Jane Cafarella has four decades experience as a journalist, playwriter and cartoonist. For 10 years, she worked as a sub-editor, section editor and columnist for The Age, before establishing her own consultancy.
My own lessons in local government took years to learn, but chief among them was that the relationship between the media and local government is not as adversaries, but partners.
The keys to productive relationships between local government and the media today are still – education, communication and understanding.
When journalists understand some of the social, political and economic evolution of local government, when they understand how communities work and the role of their own paper in their community, they begin to be better judges of what is really news and to write more informed reports.
When councils understand the role of the local paper, the social, political and economic history of local media and the importance of deadlines and access to informed sources, they begin to get better reports written about them.
In short, both the reporters and the councils begin to understand that this is a partnership not a re-enactment of the Cold War.
Understanding each other’s roles and needs does not mean that, from then on every report is positive. Councils must understand that just as the council is there to act on behalf of residents and ratepayers, the reporter is there to act on behalf of the reader.
Communication between journalists and councillors is made especially difficult by the fact that all councillors, and council officers in particular, seem to speak another language. Let me illustrate this by referring to the ‘Jargon Immunisation Program’, where journalists learn that “a series of information sessions” are actually meetings, and that “the initial preferred location” means the previous site.