As you'll see, knowledge about what we cover is just as important as journalism-specific subjects.
There may be journalists as well as journalism educators who disagree with some of these recommendations. And we've likely left out important points in government and political reporting. So, feel free to contact us by clicking the button below.
Author: with help from with numerous colleagues, teachers and sources
My public policy journalism adventure began in 1972 when I returned to University of Missouri Journalism School to pursue a graduate degree that focused on public policy. Take a look at the courses panel for the public-policy courses I found the most valuable.
I covered Missouri's statehouse for a local radio station while in graduate school and then went on to be National Public Radio's congressional reporter covering, among other things, the start of the Richard Nixon Watergate scandal.
After a few months, I was recruited to establish the nation's first statehouse journalism school program in a state Capitol. It grew to became the Missouri Journalism School's first fully converged newsroom of print, radio, TV and new-media students.
My students provided statehouse stories for Missouri newspapers under an agreement with the Missouri Press Association, Missouri public radio stations, the university's commercial TV station and one of the world's first all-news website.
I was far more than an academic teacher, I provided near daily reports for the then CBS-operated station, KMOX in St. Louis as their statehouse correspondent (a position I still hold, although I've become very-much a part time reporter) as well as reports to the CBS Network on issues of national interest.
My KMOX reports and multi-week investigative documentaries on statehouse issues won numerous awards. I also served as the executive editor for a weekly half-hour report on statehouse issues for all of Missouri's public TV stations.
Click here about the courses that benefited my understanding about public policy.
Click here about my most important public policy mentors.
It's actually not that difficult to read most rules and bills. Besides, learning how to read legal and regulatory language will help you better understand the impact of a proposed amendment when it's offered
A measure signed by the governor or president does not immediately take effect upon signature. Besides normal delays before becoming effective, there can be clauses that further delay the effective date considerably.
And, for a state proposal, also take a look whether a bill actually requires approval by the governor when it clears the legislature.
In Missouri, lawmakers can submit a measure to state voters for approval rather than requiring gubernatorial approval. And constitutional amendments always require voter approval.
Make sure you follow those links. And pay particular attention to the definition section.
But often, it's a lower court decision that prompts a proposal. That can make identifying the court decision more difficult.
A simple question of what prompted someone to sponsor a proposal can help identify a court decision that prompted the proposal.
Also, some online statute links will have annotations of court decisions that affect the law.
This point was demonstrated profoundly in the middle of the 2020 Missouri special session.
The Republican governor issued a news release that expanding the session for lawmakers to consider giving the state attorney general to prosecute St. Louis city murder cases, but only if the locally elected prosecutor had failed to prosecue within 90 days after police and had made an arrest and only if the police department requested the attorney general to prosecute.
It made his proposal sound like it respected local control. But it was not true.
The official proclamation filed with the secretary of state authorized the legislature to hand the state attorney general to prosecute anytime he wanted. There was no requirement for a police deartment request nor a 90 day period of inaction by the local prosecutor.
And understanding the process will help you quickly realize when a parliamentary tactic is invoked to accelerate or stall a proposal.
And don't think opposition is a simple split between supporters and opponents. Often there are factions with different objectives and/or views that can provide a far more intriguing story.
But over the years, the impact of that amendment has been expanded significantly by the courts.
The 1954 U.S. Supreme Court "Brown v. Board of Education" that prohibited segregated public schools was based on the 14th Amendment.
Since then, that has been expanded involving gay rights and abortion rights.
A major U.S. Supreme Court decision involves government "entitlement" programs that provide a service. Essentially government cannot deny an entitlement to anyone meeting the requirements for that program.
So, a state legislature cannot cut the Medicaid budget to the degree it would deny Medicaid services to anyone who meets the eligibility requirements for Medicaid.
Years ago, a federal court even threatened to take control of a state's budget if it could not provide mental health services to all who met the eligibility requirements.
Religion and race are obvious areas of potential divide for some issues.
Geography, I've often found, was more significant than party. So many issues I've covered over the years involved deep splits based on urban, suburban and rural divisions.
Over the years, the growing partisan divide in our country has overshadowed those demographic factors, but they remain significant.
Years ago, a political scientist, Daniel Elazar, developed a theory about political differences based on political cultures he identified across the country that arose partially from various immigration waves into the country.
Missouri actually has more separate political cultures mapped by Elazar than any other state. It makes sense, settlers in Missouri include significant German, Italian, French populations and, of course, slaves.
It helped me significantly to understand the substantial differences between Democratic legislators from Kansas City and those from St. Louis.
At the time, Kansas City Blacks focused on Black issues such as police tactics.
On the other hand, St. Louis City Blacks were more focused on politics and political gains.
Black legislators told me it was a consequence of the 1968 Kansas City protests in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Black leaders objected so loudly to Gov. Warren Hearnes calling out the National Guard that he froze out Black politicians from the Kansas City area from lucrative patronage appointments -- effectively handing patronage jobs and political power to St. Louis Blacks. That led Kansas City Blacks to focus greater attention on policy issues.
Another geographic issue arose from the Civil War.
I always had been puzzled about the conservative bent of a few Democratic legislators in a small area of western Missouri.
The answer came from Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder who told me that the region had been burned by Union troops during the Civil War in retaliation for southern support -- creating a culture more conservative and less trusting in government.
But having sources you can trust and are candid is particularly important for public policy reporters because of the degree that process and players in government so often try to hide information or manipulate coverage.
So what follows are some suggestions:
Many have years of experience working in government. And while many represent wealthy special interests, some have a deep commitment to government and the process. In fact, some lobbyists started out as nonpartisan public officials.
One of the most important source on state finances for Missouri statehouse reporters has been a former state budget director and commissioner of administration.
Although representing business concerns as a lobbyist, Jim Moody has a passion to help reporters understand budget and tax issues.
Beyond that, many lobbyists can have extensive an extensive network of contacts from which they can provide useful information about what's going on or pass along the names of potentially useful sources.
But understand, many lobbyists while eager help reporters understand issues, are reluctant to become quoted sources.
That's because the motivations and tactics behind public policy so often involve factors that might upset the general public such as campaign contributions, crass political objectives and closed-door deals.
But I rarely cited a single, unnamed source in my stories. And I had a firm policy for my newsroom that no factual claim could be reported unless independently verified by another source or document.
A frequent exception would be when a legislative leader confided off the record a plan or position. In that case, I didn't need independent verification because I heard it directly from a leader.
So, I could report a top House/Senate leader said something without disclosing the name. Beyond that, if more than a few told me the same thing, I could write something akin to "Legislative leaders say their members have concerns about..."
Also, confidential information can gave you information you can use to pry more meaningful public responses from key players.
Finally, so many of the best public policy stories come from tips by sources who do not want to be named.
"I never knew of an investigative story that didn't start with a snitch," long-time St. Louis Post-Dispatch Statehouse Reporter Fred Lindecke joked years ago.
Many without power are more eager to confide with you. Some are bitter at not having power or being stripped of power. Sources new to the process may feel less constrained by complying with agency or caucus secrecy rules.
Many reporters dismissed Blackwell as a bitter old man. He was bitter, but that made him even more eager to tell give me dirt on his Senate colleagues whom he felt had betrayed him.
He was bitter, but I sure learned a lot about the Senate skeletons in the closet that impacted on votes and political alliances.
Many in public office are constrained in candor when in formal sessions like an office interview or news conference.
Elevators are great places for quick questions.
He had blocked the lieutenant governor from the Senate chamber to preside. But the Senate leader refused our requests to exit the chamber for a short interview about his reasons.
But knowing nature would take its course, I just waited until he went to the bathroom next to the Senate chamber.
To my surprise, he was not upset at my presence while he was urinating. In fact, after he had finished that task, he provided a candid and lengthy explanation.
That kind of query needs to be made in a private setting where there's no chance a colleague will hear or your source spilling the beans, or even suspecting secretes are being disclosed if you're seen talking with the source after a closed meeting.
The story essentially reported that a Republican legislator refused to provide information when approached in the hallway about an hour-long caucus session on handing the Republican governor a major legislative defeat.
Of course he refused to comment to a reporter as he and his colleagues were leaving the caucus. Members are not supposed to disclose information about closed-door caucus discussions.
Yet, I cannot remember a single time I could not get a complete picture of a major closed-door caucus session if I limited my interviews to legislators' private offices where colleagues could not see them betraying the caucus.
Beyond that, if those with real power suspect you're getting accurate inside information from a maverick, the power players will be reluctant to give you a dishonest or misleading answer.
Even better, it may cause a power player to be more open with you in an effort to better defend his/her actions suspecting you probably know the full truth anyway.
The Senate's top leader and former House speaker, Ron Richard, was fully aware I was getting piles of inside information from Schaaf.
More than once as he provided me with an indepth and informative reply, he'd preface his comments acknowledging his suspicion I already understood what was going on because of Schaaf.
Look for folks seeking to implement change, rather than just treading water for political advancement.
Look for folks who have that special set of skills and qualities that can be a foundation for moving into positions of power -- or, of course, those with massive special interest support.
Soon after I realized his power, I asked him how he developed his influnce. A WWII veteran who parachuted into Normandy on the eve of the invasion, Britton never hesitated in answering a question in a blunt manner if you had the courage to ask it.
