Chapter 19: Speeches & meetings basics

In this chapter, we discuss the best ways of reporting speeches and meetings, how to prepare yourself and how to gather news at such events. In the next chapter we discuss how to write your stories and we give advice on covering big events such as conferences and demonstrations.

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In this chapter, we will discuss ways of writing news stories from speeches and meetings. We deal with these together because there are lots of similarities in the way journalists cover such events.

Both are means by which people communicate with each other in public, although speeches are usually a one-way process (from the speaker to the audience) whereas meetings usually involve communication between the individuals taking part. In covering a speech, journalists are generally part of the audience, while at meetings such as councils or committees, journalists may find themselves the only members of the audience.

The challenge for journalists

Speeches and meetings are both unlike interviews, where the journalist is an active participant, putting questions and able to ask for more details. At speeches or meetings, a reporter usually has no control over where and when they take place, or the subjects under discussion. In an interview, reporters should guide their interviewees through questioning. At speeches and meetings the speakers themselves decide what they want to say. The journalist has to listen to what is being said and select which parts to make notes on before writing the news story.

It may seem that journalists have no control over collecting news at speeches and meetings. This is not so. There are several things you can do to help you get the information you need to write your story. If you follow these steps carefully, covering speeches and meetings can be a very interesting and rewarding part of journalism.

Although we are treating speeches and meetings as a special type of assignment, most of the skills needed are those found in other areas of journalism already covered in this manual. The essentials are:

  • The ability to recognise the most newsworthy aspects of a story, and to select key points from a mass of information.
  • Good shorthand or a fast writing speed to take down what is said. If the organisers allow it, use a tape recorder. (See Chapter 16: Interviewing basics.)
  • A confident approach to new people and new situations.
  • The ability to compress many thousands of words into clear, concise and accurate news stories.

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What are meetings?

There are, of course, many different types of meetings. One could say that whenever two or more people get together there is a meeting. However, for the purpose of this chapter, a meeting is a gathering of several people with a specific purpose, usually in a planned and organised way, with a formal or semi-formal structure. Thus meetings range from small sub-committees to international conventions - and all are a possible source of stories for the good journalist.

The thing to remember about all meetings is that they do not only provide news for other people. Most of your readers or listeners will belong to some group or other, and they will like to hear news of their meetings, even if they were present themselves.

Many organisations will inform the newsdesk about dates, times and venues of their meetings, so that these can be entered in the diary. Lots of organisations have regular weekly, fortnightly or monthly meetings, so it is worth making a note in your newsdesk diary of when they are held, for example, "the second Thursday in the month".

But you will get some of your best leads on meetings by regular and careful reading of the public notices columns of the newspapers, or from posters stuck on walls, trees or lamp-posts. If the organisers think that a meeting is important or interesting enough to advertise in the newspaper or on posters, it may be interesting enough to report. There are, of course, many occasions when a meeting is little more than a social get-together. In such a case, it might be a waste of time attending yourself, but you should check beforehand to assess the situation. If you decide not to attend, make a note to check up by phone with the organisers the following day, to see if anything newsworthy came out of the meeting.

Anyone can organise a meeting, although most can be classified under the following headings:

Government

These can be local, provincial, regional, national or international. As the decisions they reach will probably affect ordinary people, they are usually of public interest. These can range from, for example, sittings of national parliaments to meetings of local councils. Whenever they make decisions which can affect people's lives, they are newsworthy.

Company

Because companies produce consumer goods and services, they are generally newsworthy. They also usually provide employment and support economic development, locally, nationally or internationally. Most companies like to run their business meetings behind closed doors, away from the eyes of the media and their own competitors. However, public companies are usually forced by law to hold certain meetings in public, especially their annual general meeting. This may be restricted to shareholders, but there are usually enough people present who are willing to talk afterwards about what went on. Alternately, your media organisation could buy a nominal share in a public company so that it can send a representative as a legitimate shareholder.

Special interest groups

These can include such bodies as chambers of commerce, parents and teachers associations, the Friends of the Earth, trade unions and women's groups. Although some may wish to conduct much of their business behind closed doors, most welcome the attention of the media and provide single-issue stories which are generally newsworthy. Sporting clubs and associations are usually a good source of news.

Political parties

Most of the regular party meetings are held in private and are attended only by party members. However, because they often make important political decisions for people in power, they are a valuable source of news. In many countries, political parties hold local meetings to select candidates for elections and hold annual meetings to elect leaders. These national meetings are called conventions or annual conferences and are a special kind of meeting which we will discuss later.

Educational, cultural, social or religious

Some meetings are simply organised to inform or educate people. They make no decisions which directly affect people's lives, but opinions expressed can form the basis of a news story or a feature. For example, sermons in public acts of worship can be newsworthy. In some countries, sermons are the only forum for political opposition or dissenting voices.

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Logistics

The best way to report on a speech or a meeting is to attend it. That way you will know as much as possible about what happened, minimising the chance of making mistakes. Also, you will not have to rely on the reports of other people, who may not be trained journalists.

We said earlier that covering speeches and meetings can present special challenges, mainly because the events are not under your control. You have to cope with the practical aspects of getting there, getting the story and reporting it. We call these practical aspects the logistics of the task. The section which follows gives you practical advice on how to overcome any logistical problems you might find.

Preparation

You can save yourself a lot of time and effort if you prepare the groundwork before you go.

