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Ross Rambles: Meteor Destroys Cherokee County

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

In a recent Chronicle Times, I displayed wisdom gained from many years as a journalist as well as skills gained from a first rate university education when I wrote the headline, 'Supervisors have routine meeting.'

That is the most important part of writing an article, creating an exciting headline that will make people want to read the article.

I would have preferred to use the headline, 'Bloodthirsty supervisors perform bizarre sexual rituals,' but I felt that the headline I used was closer to accurately describing what actually happened at the meeting. Journalism teachers regard accuracy as something newspapers should strive for, journalism teachers being hopelessly idealistic and na*ve.

Usually, I can find something to highlight in a headline of a meeting of a public body that is slightly more interesting than the fact that the officials dealt with routine matters. When we had two newspapers in town and I worked for the Chronicle, I would make fun of the fact that the Daily Times got into the rut of headlines stating 'Cherokee City Council Meets', 'Cherokee School Board Meets', or 'County Supervisors Meet.'

Such headlines reflect a flaw in approach toward reporting on a meeting. A fundamental rule of journalism states that a reporter reports on what happens at a meeting, not the fact that a meeting took place.

Reporters can sometimes get into the rut of relaying information in a dry, chronological order more appropriate to official minutes. I've seen more than one lead sentence (second in importance only to the headline) read something like, "A quorum being present, the school board meeting began at 7 p.m."

Hopefully, something more interesting happened than a quorum being present or the meeting beginning at 7 p.m.

Actually, some meetings of public bodies can be interesting. Often, the interest is generated by controversy, which many public officials would understandably prefer not be publicized.

Sometimes I hear officials lament the lack of civility that occasionally (actually rather rarely) occurs at local meetings of public officials. They expect me to be sympathetic to their viewpoint, not understanding a basic fact about journalists. Spreading out chunks of a bloody carcass is a good way to attract both scavengers and journalists (if listing these groups separately is not a redundancy).

This assessment of journalists is a bit overdone, at least for those working in small towns. I have actually written commentary in support of civility at public meetings. But I also believe that officials can go too far the other way in trying to maintain consensus, or the public perception of consensus.

Trying to balance basic rules of courtesy with an atmosphere that encourages open expression of disagreement is not an easy thing to do.