He told me he always kept an eye on he new legislators to identify who had what it takes to move into positions of power. And then, he made a point to mentor them to better understand the process and how to succeed.
Sure enough, much of Britton's influence arose from top legislative leaders he had mentored when they were first starting out.
I never mentored politicans. That's not the job of journalists.
But from Britton I gained a better understanding about the importance for laying the foundation for developing source relationships with those who likely are going to be significant players.
In other words, development of sources with public policy journalists regularly do with current major players in the process, also should include those who will be players in the future.
That's a key attribute in covering government with such an extensive array of complicated issues that it's nearly impossible to fully understand or even know about all of the emerging potential issues of news importance.
I realized it was caused by the understandable apprehension of a young, beginning reporter to confront powerful officials whom they never had met.
So, I'd often had such a student walk with me in the Capitol hallways as I'd greet a legislator or lobbyist and simply ask "what's new" or "what's going on."
Out of office and with no future political ambitions, these term-limited former legislators had no reason to keep secrets.
Beyond that, they often maintain contact with officials still in office and so have an insider's understanding of what was going on.
If you're a broadcast reporter and source as an unusual name, ask the source to say her/his name at the start of the recording so you can save it to make sure you correctly pronounce the source's name.
Then, add a pronunciation guide for the source in an office database you ought to maintain of names regularly used for which the pronunciations are not obvious.
If the source is a lawyer or lobbyist before a governmental hearing, ask whom the source is representing.
I learned that lesson when covering Congress for NPR and failed to pursue a tip that could have been a huge break in the beginning of the Watergate scandal because the source was an old man with an absurd suggestion.
The source was Rep. Wright Patman, a Texas Democrat and chair of the House Banking Committee.
He quickly became a go-to source for me partially because part of my childhood was in Texas and, like Patman, I was one of the few wearing cowboy boots in the nation's Capitol.
One day, he told me that Pres. Richard Nixon's reelection campaign was laundering money through off-shore banks to pay off the Watergate burglars.
While I loved hearing Patman's stories of Congress going back to 1929, I disbelieved his Watergate tip. I wrote it off as a delusion of his old age (he passed just a few years after that conversation).
Besides, the chair of Nixon's reelection committee was a former U.S. attorney general and the committee's treasurer had been the Commerce Department secretary. It just was a story too good to be true.
Well, we now know Patman and his House Banking Committee staff got it right. Campaign money had been laundered for the Watergate burglars.
For us, a business card might prompt you getting a call when somebody wants to give a story to a reporter.
Realize that for many elected officials, except for their times in government buildings, church may be the only other time they were business-dress clothes.
The general approach is to dress in a fashion that your attire does not became a liability in reporting. Wearing a suit would become an obstacle walking in a flooded farm field to interview a flood victim.
But wearing shorts and a tee-shirt in the Capitol also can be a liability.
Some locations or times allow for more relaxed dress. An outdoor political rally in the heat of the summer is an example. In Missouri's Capitol, Friday is a more relaxed dress day if the legislature is not in session.
If in doubt, just look a how senior reporters dress. But also realize, the most senior reporters have leeway in dress because they're already earned respect from their coverage.
Kindness and respect can go a long way.
A secretary can put you ahead of others waiting for access if the staffers trusts you when you indicate you're under deadline and have just one brief question to confirm something.
And sometimes, if that staffer trusts you, the staffer might provide the confirmation you need.
Also, some office support will have more seniority than their bosses. They've got institutional memory that can be of tremendous help in understanding the background of an issue.
Good staffers will not betray their bosses by disclosing confidential information. But some will share information they know their bosses would not mind being shared to trusted reporters.
Back then, curator meetings were completely closed to reporter access.
But, the curators had failed to close the written minutes of their meetings.
So, every month after the minutes had been transcribed, she'd call me to let me know there were minutes I might want to read -- also warning me that if anyone learned I was reading those minutes, they'd be closed.
Regularly, I could play one curator against another by mentioning positions taken. Each curator would assume the other curator was leaking private information to me. They never discovered it was those written meeting minutes that was the start of the thread that got them to open up.
In case you're wondering, that board secretary passed decades ago. So I'm not betraying a source -- she'd be delighted I was passing this on for future reporters.
So, tough questions demonstrate you're not a lightweight.
In fact, that approach can earn you respect with both the public official you're interviewing as well as colleagues.
In addition, you're more likely to get straight answers if you demonstrate you will not pacifally accept a misleading answer or an answer that completely dodges your question.
In conversations with colleagues, he began referring to me as a Leon Trotsky, the Marxist revolutionary.
But that majority leader had growing group of opponents among senior senators. And his absurd description of me gained me invaluable, powerful sources that lasted for years.
As a broadcast reporter, I realize gotcha questions are almost standard in an effort to get a direct and short response from an official offering rambling and vague responses.
But too many broadcast reporters use gotcha questions designed just to get a simple and emotional response.
A gotcha question can lead your source to conclude you are so ignorant of the issue that a more precise, meaningful question was not possible.
In Missouri, this tactic has contributed to some public officials limiting reporter access. To some officials.
I learned that from a Missouri House speaker whose undergraduate degree was in journalism before law school.
So, Catherine Hannaway knew when I asked a gotcha question. Because the long-term reporting relationship I had with her, she felt free to immediately reprimand me before answering the question.
Every time, I did not intend a gotcah question. She was so candid, blunt and precise in her answers that there was no need for a gotcha question. It was just out of habit.
Catherine's remonstrances made me wonder if there are other public officials who instantly recognize a gotcha question and conclude the reporter is a lightweight just going after a short, emotional audio/video clip rather than real information.
If a public official promises to take some sort of action, but then adds a condition at the end of the sentence, you cannot report he or she promised to take action.
And make sure you ask the follow up question asking what the official mean by an if or when condition.
At times, the public official knew about an issue of greater importance that he or she was eager to talk about.
And, sometimes the response to that question will cause the source to provide background information concerning aspects of the issue he or she realized you did not fully understand because a particular question was not asked.
While the stories we ultimately write should use easily-understood, using the correct language with public officials can help in getting comprehensive responses.
He got a call from a reporter in his local district with a question to which Sen. Norman Merrill gave a terribly simplistic answer that did not actually answer the question.
Because Merrill had been one of my most candid and honest sources, I asked why he gave such a potentially misleading answer.
Merrill's response essentially was "Phill, if I provided a comprehensive answer, he wouldn't have understood it and would conclude I was trying to evade the issue."
Good point! I didn't agree with misleading a local reporter, but I also realized that if Merrill, a former school teacher, tried to conduct a lesson he probably would have been blown off. But, we'll never know.
It takes the person you're interviewing off guard, maybe enough so that he actually gives an honest answer.
When you ask a public official why he or she did something, you're seek for a disclosure of motivations. That question may cause the source to become defensive, for example not wanting to disclose that the reason may have been to reward a contributor.
Asking what prompted something is less threatening. So, I've found it's more likely to lead to an honest answer -- such as the issue was requested by a particular business or organization.
And, you always can follow up with asking about any potential interests with the person or organization that prompted the proposal.
The process for public policy issues can be so complex that sometimes a tick-tock response can provide an interesting sidebar to your story.
Besides that, the answer might reveal influences on a proposal you had not considered or did not know about.
And, if a source leaves out an important step that you do know about, it raises an immediate question of why that step is being hidden.
It can suggest there's more to it. And you can follow up with something like, "Senator you didn't mention that just days before you sponsored the bill, you got a large campaign contribution from.."
They frequently are crowded. A TV crew may try to dominate the session to turn it into personal performance session.
And public officials may cut the session short to cut off probing follow ups.
Sometimes, even an extended "news conference" can be turned into a "media moment" by a long-winded speech by the official and maybe other officials with only a few questions by reporters with the offical then promptly walking out of the conference.
So, here are some lessons to deal a with tightly controlled news conference that amounts to a "media moment:"
Missouri's recent governor has had a near parade of administration officials talking about an unimportant issue in an effort to distract us from asking about the biggest issue facing the executive.
Don't fall into that trap. Don't feel obligated to ask about the insignificant issue of the news conference.
Just remember, that official is just trying to use you. And remember that your primary responsibility is to seek answers to the biggest issues for your readers, listeners or viewers.
That often will lead to a less responsive answer and undermine your reputation both with the official and your colleagues.
When time is limited, use it efficiently for the benefit of all your colleagues.
That recently happened in Missouri.
Gov. Mike Parson was asked if he felt responsible for the rising COVID-19 infections and deaths because of his early opening of business in the state.
The governor's response included asking if the reporter if she felt responsible for her stories.
Don't let a politician turn the tables to grill you.
A good response might be something like, "I'd be delighted to discuss that question with you in another session, but my question was..."
Realize, when you do that, you empower the public official to avoid a legitimate inquiry.
Years ago in Missouri's statehouse such an effort immediately would have been followed by something akin to "you didn't answer my colleague's question, so what is your answer to...?"
Unfortunately, with the decreasing time for news conferences with public officials, there's more pressure on the reporter to ask her/his question rather than backing up a colleague who has been blown off.
But before asking your own question, ponder whether the official evading your colleague's question is an indication that the prior question might be of greater news significance than what you were going to ask.
And also ponder whether if by not pursuing a colleague's question you empowering that official to blow you off when you ask an awkward, significant question.
