Chapter 20: Reporting speeches & meetings

In the previous chapter, we discussed the best ways of reporting speeches and meetings, how to prepare yourself and how to gather news at such events. In this 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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There are two aspects to report on at any speech or meeting. The first is the setting of the event, the second the content of speeches. You should make notes on both these aspects.

The setting

Your job as a journalist is not simply to record what was said in the meeting; there will usually be a secretary present to keep the official record. You should try to bring the meeting alive for your readers or listeners. You should make notes of audience size and composition (for example, are they all women?), the mood of the audience and the tone of the speakers (although you should avoid such expressions as "shouted angrily" or "accused" are only your opinion, and could be wrong).

At any meeting, find out the names of the main speakers on the platform and anyone who says anything important from the audience. It will help if you find out their names and titles before the meeting or stay with someone who can tell you, possibly one of the organisers. If someone says something important and you cannot find out their name at the time, make a brief note of their appearance (such as "man, third row, yellow shirt, moustache") alongside your notes and then track them down afterwards to get their name.

At big meetings where there are speakers you do not recognise, you may find it useful to draw a sketch plan of the seating arrangements. Then, as names are revealed (for example, when another speaker says: "I disagree with Councillor Rabola's comments just now"), you can fill in the blank spaces on your plan. Remember to check correct names and spellings later.

Estimating crowd size

At speeches in particular, you should report the size of the crowd. This will interest your reader or listener, and may provide a news angle in its own right. For example, if the President or Prime Minister came to speak at a business lunch and only two businessmen turned up, that would be news.

In estimating the size of any crowd, do not try to count them all; that is almost impossible with a large and mobile gathering. The usual trick is to count, say, 20 people then estimate how many groups of that size there are. It helps if you are in a high position and you may get a better estimate by moving around if the crowd is an irregular shape, as at a protest march or rally.

Although the police will often give you their estimate of a crowd size, beware. They will tend to over-estimate a crowd they approve of (for example, people on a charity walk) and under-estimate those they do not like (such as an anti-government rally). The event organisers might also be able to help, although they too will have a bias. In some very organised events, you might get a clue from the number of plates served at a meal. The caretaker of the hall is a useful person to find, as he will know how many seats there are and you can work out how many of them are full.

Very often, if several journalists are covering a meeting, you can get together to agree on a figure for attendance. Although this can be useful, do not go along with the majority if you believe that their estimate is wrong.

You should also report audience reactions if they are significant. If the President was booed by the two businessmen, that also would be newsworthy.

The content

Your notes must, of course, be accurate. You need a good shorthand speed and the ability to sift out the jewels from the rubbish in any speeches. Do not get bogged down with minor details of organisation which will only interest the people who planned the meeting. Radio listeners will be bored by a list of officers elected, but this can be included at the end of a newspaper report.

If you are given a copy of a prepared speech, make sure you follow it as it is presented, just in case the speaker adds anything or leaves something out. In your notes, mark in the margin or underline those parts which are most interesting and which might produce your story line.

If you do not have a prepared copy, make lots of notes at the start. If the speech proves to be interesting, you can be more selective about your notes later on. If it is short and dull, at least you will have some notes to write from.

Try to get enough notes to give balanced arguments if there are disputes during the meeting or during question time after a speech.

Many reporters today use tape recorders, even when working for newspapers. If you do use a recorder you should also make notes of the essential points. This will save time later when you are reviewing your material. It is also useful to have a recorder with a number counter. If you set this at zero at the start of the speech, you can write down the numbers at which interesting points are made. Then when you replay your recording, you can fast-forward or fast-rewind the tape to find the quotes you want at the numbers you noted.

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Writing the news

As with any story, you should avoid starting with a quote, but you should use plenty of quotes elsewhere in the story.

Your story should be balanced. If a speaker makes some outrageous accusation, you should make some attempt to check whether or not it is correct. If it is an opinion, you should try to get a reply from anyone attacked. For example, if an opposition MP says in a speech that your country is about to declare war on a close neighbour, you should check such a claim very carefully, and certainly get a reply from the government.

It is also worth thinking about what the speaker did not say. If the Finance Minister was speaking on the eve of presenting his budget and did not mention economic matters, that would be newsworthy.

Finally, make sure that your story contains at least the following details:

  • The names and titles of speakers;
  • The major point of the speech plus necessary background;
  • The time, place and purpose of the meeting;
  • Plenty of strong quotes;
  • The size and composition of the audience, plus any important people in it;
  • Audience reactions if they are significant.

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Follow-ups

Most news stories do not end when the meeting finishes. Although there may be decisions reached, you will have to check up later to see if they have been acted on. If strong opinions are expressed by a particular pressure group, or controversial decisions are reached, you may want to contact someone with an opposing view for their reaction. For example, if the Cabinet decides on a new measure, you should contact the Opposition for their reaction.

Some meetings have effects long afterwards, and these may provide good follow-up stories. For example, a charity meeting may decide to set up a new home for orphans. You should then watch for news as the project develops - when they raise money, when they start building, when they appoint staff, when it opens and when it has been running for some time. The initial meeting is like a stone dropped into a pool. Watch the ripples as they spread out.

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Special kinds of meetings

The advice we have given so far should apply to most types of speeches and meetings. However, there are special kinds of gatherings which may need extra care if you are to report them successfully.

Conventions and conferences

These are special types of meetings, usually held each year by political parties or professional associations such as doctors or scientists.

They can last for several days and provide a lot of stories. The basic rules for covering ordinary meetings apply to conventions, except that here you will have more chance to meet delegates and to chat informally with participants when the main work ends each day.

Your news editor or chief of staff will usually expect at least one story on the first day, setting the scene and giving details of the organisation, topics, participants etc. Once again, find someone knowledgeable to help you and start looking for stories straight away. Do not wait until all the speeches have been delivered. You should hunt around behind the scenes for such things as background stories, personality profiles, local participants or amusing events, either for the main news pages or for the diary column.

At conventions you should gather press releases, handouts, reports, and all kinds of leaflets whenever and wherever possible. When things get dull or you have a quiet moment, you can read through them looking for story leads.

Demonstrations

Although not strictly meetings, demonstrations such as rallies, parades and marches contain many similar elements. There are often speeches, there is usually a single issue at the heart of a protest, and your readers or listeners will want to know such details as size, mood and venue (or, in the case of a march, the route).

Once again, try to identify the organisers, but do not stick with them for the whole time. For one thing you may be identified as someone involved in the protest, not a good thing for your newspaper of radio station. For another, you will not be able to report on the number of marchers, their mood or their opinions.

Be on the lookout for picture ideas, not simply groups waving banners. There may be children holding placards, people in fancy dress or lines of policemen guarding the route.

But be careful. Protest marches can turn into riots. Although as a good journalist you should be where the action is, do not get so close that you get either injured or arrested. Your newsdesk will not get a story if you are in hospital or prison.

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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.

Make a full and accurate note of what happens and what was said.

Write the story in a lively, balanced way.

Use meetings as a way of making or renewing contacts.

Avoid trouble when reporting parades or demonstrations.

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>>go to next chapter

 

 
Index to Chapter 20
  1. The setting
  2. Writing the news
  3. Follow-ups
  4. Special kinds of meetings
  5. To summarise
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