few observations:

    [] Space. A publisher once told me that journalism was just the stuff they put in the blank spaces between paid ads. Lesson: An article that compels people to buy the paper so as not to miss the next article that may come along is considered gold. This is more crucial the smaller the city and the smaller the paper. They want a person to think of getting that paper as pretty essential to daily life. An article that pisses off people to the point they boycott the paper is a bad thing. A bad thing.

    [] Libel. Journalists who get any where near strident get slapped with a suit, and I don't mean Ermenegildo Zegna. They err on the safe side. Ask Dan Rather for more details. If you can provide them with written facts, there is a high chance that those will be used.

    [] Timing. Most writers have very little time to reserach and write. Ask an ex-journalist what was the worst part of the job - deadlines. Efficiency is paramount. Whatever you can do to make their job (and life), easier and simpler will be reflected.

    [] Personalities. Some people covering a planning issue are highly informed, some could care less. Some see nothing but what it menas to the people, other to what it says for gender equality. Others for how much cash and jobs it brings. It just depends. Some try so hard to be evenly balanced that the article reads a fluffy beige. And don't - whatever happens - don't ever create an adversarial relation with a paper or a journalist. Just ... don't. If you get bad press, call them on it - respectfully and privately - don't wage a war in public. You will lose.

    [] The message. Keep it simple and 'stay on' the message ... The amount of functional illiteracy in your community .. including those in the middle class will astonish you. Speak their language, and they'll git it. Speak over their heads and they will resent it, even if it your idea/position would actually benefit them.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian solarstar's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by giff57
    Find a reporter and explain why planning issues are important. Once you get them hooked you won't have a problem.
    Our director (who supervises both Planning and Building) got sick about reading the same, uninformed stuff in the papers and went proactive. He would call the reporters to discuss upcoming complicated issues, and kept a constant open-door policy with them for months. They were kept informed about anything that may trigger citizen interest - pending controversial permits, neighbor disputes that spilled over onto Code Enforcement Board, large-scale builder violations, and upcoming land-use changes. It was exhausting, but really turned things around. (One negative result, at least for us, is that one reporter took such an interest and initiative in researching planning issues that she was promoted to a larger bureau and no longer covers our smaller area. He had to start over with a new, inexperienced reporter on that paper.)

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