So often, the official turns his/her back to reporter when we still have questions to ask. That provides a great description about how the official treated reporters. But it also makes great video for TV and a great photo for print.
I realize this might seem a bit theatrical.
But as public-policy journalists, when a government leader refuses to address a major public-policy issue confronting that leader, we have a professional obligation to report that evasion to the general public.
Realize, the jobs of many of the people we cover depends upon public support either because they are subject to re-election or work for those who are.
So, they've got a direct financial and/or career interest in assuring public support and diverting stories that would cast a critical light on themselves or their bosses.
This is such dominant issue for us that it is a separate panel on how to deal with a false statement from a public official.
Not only can it provide an essential addition to your story, it might cause the original source to be more forthright answer from the original source when told the response.
A question that begins akin to "I realize that you cannot fully answer my question, but..." can lead to a fuller response than I expected.
When a source realizes you instantly will recognize a false or misleading response, it can provide pressure for a response that is more connected with the truth.
Do not lie!. Real journalists don't do that. But a question like "why would the party caucus vote to..." is not dishonest. Rather, the verb "would" rather than "did" makes it a conditional question which is not dishonest.
For years, teaching my students this approach, I'd take one or two with me as I sought to discover a closed-door party caucus answer. It usually took just a few legislators before they full details were divulged.
I frequently played this game when I was covering the University of Missouri Board of Curators when their meetings were behind closed doors. There were two curators fierce opponents of each other, but who were my best sources.
The first one I called I'd ask a question that might lead him to falsely assume his opponent had spilled the beans to me and would respond in detail.
Again, I never lied or misled. Instead, I'd ask a conditional question based on what I suspected had been an agenda item.
"Did you talk about..." followed by an obvious topic of a closed party caucus could be a question to the first source. If the response is something like "of course" it provides you with leverage with other sources.
To a second source, you could start a question with "I know you talked about..." and the second source would assume I already knew all the details.
In a campaign to assure American resolve in the aftermath of Richard Nixon's resignation and the Vietnam War collapse, Secretary of State Henry Kissenger went across the country for secret briefings with state legislators stressing the administration's strength.
Using the techniques described above, I quickly got multiple legislative confirmations about the Pueblo plans that I reported to NPR.
I was not breaking government secrecy. Legislators told me the US already had warned Cambodia of military action if the ship was not released. But for various reasons including national security concerns, we never aired the story.
That sends a message to the source and to other public officials that they will be held accountable if they do not tell the truth.
The strongest leverage a journalist has is with our words.
The word "liar" implies a deliberate intention to tell a falsehood. That's not always the case.
So many times, a public official can misstate something that the official would take it back if followed up with a correction question, sometimes with an admission of ignorance.
Whether the claim of misunderstanding the facts or the question involves something inside the head of the interviewee we cannot know as a fact.
In other words, terming someone as a liar is reporting as a fact something you may not know with a certainty required for journalists.
"Not true" or "false" often can be more accurate without making a value judgement.
An example was cited by ABC's White House correspondent, Jonathan Karl on a September 2020 episode of CNN's Reliable Sources.
He was interviewed by Brian Selter about his question of Trump "Why did you lie to the American people."
Karl told Selter that for five years covering Trump he had resisted using the the "lie" word.
But he said that changed with Bob Woodward's records in which Trump acknowledged that he knew COVID-19 was far more serious than he was telling Americans and defended his reasons for misleading the public.
"He knew one thing, he said another thing," Karl said.
"We knew that he was saying things that were not true. With Woodward we know he actually knows the truth and has a reason for not telling it."
And it often can provide more depth and context for your story.
But government is the public's business. And there are laws providing a right of access to government documents and meetings.
But there are some public officials who will do all they can to block you from even knowing what information is held by government.
Below are some tips on how to deal with officials keeping secrets:
Even if you're covering a state or local government, what you're seeking might be information covered by a federal access right.
You cripple yourself if you do not know your rights to information and the restrictions under which government can keep secrets.
After Missouri adopted a public records law, the Missouri chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists distributed to reporters a wallet-sized copy of the new law so we quickly could cite the specific provision when demanding access.
Unfortunately, over the years, legislators have piled on so many exceptions that the law no longer would fit in a wallet. But knowing the law still helps.
If the law provides access, cannot report an official violated the law. That's for courts and juries to decide. But you can and should cite in your story the legal requirement requiring public access.
But you can ask under what legal provisions access was denied and why secrecy is in the public interest.
The job and strength of journalists is not to opine, but simply to ask questions.
And sometimes, questions can put pressure to provide access.
Consider pulling out a microphone or pocket recorder to demonstrate the denial could become a story.
Don't hesitate to use such a demand if needed.
In fact, at least in Missouri, it's become almost common practice to file such a request to get information.
A legal demand likely gets forwarded to the agency's lawyer(s) that can delay swift access with a "we'll get back to you..." reply and can trigger imposed costs for searching or copying the data you've requested.
Lawyers tend to consider all the reasons why a request can be denied. In a way, that's there job.
Some agency officials, unfortunately not all, actually support the purpose of the FOIA law and are eager to comply. But if you invoke the law, the agency official may feel compelled to refer the request to the lawyers.
So, I did, but avoided any FOIA reference. I immediately got the DB.
Of course, there are agencies that have such a reputation for secrecy that you might as well start with a FOIA demand.
I confess, I'd feel uncomfortable going to partisan politicians to get information. But before FOIA laws, it was the only option. And with the growing legal complexities added to current FOIA laws, it may return as an essential option.
Missouri once had a governor with such a commitment to openness in government that the governor's communications director was a go-to person when a reporter found an agency blocking immediate access to information. The governor's commuications director simply would pick up the phone with the reporter present and essentially deliver a gubernatorial order to release the requested records.
Special interest groups and advocacy groups and attorneys involved in an issue for which you're seeking a document may have the information you're seeking.
Also, if it's a legislative document, a minority-party member might be willing to provide the information.
Of course, PIOs of politicians and agencies answerable to politically elected officials are different. But merit system employees (or civil service employees at the federal level) have a degree of independence that gives them more freedom to comply with journalistic requests for information.
I confess, I'd often have conversations or interviews with agency officials for no other reason than to maintain an open door to information within the agency.
In government, there's a large array of potential open locations for secret records including court documents, audit reports, financial records, etc.
One year, a Missouri statehouse reporter uncovered an extramarital relationship by the Senate's top leader simply by trolling through state Accounting Division records of phone call records for the legislator's government-financed phone number.
In those documents were records of bills the phone company had sent the state that included long late night calls between the legislator and his girl friend.
As an aside, the story led the administration to redact the complete phone numbers from accounting division records.
Finding public-policy stories that are not prompted by news releases and press briefings by public officials pushing their own agenda is one of the most important and empowering skill of a public policy reporter.
Below are some suggestions:
But with the explosive growth of public special interest money in government and campaigns, it's become a much bigger factor in public policy.
So, check out on a regular basis campaign contributions and lobbyist expenditures. Look at financial disclosure reports of public officials that might be connected to their issues or those of their patrons.
A complication is the growth of dark money organizations that do not disclose their donors. But there are ways to identify surprising sources.
So, what's happening in one state may arise in your state or on the federal level.
Try to read as many statehouse news reports from other states. And read national news outlets for ideas that might impact the government you're covering.
She found a national news magazine story about from another state that was experiencing a major problem with new type of highway guard-rail barrier.
The problem was that if a driver hit the barrier head on, like from a tire failure, it could ram into the driver's windshield with lethal consequences.
Turned out to be a great story!
In fact, as I write this panel I just read the Missouri Transportation Department remains involved with a liability lawsuit on that issue my reporter first disclosed in Missouri years ago.
The include not just about ideological groups and business organizations, but also organizations that represent citizens with serious public-policy concerns.
Often, these smaller advocacy organizations do not have well-healed lobbyists, but they may alert you to issues of major public policy impact.
Some of the most influential lobbyists trying to influence decisions are prompted by their business clients seeking legislative action that, at first glance, might not seem that major or involve business concerns.
Business reporters have a tremendous insight into the what's going on in the business community that could become major public policy issues.
Beyond that, statewide labor and business organizations can be key sources to give you a heads up about potentially major issues in the statehouse.
Find groups or experts that might have a reaction to the absence of action.
What about farm drainage into rivers supplying public water from lands with livestock hormones and field pesticides? Your Agriculture Department probably is not issuing statements about that issue.
Sometimes, the response might not be a news story, but would give me a heads up about an emerging issue or problem.
Sometimes a tickler file item may be a source not quite ready to answer your question. Sometimes it can be an issue developing, but not yet at a level of news significance.
Every tickler entry doesn't require a weekly check. But it's a reminder of possibilities on slow news days.
One of the questions we were asked was where do come up with story ideas.
Bob had a perfect answer.
It was that he just needed to walk out the Capitol where his office was located and look around at the various government buildings.
Thinking about the agencies at each of those buildings would remind him of potential stories to be pursued.
For the remaining decades of my full-time reporting career, I kept following Bob's advice.
As Donald Trump as demonstrated, it's become a major vehicle for public officials to distribute information and announcements.
Beyond that, of course, are the numerous embarrassing social media postings that public officials make without reviewing what they wrote before posting the messages.