You must make sure that you have the correct date, time and venue of the speech or meeting. It should not take long to make a quick telephone check with an organiser to ensure that it is still going ahead as planned.

When you write your report, make sure you include details of date and place, but do not put them in the intro unless they are important by themselves. A mountaineering club which holds its annual general meeting on the top of a mountain is news. Holding the meeting in a hall is not.meeting on a mountainAlso, find out what kind of speech or meeting it is. Is it a regular or an extraordinary meeting? Will there be any guest speakers who might be interesting? What special issues might be raised? Who might object? Ask if the speech or meeting will be in public or in private. If it will not be open to the Press, arrange in advance for somebody who will be there to see you immediately it ends and tell you what happened. This is where a journalist who has good contacts scores over one who has not.

Find out about the organisation beforehand. Some meetings are obvious (such as a sitting of Parliament) but what do you know about Rotary, for example? (Rotary are business or professional people who meet to do charitable work.) You will waste time and be embarrassed if you turn up for any event knowing nothing about the group organising it. There are newspaper files, directories and other references. You can ask colleagues in your newsroom what they know and also check at your local library. This is especially useful when you are covering a speech by an academic.  Try to read something they have written.

Do not be shy of contacting the organisers themselves and ask for information. Journalists are thought to be experts on all subjects. We know they are not, but it is better to ask for more information after a bit of preparation than to approach people in total ignorance.

On arrival
  • Try to arrive at the meeting a few minutes early. This will give you time to:
  • Introduce yourself to the organisers if necessary;
  • Get a list of names and copies of prepared speeches;
  • Arrange to meet people afterwards for comment;
  • Settle in your place before the meeting starts.

You will make your task very difficult if you arrive at the speech or meeting once it has started or with only seconds to spare. The organisers and participants will also find your late arrival distracting, perhaps rude.

If you get there a few minutes before the start, you can see people arriving. This is especially important at a big event, when you will find it difficult to spot people in a crowd once they have arrived. It also allows you a few minutes to introduce yourself to participants and make arrangements for interviews after the event.

If you are a reporter for radio or television, you should always arrive well in advance of the start, to give you time to set up your cameras and microphones, and to test your light and sound levels. Speakers get very annoyed when reporters try to attach a microphone to a stand or table during their speech. Some organisers may stop you doing it.

Finally, you may be told by your newsdesk to file a story immediately the meeting finishes, especially if it is likely to reach an important decision. If you do not have time to return to the newsroom, you will have to phone your copy in (see Chapter14: Copy presentation). If you do not have a mobile phone (cell phone), try to find a convenient telephone before you go in to the meeting. If you wait until the meeting has ended before you start looking for a telephone, you will waste valuable minutes and also risk being beaten to it by a rival. If you have a choice of phones, do not always choose the nearest - everyone will rush for this one. Find a phone which is near but not too obvious. Very often, secretaries will let you use their phone if you arrange beforehand and explain who you are. You should offer to transfer the charges to your newsroom.

Where to sit or stand

It is essential that you find a position where you can see and hear everything that is going on. If you arrive at a crowded event, do not hang around the entrance. Politely but firmly make your way to a position where you can see and hear well. At well-organised events, you will find an area set aside for the media. If this seems suitable, use it. You may find the organisers have left programs, leaflets, copies of speeches or other Press material there for you. However, if the media area is unsuitable, do not hesitate to move to somewhere better.

It is a good idea to find a position where you can see and hear both the speakers and the audience (if any). This allows you to watch both the participants and the audience reaction. However, you should never sit on the stage with the organisers or the speakers. You are not part of the event - you are there to report it for your readers or listeners. You should not be identified with the organisers or speakers. This is especially important at demonstrations or rallies, when you feel that you have to get close to the speakers to hear what they are saying above the noise of the crowd. Try to sit or stand in an area between the speakers and the crowd, slightly off to one side.

The end of the event

Although many meetings seem to drag on and on for hours, you must not be lulled to sleep. Such meetings often end suddenly and both speakers and audience rush to get away. At this point you may have to chase after people such as the organisers or main speakers to get essential details or to clear up a point not fully understood during the meeting. If you have to talk to more than one person in this way, keep your interviews short so that you do not miss your other interviewees.

There may also be pressure on you to file your story straight to the newsroom. This will depend on how important the story is and how near to a deadline the meeting ends. You may have to decide whether to phone the copy over or to go for any winding-up interviews. Check how urgently the newsdesk wants the story before you leave the newsroom.

If it is an important meeting attended by a large number of reporters, you may find your competitors beat you to the nearest telephones. If you have planned ahead, you can now go to the telephone you have already arranged to use. It may be in a secretary's office a couple of minutes walk away from the meeting, but it may still prove to be faster than waiting in line for a busy phone.

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TO SUMMARISE:

You will make your task easier and more efficient if you plan ahead.

Know where you are going, when the event is due to start and something about the people and issues involved.

Always arrive early, with plenty of time to prepare yourself and your equipment.

If you are facing a tight deadline for the story, plan ahead how you are going to get your report back to your newsroom.

This is the end of the first part of this two-part section on speeches and meetings. If you now want to read on, follow this link to the second section, Chapter 20: Reporting speeches and meetings

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Index to Chapter 19
  1. The challenge for journalists
  2. What are meetings?
  3. Logistics
  4. To summarise
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