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Ross Rambles: What the heck does it mean?

Monday, September 12, 2005

When I first started working as a reporter, way back when I could see my feet without bending over, my early board or council meeting articles would contain phrases I didn't understand.

If a school board member or administrator said something like "allowable growth is projected at 3 percent for the next fiscal year," I simply reported what was said.

I didn't want to display my ignorance by asking what the heck "allowable growth" is. I was satisfied that I had done my journalistic duty by conveying exactly what was said and I took pride in not confusing the word "fiscal" with "physical."

After a few times of not being able to explain what I had written, I decided I needed to learn the terms I use in covering public bodies. I found that public officials were helpful in explaining such things and rarely laughed at me for my ignorance.

I talked to the school superintendent about school board meetings, the county auditor about board of supervisors meetings and the city administrator, mayor or city clerk about city council meetings.

The questions are best asked immediately after a meeting because public officials don't always sit by the phone the next day, keeping the line clear for a call from me like I think they should.

Also, individual board or council members, usually presidents or chairmen, are helpful and, for specific details, department heads are helpful when they can be reached. They don't always stick around for a call from me either.

So now whenever I refer to "allowable growth" in an article, I explain that this is the increase in the percentage of per-pupil funding from a combination of local property tax and state aid in accordance to a formula set by the state legislature.

Occasionally, I go into more detail about the state funding formula and about revenue sources for a district outside of the formula.

I provide similar information on such terms as Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts; first, second or third ordinance readings; the difference between a revenue bond and a general obligation bond and other such terms.

This all makes for dry reading but if readers don't want to wade through all that boring stuff, they can read about the latest Cherokee sex scandal instead.

Come to think of it, we haven't had the space to print the latest Cherokee sex scandal, having taken up all the space on defining the finer points of evidentiary rules in administrative hearings, or some other such bureaucratic lore.

Having gained some knowledge of the acronyms and other jargon used on a specific beat (area of news coverage), a reporter can easily slip into the habit of using the jargon in writing, either no longer realizing that the jargon is unfamiliar to many readers or feeling that having once explained a term, it is unreasonable for anyone to ever be confused by it during the remainder of the reporter's career.

It is also easy for a board or council member to slip into the habit of using unclarified jargon. When running for reelection, many elected officials say they didn't really start understanding what was going on in meetings until close to the end of their first term. Audience members are never expected to understand what is going on.

Public officials are not being intentionally obscure. Occasionally, a board or council member will interrupt a discussion to explain something to people in the audience but at other times, it simply doesn't occur to them to do so.

As I did, interested citizens can get clarification after a meeting on something that was discussed. New or even not-so-new members of some public body should not feel embarrassed to seek clarification about terminology used during a meeting. Nobody will laugh at you - honest.