Statewide and national was generated by a Facebook post of a Missouri House member with video of him decapitating a chicken and removes it's heart. It was tied to a special legislative session on abortion showing that humans have more rights over animals than over fellow humans.
The House member, by the way, is unchallenged to be elected to the Missouri Senate in 2020.
He discovered that the senator conducting a long-winded filibuster was promoting continuation of the filibuster on Twitter as a fund-raising appeal.
Also, make sure you get your email address on as many news-distribution lists of government agencies and special interest groups as possible.
You might want to consider two email accounts -- one for personal mail and one for reporting.
Those items that are brief are described in greater detail in other panels.
Rules involve implementation of laws and sometimes can exceed statutory authority -- making the administrative rule-making process a news gold mine for news.
Online administrative rule websites will include proposed regulations, comments and hearing schedules.
On the national level, it's the Code of Federal Regulations. The state level may have a different term. In Missouri it's the Code of State Regulations.
They can provide a treasure trove of information beyond the direct subject or agency of the audit.
Beyond that, these descriptions often go into detail about what a proposal actually would do -- giving you another resource for identifying the real impact of an obscure proposal.
Uncovering that history can help you more quickly understand an issue, since you might not need to replicate the time another reporter spent to figure out what was behind a proposal.
Ethics committee investigations, committee replacements and rule changes are among the items of news importance that won't necessarily be subjects of debate.
Special interest money and personal financial conflicts are a major issue in public policy journalism.
Some state health departments actually get information about hospital utilization and other state health statistics from reports delivered to CDC by local hospitals.
The importance of health data from CDC has been demonstrated as this panel was being written.
The Trump administration's decision to transfer national COVID-19 data collection from the independent CDC to the Health and Human Services Department led to reports of missing and potentially inaccurate information available to state health agencies within days.
Events do not necessarily identify the biggest issues facing the public.
Think about issues for which there are no events, but of significant public impact.
Also, think about issues that are not being addressed by government and outside organizations.
Think about follow ups to on-going stories.
One of the unexpected benefits from the reduction in statehouse newsrooms may be that with fewer reporters, there's less pressure on covering events and letting us to move to more meaningful issues.
Beyond was home newsroom pressure to cover events they learn about from wire service advancers and news releases announcing events in hopes of garnering coverage.
I began to fully understand how I was getting trapped when I heard Vietnam War reporter describe the near depression he felt after leaving the adrenaline environment of a war zone for the slower-paced domestic news environment.
I realized something similar was happening to me after the legislative session adjourned in the spring when I no longer had legislative events to schedule my efforts.
While we government reporters get obsessed with the process, it likely bores the public.
There's a temptation to write a story as if you were a political science teacher describing the minutia of the process.
Find ways you can expand the issue in the event you're covering to a broader public-policy focused issue.
It was a crack-down-on-crime bill toughening penalties, but did not address Democrat bills that would restrict firearm possession by those charged or convicted of domestic abuse.
Democrats from the other chamber held a news conference on the issue that day and it provided a perfect opportunity to report on the deep divide between the two parties on the issue, rather than just a committee hearing.
Essentially, think outside the box.
After a committee hearing, ask the chair and sponsor about any changes that might be made.
And don't forget to ask the chair when, if ever, there'll be a vote. Not having a specific date sometimes can indicate the measure is going nowhere.
Remember, public officials -- particularly politicians -- establish visual media events for TV coverage. But sometimes, they make mistakes.
In Missouri as this panel is being written, we had a perfect example.
The national COVID-19 director held a session with the Missouri governor and then held a news conference.
Wearing a mask, she stressed the importance of all to wear masks to reduce spread of the disease.
But standing behind her was the state's governor, Mike Parson, not wearing a mask!
On both legislative committees and administrative panels, their questions often can provide insights into aspects that could determine the outcome or that need to be changed.
Briefs usually contain details of the case and lower-court decisions that may not be fully addressed in oral arguments, but can provide context for your story.
The lawyers who wrote the briefs likely will be the ones arguing in court. So, you can get the correct spelling of the lawyers' names from the briefs.
Finally, briefs also can alert you to a new issue when a judge raises a question that was not raised by either side in the briefs.
But don't make the mistake of assuming tough questioning by a judge or justice reflects how she/he will vote.
Sometimes, a tough question is asked to help the judge/justice help justify a decision on behalf of the lawyer's client.
And, sometimes, a tough question is asked to help in drafting arguments the judge/justice will write in support of the lawyer's argument in the opinion or dissenting opinion.
Often, it is far more complicated.
Sometimes a filibuster is launched to force the bill sponsor or leadership to agree to an amendment, unrelated provision or even a different bill.
Some filibusters are launched simply to demonstrate to special interests and/or contributors that those filibustering really tried to kill the measure.
In Missouri, the minority party often launched filibusters simply to run out the clock for how many bills the majority could get passed before the constitutional mandatory adjournment of the session.
If those conducting a filibuster suddenly shut up, it does not necessarily mean the leadership has the votes to shut off debate ("move the previous question" or "cloture"). It could be an indication that a deal has been struck or the purpose of the filibuster achieved.
It arose when a senator conducting a long-winded filibuster suddenly sat down. It wasn't an issue of importance to the senator, so I was puzzled as to why the filibuster and then why she ended the hours-long filibuster without explanation.
When I asked her why the filibuster, she had a simple answer: "to get even." She was mad at the sponsor of the bill she filibustered because of a completely unrelated issue involving her colleague and she simply wanted to subject the sponsor to hours of agonizingly meaningless debate.
But, of course, getting even might not have been the only objective. She also demonstrated she could extract a price if you got crosswise with her.
The filibustering senator was, in her younger years, a gang member. So, I don't rule out she was demonstrating the danger of getting crosswise with her.
The governmental process can run into the late even hours or the early hours of the following morning.
Compounding the problem is that these grueling hours can be a daily, normal routine in government.
It can be exhausting and, more importantly, lead to mental fatigue after several days.
Further, the almost ritualized nature of the governmental process can compound dreariness. You need to be mentally alert because sometimes, in a seemingly ritual routine process, a major story can emerge that you could miss if exhausted or not mentally focused.
Below are some ideas for managing your time.
So, think what will be the story lede.
That can help you focus on what's important if your sitting in a tediously long session that is consumed by minutia -- which so often happens in government.
Some journalism critics might attack this suggestion as having a preconceived notion of the story.
They might have a point. But this advice does not lock you into what you will report. Just the opposite. It can help you better realize the significance of an issue raised that you had not expected when you were thinking about a story lede.
For example, don't let the number hours of a public hearing spent on a minor component of an issue distract you. If the issue raised is important, definitely report it. But don't fall into the trap of concluding time spent always is an indication of significance.
Missouri's Senate demonstrated this point during a 12-hour filibuster a few days before this panel is being written.
They spent tedious hours on all sorts of irrelevant matters. But the only purpose of the debate was to give time for a closed-door session of major players to find a compromise on an anti-crime bill.
The details of that compromise were far, far more important than whatever was being debated in those agonizingly long hours or Senate babble.
It limited can limit your ability to analyze complicated legislative issues and think outside-the-box about ramifications.
I felt an obligation to be in the Capitol when the first committee met in the early morning until the end of a chamber or committee session into the early morning hours of the next day to produce my own stories and edit those of my reporters - day after day.
A dear colleague of mine would take a nap sitting in the legislative chamber press gallery. We both joked that we had covered the process for so many year that our subconscious brains would awaken us if something major happened.
We were correct. More than once, I'd suddenly awaken after drifting asleep during a legislative proceeding to discover a major development had arisen.
Often in the public policy process, what seems minutia can be a key component in a measure. An amendment of just a few words can gut the effectiveness of a rule or a proposal.
But if you spend too much mental energy and time pursuing an insignificant item, it can distract attention and focus from the real story.
Essentially, the lesson is the old adage to "not lose sight of the forest for the trees."
Make a point to do interviews with folks from different sides before the event that you know will run late.
Ask about the plans. That will prepare you for what's coming.
That can help you write a draft of your story or stories as the event is proceeding -- just in case the event runs far longer than you expect.
But I already knew what was going to happen because I'd been told that a GOP Senate caucus meeting earlier that morning had been told the Republican governor opposed the measure because it conflicted with his medical-research economic development efforts.
Beginning a draft as the event is proceeding gives you more time for adding context and thought to your story -- particularly if the event includes endless hours of meaningless babble, as government meetings often do.
For live broadcast stories, jot down on a note pad an outline of what you want to say to make sure that with the adrenaline rush of a deadline, you don't forget a major point you wanted to include.
But you need to be prepared.
Make sure your home computer(s) are set up for streaming.
For legislative chambers that have video streaming, bring home seating charts so you can identify who's speaking. And prepare yourself to recognize voices.
The process is unbelievably complex. Unlike areas like sports, few in the general public care about the complicated process.
Beyond that, you often will encounter deliberate efforts to promote words and phrases that disguise the actual impact of a proposal or rule.
A far more meaningful phrase to the general public than "perfected" is "first-round approval" or "cleared for final approval."
Just keep reminding yourself that you're not putting together a political science class lecture. You're writing a news story for the general public. And usually, although not always, the minuet details of the process are not importance.
And don't even think about including the precise term in your story, as if you're a political science teacher, unless there's a reason to include the term.
Trying to simplify a complicated a public policy issue or process can be so mentally absorbing that you can lose focus on those basic questions a story needs to address.
