My job as a newspaper correspondent was to sit in meeting, and then sum up what was said for the readers of my community. I looked at it as if I was the eyes and ears of everyone in my community. If you were busy with little league, choir practice, reading bedtime stories and tucking your little ones, you had no worries about what was happening at the council, school board or planning meetings.
It wasn’t usually very exciting. Most of the business of local government is routine. Community business was routine, but important. Are road repairs causing closures during your commute to work? How much are the bridge repairs going to cost, and where is the money coming from from? The city budget, the police reports, the accountants review.
My neighbor came to me with a story on how badly the building committee was treating her, by insisting she follow code. A fellow worshiper stopped me in church to tell me the council was shamefully disregarding the law. My hairdresser would wonder why I didn’t report on the abuse of police handing out traffic tickets for speeding as a city fundraiser.
There are rules that govern what can be discussed behind closed doors, and what must be discussed in the public eye. There are also rules that determine who can be used as a source. If the secretary says council is discussing something illegally behind closed doors, that may be interesting, but it is not something I can report on.
If a councilman is discussed with the lack of public conversations and produces reports on a study done in secret, then the reporter has a very juicy piece of news to report on. This is where a reporter will legitimately keep their source secret, no matter what the mayor may feel about the legality or appropriateness of the action.
Just to be clear, the source is never a secretary, janitor, housekeeper, or other support personnel. This is what is often called a leak, for no other reason that that the person or people in charge do not want to explain their actions.
This juicy scenario never happened to me. No, I had people saying things in public meetings that they wanted off the record. Statements in a public meeting are never off the record. The result for my community was longer executive sessions behind closed doors, and legislation presented for public discussion with carefully crafted statements for or against.
Some people did question if this situation was an abuse, but no-one who wanted to take a public stand. That was the end of that story.