Ignore Policy at Your Peril

Imagine reporting on Disney, but ignoring its parks in Hong Kong and Tokyo. Or investigating Harvard, and skipping the Business School. Covering the environment, except lakes and streams.

You would miss important stories. You’d allow vast stretches of your beat to fly under the radar of journalistic accountability. You wouldn’t do that. It would be irresponsible.

Yet, that’s effectively what much of journalism does by passing over public policy and regulatory affairs.

Of course, some solid policy stories get published in the mainstream press — usually in conjunction with investigative projects that delve into one regulatory morass or another, often to shine a light on rampant dysfunction. But before those regulations get ignored or enforced, or their loopholes slipped through, they get written.

Yet seldom does the regulatory drafting process get covered. Without easy narratives that match familiar story schema, policy and regulation are deemed too dull or too dense to fit within a click-driven, deadline-oriented news cycle. So we ignore them.

That’s a problem — for journalism, for our audiences and for the democracy our work is supposed to serve.

Last week, I spoke with Paul Albergo, Bureau Chief at Bloomberg BNA and adjunct journalism professor at American University’s School of Communications, about why this happens and how to fix it.

Paul Albergo,  Bureau Chief for Bloomberg BNA and adjunct professor of journalism at American University
Paul Albergo, Bureau Chief for Bloomberg BNA and adjunct professor of journalism at American University

“Congress is just one-third of government,” Albergo said. But Congress is relatively easy to cover, so federal government reporters tend to focus on that, or the White House, or the occasional Supreme Court ruling, he said. Too often, the rest of government — the entire executive branch at work under the White House’s jurisdiction, the agencies and offices implementing the laws Congress passes — is shunned.

Regulations are where public policy’s rubber meets the road. And they’re Albergo’s bread and butter at Bloomberg BNA, a Washington-based operation that publishes nearly 200 news and information services covering the law, business, economics, the environment, health care, taxation, labor and human resource, and trade issues.

Yet in the mainstream, Albergo thinks regulatory matters get passed by, primarily because reporters and editors understand neither the regulatory process nor its importance.

POLITICS ISN’T POLICY

“Most people are terrified by the regulatory process,” Albergo said. He feels the American education system from grade school up does not effectively teach how the United States government actually works.

“You would be surprised how few reporters in Washington even understand the whole Federal Register process,” Albergo said.

The Federal Register is the government’s central clearinghouse for presidential documents, rules and regulations, proposed rules, and public notices. But if people don’t know about public comment periods before regulations that affect them are finalized, how can they make their voices heard?

Similarly, Albergo said, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs is an unknown entity to most reporters.

Yet it’s the central authority for regulatory due diligence, even reaching into the lightning rod topics of information collection and federal privacy rights. If journalists don’t know about these final steps of regulatory review, how can they ride shotgun on rules that affect their readers, watching for last-minute tweaks and listening for clues of how stakeholders will react to pending changes?

“Most public policy is implemented and affected by these processes,” Albergo said. Yet most Americans aren’t effectively taught about regulatory protocols that, in many ways, parallel the routine of “how a bill becomes a law.”

Although this lack of understanding may not be limited to journalism, Albergo tries to rectify it in his roles as both editor and j-school professor. And it’s challenging from every angle: with students, young reporters and colleagues, alike.

“In my experience, it is a hard sell to get people to focus on a branch of government that no one has taught them about and that they view as impenetrable,” he said.

To be sure, regulatory reporting does present a different set of challenges from, say, roaming the halls of Congress. There, politicians or their aides are more than happy to have an audience for their messages, Albergo said.

But politics isn’t policy. And too often, the two are conflated.

“Politics is a means to end,” Albergo said. “But we’ve made politics an end in our reporting, which is not a good thing.” He said the press does a disservice when it runs all news through a political filter that lacks nuance, refracting only “red” and “blue” responses to every issue.

Politicizing and simplifying — or ignoring — the nuts and bolts of policy development plays into political games and doesn’t allow individuals to connect with a full one-third of their government, Albergo said.

In effect, ignorance of the policy process impedes involvement in it — a lose-lose proposition for both journalism and its audience.

SOLUTIONS

At American University, one of Albergo’s classes is a unique take on something he calls “specialized” reporting. One semester, for example, his students investigated new parking rules in Washington, D.C., interviewing people affected by the regulatory changes and exploring how the city’s parking policies had developed to the shape they were in.

Albergo said the course was fascinating for the students, and it presented a good chance for him to teach a structurally different approach to reporting: Less press conference, more rooting around for stories. Less political strategy, more tactical policy planning. Less personality-driven, more about holding all of government accountable for, well, good governance.

Long-term, this type of in-depth policy coverage requires reporters to know the players — not just legislators, but also lobbyists and staffers, for starters. Reporters must piece together these relationships and competing priorities to understand what’s at stake and how alliances shift. Reporting on regulatory affairs entails keeping track of deadlines for public comment, then rummaging through what can be hundreds or thousands of letters to spot something meaningful. It necessitates learning regulatory and industry jargon so you know what you’ve got when you see it.

“It’s a lot of work. It’s hard,” Albergo said. “And it’s hard when you’ve got a teaching staff that doesn’t understand the importance of that sort of coverage.” Not to mention a teaching curriculum built around tight deadlines and quick turnaround, he said.

Nonetheless, Albergo thinks journalism schools would do well to offer more classes like his for specialized reporting. And they should be willing to start small, “because you’re not going to have a lot of students at first.”

Demand will grow, he said, because the students who get this specialized training will be ready for the jobs awaiting for them. Daily papers and traditional news sources continue to cut back; but specialized, industry-specific business models are surging, with increasing demand from audiences who need to keep track of regulations for their work and businesses.

True, these specialized news services, like Bloomberg’s, are behind some pretty hefty paywalls that charge thousands of dollars a year for access, Albergo acknowledged. That’s a different value proposition than public interest reporting for the masses.

“But those are mostly the organizations that are growing,” Albergo said. “This is where the jobs are.”

Good point.

Although personally, I’m not ready to give up on the “public” in public policy reporting. I believe we can deepen even mainstream journalism’s policy reporting — and its relevance with audiences — with a combination of more interdisciplinary curricula in journalism schools, more sophisticated professional development for practicing reporters, more thoughtful newsroom management, more innovative product design and, above all, more storytelling.

These are some of the thoughts I’ll be exploring in the coming months on this blog. If you’ve got transformative ideas of your own, or examples of great public policy reporting that deserve to be in the spotlight, please share them below or drop me a line.

Thanks for reading!