It help you to mentally recite those letters to make sure you've not missed something -- particularly when my adrenalin is high because I'm facing under a tight deadline.
The financial cost to a government's budget often is a major component in a story about a proposal.
Sometimes, what next can be the story's lede, particularly if you're putting together a story for the next day.
A perfect example involves the difference between arrested, charged, indicted, found gulity and convicted.
In Missouri, technically a conviction does not until after the judge has accepted a guilty verdict (or plea) and imposes a sentence.
So, if the judges suspends imposition of a sentence for the defendant flowing good behavior requirements, the defendant has NOT been convicted -- at least in Missouri.
It's best to ask police for an estimate I can attribute to them.
If you can't get an official estimate, one trick is to use your fingers to block out a group of the crowd and then county how many of those finger-blocks are in the crowd -- adjusting for more people being in your finger block when further away from you.
But that approach is so imprecise that it make be safer to use a phrase describing the crowd as "hundreds" or something like that.
Another approach is to use a description of the crowd size you an report as fact such as "a crowd of protesters that overflowed the Capitol's first floor" or "a crowd that filled the Capitol grounds."
The general public has no concept of quantities that we regularly encounter in state and federal spending -- millions, billions and, with the federal government, trillions of dollars.
To the general public, a $1 million cut might seem enormous. Not so for some of the larger agencies.
So, try to include percentages if helpful -- such as "...the amendment would impose a five percent cut in..."
Beyond that, for TV and print, a chart or graph can be more effective than just raw numbers.
If you look at this and other panels, you'll see that's how this site is organized. And if you think it makes the panels more readable, think what it means to your readers.
This lesson applies to TV stories as well. A bulleted graphic can help viewers focus on the main components of a story.
I'd hold a copy of the bill next to the reporter's ear and ask "what do you hear." The reporter would respond with a puzzled look. My response was since the verb "says," which means talking, I wondered what the reporter heard from the document saying.
Many years later, one of my former students remembered that session telling me it had a remained a lasting reminder.
There is no way we can verify what's in a person's head. Politicians and public officials lie all the time about their motivations to keep their jobs.
I cannot remember a single time that a public official confessed to me on the record that he/she took an action for fear of retaliation by party, legislative leaders or a higher official.
But, in off-the-record conversations, I often was told that explanation.
There are a few times (very few) you can report apparent motivation. But it's only for officials you've known for many years, never have misled you and demonstrated consistency on the issue -- and usually independent of what's in the official's political or financial interests.
An a recent Missouri example is a bill just signed into law by Missouri's governor to address the high firearm homicide rates in the state's two largest cities.
Supporters regularly termed it a "criminal justice reform" bill. That term disguises what it actually does.
The bill increases criminal sentences, and not just for real firearm violations. Even using a fake firearm in a vehicle hijacking -- such as a child with a squirt gun -- could incur a longer sentence.
Democrats and Black legislators did not describe the bill as "reform." The state's only Black Republican voted against the bill. Even a few weeks before signing the bill, the Republican governor voiced concern it would require building new prisons.
An example of the lengths to which public officials will use color words arose in 2002 with language the legislature adopted for the ballot description of a gasoline and diesel fuel tax increase. Neither the word "tax" nor "increase" was used.
Instead, the description was "Shall the additional revenues for transportation be renewed and extended?"
State voters were not fooled by the crafty language. It overwhelmingly was rejected.
But 15 years earlier, Missouri voters approved a motor fuel tax increase with the legislature's ballot description as "supplementing motor fuel user fees."
One year, the legislature actually conducted a poll to find the least offensive ballot description that avoided the term "tax increase" for a tax increase. It turned out to be "revenue enhancement!"
That question brought home that "reform" is a color word implying something favorable. When a journalist uses the word "reform" without attribution, it is reflecting a value judgment by the reporter.
Attribution verbs to use with caution include "stressed," "proclaimed," "promised," etc.
A dear colleague, former federal and statehouse reporter Wes Pippert, reminded me of a writing standard to stick with the simple word "said" for an attribution.
Even worse, you're assuming the statement actually are the words from the person cited in the release.
So many times a statement from a public official in a news release was written by a spokesperson.
One governor at news conferences went so far as to actually say what was in a news release handed out at the start of the news conference, explaining he felt obligated to actually "say" what he would be attributed as saying.
Of course, it also provided a broadcast sound-bite of a carefully crafted statement rather than a rambling answer to a question.
It's such a dominate factor that most folks in the public arena accept and understand such identification.
For example, one of the leading critics of the 2020 Republican bill to impose stiffer penalties on crimes was a Black Republican who made strong arguments about the bill's impact on minorities.
A few years back, an openly gay Missouri legislator welcomed our coverage of the lawmaker's special perspectives.
Great story and he told me he had no objections for me to have one of my reporters talk to him about it.
But do be careful about demographic descriptions of someone that begins with "the first" or "one of the first" or even "one of the few."
Before using such a description, we should ask ourselves if it truly is of news significance and relevant.
When Catherine Hannaway was selected by her members to be the first female Missouri House speaker, it was a huge story which she fully accepted.
But it may be irrelevant about the first female to be director of a specific department if there have been female directors of other departments over the years.
This panel offers a few suggestions on how you can make your stories about public policy more meaningful and powerful for your readers, listeners and viewers.
But just thinking about that word, helps focus you attention on why the story you're writing impacts the general public.
The fascination with the mechanics of politics and public policy that drove so many of us to public policy journalism is just boring to most people.
He was an auto assembly plant worker of Italian descent.
He had just come home from work, sitting in an easy chair listening to my radio station. The TV was on with a baseball game. His wife was in the kitchen making dinner talking about what had happened in the neighborhood. In his lap was the afternoon daily newspaper opened to the sports section.
As all of that was going on, his dog jumped onto the easy chair and began licking his socks.
Then, my story began, competing with all of those distractions for his attention.
Imagining that scene continues to help me focus on the need to have a powerful start to my story.
A dear mentor for me, former CBS Correspondent Dave Dugan, would describe journalists as carnival barkers seeking to get people into the tent.
If the start of the story is boring, you've lost. Attention will return to the sports game, the spouse's conversation or to the dog.
But make sure, if you're going to humanize your story, the person or persons around whom you build the story are an accurate representation of the broader range of people impacted by the issue or problem.
What you want to avoid is using an unusual case which would misrepresent the actual broad nature of the issue or problem.
There are some stories for which there is not an average person example. For the recent impeachment investigation of Missouri's governor, the only human side to the story was the governor and the woman who accused Eric Greitens of sexual assault. Neither of them were talking.
Also, I fear that humanizing a story has become so common that it may not as effective in getting people "into the tent."
I think of my own behavior listening, watching or reading the news. If the first few sentences do not clearly identify the issue, I tend not to pay attention of, if reading a newspaper, go on to the next story.
A dimly lit legislative committee room or administrative hearing room is visually boring. So too are the chambers of the state's appeals courts. Besides that, visually committee rooms all look pretty much the same.
But there are some tricks to provide a more visually interesting component.
For TV standups outside the government building are essential. For radio, voicing the story outside the meeting with "...reporting from outside the House/Senate chamber" provides a more dramatic setting.
For TV, print and the web, graphics are a tremendous tool. You can use them to better explain stories involving money.
Displaying in a TV graphic the specific language of the key element of a rule or bill can be effective.
The danger in all of this is the degree to which politicians create "media events" for no other purpose than to provide visuals for TV stories that might not be very interesting for coverage without the visuals.
A sound bite that displays emotion is powerful in a broadcast story and provides great quotes.
But be careful of letting the drama of a debate cause you to lose sight of the actual policy issue that affects the general public.
Will the administrative panel or committee chair commit as to when the measure will get a vote? If not, why not? What are lobbyists and/or special interests doing to influence the pending decision?
Those are just some of the questions that can be pursued to provide a second-day focus.
There usually is not a clear "what's next" answer after an appellate court hearing. But "...as is usual, the court gave no indication when a decision would be made" has become a standard ending from my state Supreme Court stories.
But it's also a good lesson for broadcast reporters producing stories for the next morning. What's news in the afternoon can become boring history in the morning.
That's why print reporters need to understand how broadcast covers the news. It can help avoid a next-day story that simply repeats what already had been broadcast hours earlier.
A major policy initiative approved by the legislature means little if not funded or significantly underfunded in the budget.
What follows in this panel are basic components in the budget process. The next panel will address how to cover an exceedingly complex process.
For most states, the budget year begins July 1. But the federal budget year begins September 1 -- supposedly because Congress could not get a budget passed by July 1.
But even with another three months, Congress has failed to meet the Sept. 1 deadline, requiring a "continuing authorization" measure to continue spending at the previously appropriated levels after the deadline has been missed.
Whenever you're writing a budget story, you need to make reference to the period it covers. Avoid the technical term "fiscal year" and instead use something akin to "the budget year that begins July first."
The only alternative to deficit spending is to pass a bond issue that borrows money for increased or special spending.
The federal government has no deficit spending restriction -- reflected by a federal government debt of trillions of dollars and growing, particularly with the COVID-19 special appropriations.
As for terms, deficit refers how higher the annual budget is than revenues. The term debt refers to the total multi-year debt of government.
For states that cannot deficit spend, the revenue estimate from the administration and/or legislature can be one of the most important decisions made in the budgetary process.
But can be subject to political manipulation. Years ago in Missouri, the legislature routinely would over-estimate tax collections to justify bloated budgets.
In non-election years, the governor would under-estimate revenue collections so as to build a large surplus that could be spent on building construction projects in elections years.
These budgetary political games have pretty much been stopped in Missouri through a "consensus revenue estimate" adopted by the governor's budget director and legislative appropriations chairs before the governor's annual budget plan is presented to lawmakers.
One is an authorization to spend up to a designated amount. The other is the actually appropriation of money that can be below the amount of authorization.
In Congress, there were separate authorization and appropriation bills.
Be suspicious of budget authorizations. They can be inflated beyond reason.
Years ago in Missouri, to win approval for a gasoline tax increase, the Senate sponsor included an authorization bill that list far more projects than could b funded by the tax increase.
These "stand as appropriated" laws leaves the legislature without power to redirect those moneys to other programs.
Government financial experts have attacked earmarked taxes for restricting government from adjusting spending priorities to reflect evolving needs.
By making the program "subject to appropriation," can mean the measure means nothing.
There are dozens of programs I've seen approved that never got funding appropriated.
Nice opportunity for political bragging at no real cost.
The line-item veto power lets the governor reduce or completely eliminate a spending item approved by the legislature.
It's a power designed to give the chief executive power to assure state spending stays within realistic revenue estimates without vetoing the entire budget bill.
One wrinkle is whether a governor can line item veto language, such as spending restrictions in a budget.
Missouri's Supreme Court has held the governor cannot remove language unless it arises from total elimination of a budget section.
In Missouri, a state budget director revised that term to "restrictions" rather than "withholding" since if the money was not going to be available, it wasn't being withheld -- instead, appropriation authority was being restricted.
After arguing with budget directors for years, I've come to accept their wording as more accurate.
On the federal level, the term has been called "impoundment."
The budget restriction power is a tool for governor to assure the state does no deficit spend when revenue collections fall below expectations.
What follows is limited to Missouri, because that's my sole experience and knowledge about this type of budget.
In Missouri, a capital improvement appropriation usually will be the total expenditure expected, even if it takes more than one fiscal year to complete the project.
In a way, including the full multi-year appropriation into the budget line is a demonstration of administration and legislative commitment to assure funding for however long it takes to complete the project.
Realize that for a large building construction project, the first year might be restricted to architectural planning that will be a fraction of the total cost.
A reappropriation is a reappropriation in a subsequent fiscal year of the remaining unspent money left to complete the project.
Because the capital improvement budget proposed for a fiscal year includes large amounts that will not be spent in that fiscal year, the numbers can be misleading.
Some are for funding for true unexplained emergencies that government is facing or unexpected federal revenue, such as the huge amount of COVID-19 federal relief Missouri expected to get in the closing months of the 2020 fiscal year.
But, the supplemental budget can also be used as a trick make the regular budget bills passed the prior year to look unrealistically smaller.
For many years, Missouri's legislature deliberately passed a budget for Medicaid health care coverage that many lawmakers knew was substantially lower than expected for one of Missouri government's largest spending items.
Conservative legislators were able to approve a smaller "welfare" budget because they knew they could come back to the following year to pass a "supplemental" budget for Medicaid that would get less news attention.
For states that cannot deficit spend, a cut in one program often is made to provide higher funding for another program.
It's part of the lesson about there always being more than one side in a story.
When it comes to a budget item, there can be a pile of other sources that gain funding from a cut in a particular source.
This "From:" funding line is critical.
It's the bottom line as to where the money appropriated actually comes. And, budget makers can play with that figure to make an appropriation appear larger than it will be.
One line will be state tax revenue (General Revenue) that is assured, unless the governor imposes a line-item veto or funding restriction. This item usually is both an authorization as well as an appropriation (see the previous panel for an explanation).
But other "From:" sources include federal funds, agency fees or outside income over which the state or local government legislature does not have power to obtain.
Instead, these funding sources amount to not much more than telling an agency "if you can get it, we authorize you to spend it."
It's one of the reasons that budget stories should focus on what the legislature or local governing board actually appropriates in funds it controls rather than authorizations.
An example arose with a Missouri state hospital years ago. Facing revenue shortages, the governor proposed a budget that deeply cut appropriations of state tax dollars to the hospital, but grossly over-estimated how much the hospital could collect in fees and health insurance claims -- far higher than the hospital said was realistic.
If you looked at the total budget, it looked like a hefty increase for the hospital. But if you looked at the appropriation of state funds, it was a cut.
At one time, the Missouri legislature would appropriate "$1E" for federal funds to agencies. Although not defined by state law, is was intended to mean that an agency could spend as much federal funds as the agency can get.
The $1E has since been abandoned by Missouri's legislature.
Realize that what had been appropriated by the legislature in the prior year can be reduced by the chief executive with line-item vetoes and spending restrictions.
Occasionally in Missouri, a state administration attempting to make a governor's budget recommendation appear to be a higher percentage increase by citing as the current year's budget for an agency what the governor allowed the agency to spend -- not what the legislature appropriated.
Comparing an appropriation recommendation to the lower spending authorization the governor is misleading.
It's comparing apples to oranges because the governor always can reduce or restrict even if the legislature approves his entire recommendation. And I've never known a governor to disclose when he presents a budget what he expects to line-item veto when he signs the bill or restrict during the course of the fiscal year.
But don't make the mistake of comparing tax collections for the last month to the prior year's month.
The problem is that many taxes are not filed with government nor calculated by the tax-collection agency on weekends.
There can be one more or less weekend between the same months from different years.
In an average month, that's nearly a seven percent different in business days.
A far better comparison is the current year to date with the prior year to date, but only after the first one or two months of the fiscal year.
Often, the budget also can be a vehicle for restricting agency activities.
In Missouri, the Republican-controlled legislature has used the budget to prohibit or restrict use of state funds for abortion-related health services and college tuition breaks for students from other countries.
But for all the chest thumping, it's rare these disagreements are real obstacles.
As one long-time appropriations committee chair told me, when you're dealing with a number there's always a simple solution -- split the difference.
Further, some major cuts approved by a chamber are made just to put leverage on the other chamber by cutting a pet project of the other chamber's legislative or budget leader.
Essentially, it's a negotiating ploy that "we'll agree to restoring the cut we made in your leader's pet project if you'll restore the cut you made for a project our chamber wants."
A demonstration of this view that you can always split the difference perspective arose from the only time I've seen Missouri's legislature fail to pass a budget before the constitutional deadline, forcing a special session.
It involved language prohibiting family funds from going to Planned Parenthood. It was not a difference in numbers, so there was no way to split the difference.
Budget/appropriations committees tend to be composed of the more senior legislators with extensive knowledge about the internal issues of agencies.
Because of their budget powers, these lawmakers get tips from advocacy groups and disgruntled agency employees.
But usually, trying to adjust figures for inflation just complicates a story.
Numbers and statistics are major components for many public policy stories.
And, unfortunately, politicians and agencies will hand out statistics that, to put it mildly, are not quite meaningful, if not flat misleading.
At the time this panel is being written, the U.S. is being inundated with misleading and down-right false information about COVID-19.
If the original source is not disclosed, there's probably a reason for the secrecy. So there could be a good story to dig out the original source.
It also gives you the ability to explore details such as how the data was collected, its age and other information that might put the reported number in a different light.
So the questions that should be asked or pursued is how much the association paid for the study, what other clients the study's author has, whether there's a pattern of pro-business studies, etc.
This recommendation is not limited to private interests. It includes government itself, as demonstrated by COVID-19.
For decades, the independent federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been a key resource for reporters on health information.
But the Trump administration switched COVID-19 data processing from CDC to a department, Health and Human Services, whose secretary serves at the pleasure of the president.
That's going to raise legitimate questions if there suddenly are unexpected declines in COVID-19 infection, hospitalization or death rates.
Almost all the numbers we cover as reporters are not independent.
But what's important is to understand what makes a number dependent and whether that makes a comparison misleading.
Further, thinking about the factors that could affect a figure can lead you to more thoughtful stories.
COVID-19 test results is a perfect example. Factors that can affect positive test result includes age, race and living conditions.
Misleading numerical comparisons has been a major problem with COVID-19 figures.
The COVID-19 positivity rate is a prefect example. That term refers to the percentage of people tested for whom there was a positive test result.
Comparing that figure with an earlier positivity figure is a bit misleading.
The reason is that in the early months of COVID-19, ability to get a test was so limited that only those with significant symptoms were being tested. So the positivity would be expected to be high.
Later, as testing became more accessible, there has been a major push to test as many possible including those with absolutely no symptoms of infection. So, of course, there should be a drop in the percentage of those who test positive.
And if the positivity rate is higher after testing becomes more accessible, it's a major story.
In logic, that's making sure that what you are comparing is independent of date.
A couple of examples to demonstrate the importance of this issue. Daily COVID-19 daily figures are a perfect example. Comparing infection rates of yesterday with today can be misleading.
For example, in Missouri test results often were not delivered over the weekend, causing a spike in positive tests reported on Monday or Tuesday.
Missouri's Health Department director, and other health experts, have advised that comparisons on infection rates should be between at least one week rather than single days.
Another example, explained in the budget coverage panel, involves tax collection data. In that case, comparing even one month to another month can be misleading.
The reason is that some tax collections are not sent to the state on weekends. And, even if sent, may not be processed and reported by tax collection agencies on weekends when many government agencies are closed.
Mandatory information included the margin of error, how the poll was conducted, the percentage who did not answer and the specific question that was asked.
Unfortunately, those standards are not as rigorously followed as in the past. And that's made it easier to trick reporters with unreliable polls.
Key issues for a voter-opinion poll include whether it was limited to registered voters or those who said they likely would vote.
Another issue is whether the results were adjusted to correct for under-represented groups such as minorities, elderly, gender, etc. It's a standard practice in polling data.
Instead, this panel will identify some of the more significant or unique ethical issues faced by those of us who cover public policy.
It makes it even more important that we demonstrate in every way we can that we don't have an axe to grind.
Initiative and referendum signatures are public, so avoid signing them.
Don't wear anything that could reflect a bias. Even sports apparel.
Realize, your favorite major professional sports team has a huge interest in issues you may cover including tax breaks, government-funded stadium expansions and much more.
I refused to comply, telling the sergeant of arms that since there was no Senate rule on the issue, it was up to him to act. He didn't, but somehow the reporter got the message and stopped wearing the display so offensive to Missouri senators.
Offering a drink to a visitor is so common that it's almost an automatic greeting in a legislator's office.
Don't fall into the trap of accepting this stuff. The simplest answer is to say no, or for sure, don't accept an alcoholic beverage.
A tricky question involves snacks or other food items that available to everyone, including the public.
In Missouri, one dairy association annually has table in the Capitol rotunda serving ice cream to anyone who stops by. And both the House and Senate have coffee dispensers accessible to anyone in the building.
When you partake of the benefits of special interests in such a public setting, a lot of folks you cover or who work for whom you cover will see you -- leaving an impression.
It became a serious issue when a newspaper reported in a story about the weekly booze deliveries to legislative offices that newsrooms offices also were on the receiving end. Whether the newsroom accepted them or not, the deliveries were left outside the door.
It was a sensitive issue. One statehouse reporting colleague launched a campaign decades ago to get me fired because I was trying to organize a collective request from the statehouse press corps to stop leaving booze at our offices.
As a footnote, lobbyists no longer drop off booze at press corps offices.
Access to many legislators, staffers, lobbyists and officials is so easy and informal that the person with whom you are talking may not be aware that it's an on-the-record conversation.
And for your more frequent sources, particularly for a brief hallway conversation, they may think it's a confidential conversation.
Unless it's obvious it's on-the record, such has having a microphone or digital recorder in your hand, I think the best practice to state up front the conditions.
And make sure your source knows the explicit provisions. In DC, there were precise meanings for terms like "deep background," "background," "not for attribution" and "off the record."
That also means that if I just want information from a staffer or lobbyist, but nothing I'll attribute, I'll start the conversation saying something like "what I'm going to be asked will not be attributed to you." And if is on deeper background, I sometimes will "this is from my own understanding so I get the story correct."
At first, I concluded a confidentiality agreement ended at death since the source had nothing to lose by identification. So I'd identify them in talks about government coverage with my journalism students.
But I began wondering if a source would be upset if the source knew that after his/her reputation would be soiled with colleagues who learned the source had betrayed their secrets.
I did have one Senate leader who volunteered I was free to reveal anything he had said to me after he left office. Former Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard was deeply motivated about preserving Senate traditions and history.
Besides, it was not a particularly major offer. He knew that many in the Senate, including his strongest critics, were aware he was a regular source for me.
As a footnote, my panel on mentors reveals now-deceased two major confidential sources of mine.
But both had been educators and I knew them well enough that I have no doubt they would be delighted that they were being used as a teaching tool.
It's usually a tactic used by TV to catch the official in a more interesting visual backdrop than office. And, at times, it's just stage craft to make the reporter appear more aggressive than having a scheduled interview in the official's office.
One time, a TV reporter rushed onto the Missouri House floor against House rules for no other purpose that getting video of him being stopped from interviewing a local legislator.
These kind of ambushes are unethical if the official regularly makes himself/herself available for reporter interviews.
A St. Louis TV crew came under intense criticism from statehouse reporters when the crew shot video of the reporter rushing to catch the governor at an airport as he was boarding the governor's plane.
There was absolutely no need for the ambush. The governor, Mel Carnahan, was the most accessible I've covered. He had frequent news conferences and always would honor an interview request as soon as possible.
But here are times when an ambush may be the only way to get access to an official.
Teasdale rarely held news conferences and rarely granted interview requests.
Surprisingly, however, he did not object to our ambushes and, instead, willingly agreed to an interview for as long as we needed.
But children are quite different issue. Without parental consent, be careful about publishing or broadcasting identifiable information of children.
But, recent live-streaming on the web of legislative hearings has made largely irrelevant any concerns about identifying a committee witness providing deeply personal stories.
I learned this lesson from a multi-week investigative series on major problems in the state's mental health hospitals.
One of my sources was a person confined to a state hospital for schizophrenia.
He was a tremendous resource in helping me understand the ailment, its effects and the conditions he was experiencing in a state facility.
To protect his privacy, I did not use his name.
After he heard my series, he contacted me to complain he never asked not to be identified. He fully understood I was protecting his privacy, but he told me it had an unintended consequence of contributing to a sense by some that mental illness is something of shame.
He argued that his condition, in no way, limited his ability to make an informed consent for identification. I think he was correct.
The lesson I learned from him decades ago became a lesson at trying to be too "politically correct."
I leave his name out of this panel only because I do not remember it and no longer have a record of his name.
The attorney warned it could be a federal crime if I recorded where the person had a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as a private office.
That was decades ago and the federal law may have been changed. Further, states can have their own differing laws about secret recording.
But there's a huge caveat for broadcasting a phone recording. Under FCC rules, you must advise the person you are recording. If a recording is broadcast on a licensed station without notice provided before the recording started, it can lead to a large FCC fine against your station.
If you truly are serious about becoming a public policy journalist, be sure to concentrate part of your courses on the complex array of subjects you will encounter.
Below are the public policy courses Phill pursued in his graduate and undergraduate years:
Leuthold regularly attended political gatherings, so had first-hand knowledge about the realities of the political process and voter behavior.
From my political science courses, I even learned about the parliamentary system that helped me better put into context the legislative system we have in the U.S. And, it later provided me with a solid foundation for journalism training in emerging and re-emerging democracies.
Frankly, I don't think I would have been qualified to cover Congress for NPR without these political science courses.
From my political science course research project for Leuthold, I statistically proved from national polling data how opinion on a single domestic issue correlated with opinions on much larger number of issues -- but domestic and, to my surprise, international issues.
That research project along with another course I'll cite below, made me more comfortable identifying a politician as "liberal" or "conservative." I knew it was a statistically valid term for a large percentage of respondents to national polls going back for decades.
Realize, that was decades ago when our country was so less ideologically divided. But my research project found a growing ideological factor among potential voters.
If you can understand the budget and complicated government accounting systems, you are empowered to delve into the deeper secrets of government.
A government budgeting course also will teach you how about information you can gain from government accounting systems.
The value of accounting documents for journalists was demonstrated in Missouri when a reporter discovered a Senate leader was spending large amounts of money with his government-financed phone number to call a girl friend.
He had been the administrative assistant to a U.S. Senator and then handled the budget for the U.S. Agriculture Department.
As some former Missouri budget directors learned, from what I learned from Botner, I quickly could spot errors in their documents or evasions.
My research project for his course was to evaluate how well the state administration was complying with national standards for "program budgeting" which had come into vogue.
It was easy to identify how the state failed, but digging through the budgetary, with Botner's advice, gave me a solid background about the budget documents available.
First, so much of what we cover involves constiutional restrictions and requirements on government that have evolved from two centuries of court decisions.
Second, by digging through those Supreme Court decisions and argument, you'll be better prepared to cover appellate level court proceedings.
I took the courses on whim, but what I learned empowered my reporting in more ways than I expected.
The courses were taught by a history professor, Bill Wiecek. But because he also was a lawyer who required his students dig into the details of Supreme Court decisions, I became empowered to cover the complicated legal and constitutional issues that govern so much of what I've covered in government.
It was from Wiecek's second course on post-Civil War constitutional history that I gained a much deeper understanding about the overriding importance of the 14th Amendment to American public policy.
More than once, I found myself correcting lawyers in the legislature when they misinterpreted constitutional law -- including one of my best sources who later became an appellate judge. I began to realize that much of law school is focused on procedural matters rather than a deep understanding of the constitutional foundations that govern government.
One study concluded that factors like prevailing wage rates, utility costs and transportation costs had a larger financial impact in business relocation than tax cuts designed to attract the relocation of business plants.
Even the quality of public schools was a factor because if affected the ability to recruit executives.
That research is decades old, but it's given me more confidence on how to question whether a tax break being pushed by politicians for "economic growth" actually has solid foundation.
It actually has become a major issue in Missouri as to whether the state is gaining or losing from tax credits and tax breaks.
A course in statistics can give you more power to understand what those numbers mean and, more importantly, realize when numbers presented to you are misleading.
Knowing logic standard of "necessary, but not sufficient" can help you accurately condense into a more general lede that will help the reader, listener or viewer understand what you're reporting.
I initially found my political psychology course exploring the psychological reasons for political behavior and beliefs to be a bit off the wall. And as a working reporter, I refused to include in the required term paper my own political beliefs and how they were formed (a refusal that knocked down my grade for the course by one letter).
But from the course, I gained a better understanding about potential foundations of ideology, voter behavior and politician values.
It continues to help me better frame questions of public officials that are more likely to reveal core values.
Sociology includes group behavior. And group behavior involves a lot of what we cover including legislative groups, political parties and activist organizations. In a way, they're like tribes!
For an article we co-authored on statehouse reporting, Gassaway included a concept he learned from sociology about the advantages groups with a physical location enjoy.
Until that article, I had not fully appreciated how citizen advocates are less empowered because they don't have an office in the state Capital nor a regular physical presence in the Capitol.
You can better understand from where a public official might be coming if understand the official's religious beliefs.
It also provided a profound foundation for my international journalism efforts in India and Mulsim Uzbekistan
I still vividly remember a conversation I had with a group of young journalists in India. All Hindus, I was shocked they did not know even the basics of Muslim faith -- the dominate faith of bordering Pakistan and the second largest religion in their own country.
Our evening discussion became a bit a seminar as I explained to them some of the basics of the Muslim religion they did not realize.
I suspect that despite my Buddhist philosophy background, my understanding of differing religions may have contributed to a relationship for several years teaching students from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome and the Spanish University of Navarra, founded by the founder of Opus Dei.
But be careful about potential conflicts of interest that might restrict future reporting assignments. You likely will not be allowed to cover the person or agency for which you interned and maybe not the issues in which you were involved -- at least initially.
The director, Ed Lambeth, had been a Washington correspondent for Gannett News Service and subsequently founded the school's Washington Reporting Program.
Because of Lambeth's experience covering Congress, i learned volumes about public policy journalism.
But the most important influence from him on me was a far better understanding of the special ethical issues confronting those of us covering public policy.
First, courses like copy editing will teach you discipline in language that can help you avoid embarrasing gramatical mistakes. Besides, language precision is particularly important in public policy journalism.
Second, you'll get a better understanding about the skills required to dig out information of complicated stories.
The lessons about language precision that I learned from my copy editing teacher, Dale Spencer, helped me make potentially career damaging verbal mistakes in live reports.
Decades after that course, I still consider it one of the most valuable courses I took in journalism school.
First, if you know how a broadcast journalist will report something you also are covering, you will be more prepared to produce for your morning newspaper something that does not just duplicate what your readers already saw or hear from broadcast news reports.
Second, broadcast journalists place far greater emphasis on grabbing the attention of our listeners and viewers at the very start of our stories.
But I think because we regularly face live or near-live reporting pressures, we know how to quickly frame and focus a story without having the luxury of hours of time for contemplation.
Regularly my print students were staggered how I could just spout off the top of my head a lede when a student was having trouble organizing a story.
One reason probably is because the subject matter is so complex that its easier to switch from broadcast to print or in the other direction.
The late Bob Watson is a perfect example. He covered Missouri government for the local TV station, but then transitioned to the statehouse correspondent for the local newspaper.
Another colleague, Terry Ganey, had been a local radio reporter before he became an Associated Press correspondent covering the Missouri Statehouse and then bureau chief of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Missouri statehouse bureau.
She was a dedicated newspaper-focused student. But less than a decade later, Audrey Moon became a TV news director.
I suspect Audrey was more prepared to move from print into broadcast by her experience working with TV and radio reporters in my converged MDN newsroom.
I'm a perfect example of the advantages in this recommendation. Although initially a broadcast reporter, I helped finance my graduate program by stringing for both St. Louis major daily newspapers (the Globe-Democrat no longer exists).
That print experience, along with print courses undergraduate broadcast students once were required to take, were among my qualifications to expand my faculty role to supervising print students in the State Government Reporting Program and to write a column on statehouse issues for Missouri newspapers that I continue to this day.
While in school, you may have a deep and sincere commitment to journalism, but it may not be possible or economically feasible for a lifetime career.
Some simply lost their jobs. Some got frustrated by the decline in newsroom staffing. And for some, it was necessary to meet growing family financial obligations.
Do not make the mistake of treating sources as just a resource for a particular story you are pursuing.
From a source you can learn such more including the history and background of issues far beyond the immediate story.
And from your interest in learning more about a source's area of expertise or responsibility, you may also develop a far more valuable contact who will alert you to emerging issues in her/his area of responsibility and feel more confident to go off the record to provide a deeper understanding of an issue you're covering.
So, don't limit your contact with a major, cooperative source only to formal interviews or just when pursuing a specific story.
As a footnote, I've limited the list to those who are deceased so I'm not violating confidentiality agreements.
A former school teacher and administrator, Merrell offered to regularly tell me what he was learning about state government and the legislature because I was a faculty member teaching journalism students about state government reporting.
Every year, we had an extended discussion enough weeks after the legislative session to reduce temptation to break the confidentially agreement. All completely off the record, but to help me better understand how the system works.
Little did I know when I first met Merrell that he would become Appropriations Committee chair and then Senate President Pro, the chamber's top leader -- a position Merrell held for a record six years.
So from those sessions, I gained an incredibility deep understanding about the secret aspects of the legislative process as well as how legislative leaders negotiate and pressure both governors and state agencies.
I also learned about the kind of deals that are struck with special interests to move legislation.
But he also was more engaged with the legislature than any university administrator I've seen. He'd regularly go cat-fishing with the Senate's top leader, rural Sen. Pat Patterson, although both acknowledged it was much an excuse to drink beer by the river.
We had a weekly phone call every Sunday for no other purpose than Ratchford telling me what of interest had gone on. Much of it, obviously, involved higher education. But it helped me better understand the politics of higher education and governing a large agency.
And I had an insider's view the higher budget struggles with the legislature and the intense competition among the independent public universities.
Like with Merrell, it was completely off the record, but I was free to pass along to reporters on the home campus town of MU story ideas, so long as I kept the source private.
None of those reporters suspected I had a direct pipeline to the university's top administrator. They just assumed I was passing along information from the statehouse.
My relationship with Robb began pursuing documentary investigations into mental health institutions. In addition were breaking news stories about the conflicts Robb had with non-medical members of the Mental Health Commission.
He eventually gave me carte-blanch access to state mental institutions.
But just as rewarding were the hours he spent teaching me about mental health medical issues, personality disorders and symptoms that I've found far more useful than I suspected.
A British navy veteran of WW II, Robb had a direct and tough perspective of mental health issues that made my sessions with him even more rewarding.
My first contact with him came after an evening phone call from the PIO for the Corrections Department asking if I would be one of the few reporters to sit in on a negotiating session with a group of penitentiary inmate leaders.
At issue was the department director's decision to desegregate cell housing. It had created such tension that there were legitimate concerns about a prison riot.
The meeting with inmate leaders was effort to find a compromise. They immediately demanded reporters be presence. Thus the request for my appearance.
Wyrick was a tough, old-fashioned and hard-nosed guy who had risen through the ranks in prisons. He openly defended physical abuse of inmates when there was no other option to control behavior.
To this day, I wonder why Wyrick opened up so much to me. He even gave me unsupervised full access to the penitentiary at any time, night or day.
The only condition was that I tell Wyrick anything I learned. Wyrick had a reputation for a widespread network of snitches.
Of course, without guards present, I developed my own network of snitches of inmates who passed through their visitors story tips to me. Using visitors to prevent guards reading mail or overhearing phone conversations to me.
The compromise we reached was that I interview Wyrick before producing any story -- an easy compromise to make since getting the other side is essential in journalism anyway and our agreement precluded identifying my inmate sources.
I made most of my trips to the pen in the evening, not just because it was easier to find inmates I wanted to interview when then confined to their cells for the night, but (to be frank) also for security.
From that access to inmates without guards present and from the candid conversations with Wyrick, I learned volumes about the reality of prisons, the conflicts guards face and criminal behavior.
I discovered that despite the reputation of guards, some had soft spots in their hearts for some inmates.
My students also learned from Wyrick who was a regular guest for my seminar guests at the seminars for my statehouse journalism students.
In fact, it was one of my students who asked a blunt question to Wyrick about use of physical abuse to control inmates that led a surprise admission.
As a footnote, it turned out that inmate resistance to desegregation of cell assignments involved sexual orientation. Inmates simply did not want to disclose to guards who would be making the assignments their sexual orientation or fears.
The solution to peaceful desegregation was to have inmate leaders make the cell assignments without disclosing reasons to the guards. Of course, that also further empowered the power of inmate leaders.
Another footnote about my deal with Wyrick. The story about which he had the strongest disagreement was one generated by an inmate telling me there was a mentally deficient inmate who regularly was assaulted to grab whatever he had purchased from the prison canteen -- a story confirmed by other inmates.
Their concern that this normally genteel inmate eventually would violently resist and get killed. Harold Robb confirmed for me that sudden violent reaction was a real possibility.
When I talked to Wyrick, he adamantly denied anything like that could be happening in his prison.
After my story was broadcast, Wyrick confessed to me that digging into the issue, he discovered it was a problem. Turned out I maybe was a snitch.
It led to a series of stories about inadequate mental health screening and treatment in prisons.