Covering a beat
1. Be nice to everybody. Make casual friends. Be approachable. If you’re shy, fake it. Get to know as many people as you can, from the janitor on up.
2. Read the city charter if you’re covering city hall. Whatever the organization,
read its document that controls its organization and conduct.
3. Check the Star’s online morgue for stories about past events and personalities. Read every story from the previous semester pertaining to your beat.
4. Talk with your predecessor about your beat.
5. Collect as many home phone numbers as possible. You’ll need them someday.
6. Cultivate the outs as well as the ins. Talk with those out of power
and those seeking it.
7. Find out where the REAL power is — and don’t let titles fool you.
8. Always, always, follow the dollars. Where does the money come from?
Who gets it? Who spends it? Who controls how it is apportioned? Who controls
how it is spent. And how is it spent? Study the budget — this, not official
statements, show you what the real priorities are. How have budgets changed
over the past few years? Who’s getting more money? Less?
9. Look for motives and causes. Ask why.
10. Read the history of what you’re covering. Talk with a librarian.
If something hasn’t been published, there’s probably an unpublished master’s
thesis or doctoral dissertation on it.
11. Interview outside experts about the stuff you don’t understand —
not necessarily on the record, but maybe just for background. For instance,
talk to an economics or finance professor about the budget.
12. Read books and professional journals on what you’re covering. If
you’re on the higher education beat, read stuff about college — history,
philosophy and problems. Read The Chronicle of Higher Education. If you’ve
covering city hall, read some books on state and local government.
13. Don’t cover your beat by telephone. Show up. Drink coffee (or pop,
or whatever). Hang around. Press the flesh. Make daily contact with your
14. Leave your business card with EVERYONE. Write your cell phone number
on it. Encourage sources to call you whenever they know something that might
15. Don’t fear the anger of your sources. If you’re doing your job, you’ll
make them angry sometimes. ALWAYS face them after you’ve written something
you know will make them angry. If you realize you’ve made a mistake that
will require a correction, call the source first and apologize. Good journalism
includes being accountable for what we write. It starts here.
Open Meetings / Open Records
Access to public meetings
Because NIU is a state institution, virtually all of its governing committees
and boards – including the Student Association – are considered public bodies
and subject to the Illinois Open Meetings Act.
The Illinois Attorney General and each county’s state’s attorney, are
responsible for enforcing this law. The full
text of the Act, and a guide to understanding it.
· A public body must post notice of its meeting, along with an agenda,
at least 24 hours prior to the meeting. The notice must be posted in either
the body’s main office or its usual meeting place.
· Notification of specific media is a courtesy, not a requirement.
But public bodies generally will send you notices if you ask (see next page).
What constitutes a meeting?
Sometimes, public bodies will try to skirt the Open Meetings Act by meeting
informally – for example, calling it a “workshop” or a “retreat.”
But, any time a majority of a quorum of that public body is present in one
place and talking about public business, legally that is a meeting and it
must be public. This includes telephone conference calls, online discussion
and other electronic methods.
So what’s a majority of a quorum?
A quorum is the minimum number of members present to vote on something.
In most cases, that means a majority of members. So, if a committee has
nine voting members, a quorum would be five. A majority of a quorum would
Closed session/Executive session
Both mean the same thing. A portion of the meeting is closed to the public,
under one of the exemptions granted by the Open Meetings Act. No votes may
be taken in closed session, and Illinois law now requires that closed sessions
be recorded. A meeting may not end with a closed session. The body must
What if I suspect a meeting is being closed illegally?
- Ask the chair to explain what provision of the Open Meetings Act is:
being used to justify closing the meeting.
- If you are not satisfied with that answer, tell your editor or adviser.
Together, you may decide to write a story or editorial about it, file an
informal complaint with that particular body or file a formal complaint
with the state’s attorney.
Public meeting notices
Each year, Star editors and reporters should determine from which public
bodies they would like to receive meeting notices and agendas. Typically,
– NIU Board of Trustees and all related committees
– University Council
– Faculty Senate
– Student Association Senate and all committees
– Residence Hall Association
– Campus Activities Board
– Various NIU committees (parking, athletic, etc.) as listed in Committees of the University.
– DeKalb City Council and committees
– DeKalb County Board and committees
– Sycamore City Council and committees
Then, send letters to these bodies, requesting notification. Here is
a sample letter:
Aug. 20, 2016
University Council, Faculty Senate
Lowden Hall 208
Northern Illinois University
Dear Ms. Sauter:
The Northern Star requests formal notification and agendas for all meetings
of the NIU University Council, Faculty Senate, related committees, subcommittees
and advisory bodies, as outlined in Section 120 of the Illinois Open Meetings
Please consider this a standing request. We would be happy to renew the
request annually if necessary. Meeting notices may be sent to the Northern
Star campus editor. Thank you.
Editor in Chief
CC: Ken Davidson, NIU General Counsel
Access to pubic records
Because NIU is a public institution, most of its records are public as
well. This is governed by the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. The Illinois
Attorney General and each county’s state’s attorneys are responsible for
enforcing this law.
To request documents under the Freedom of Information Act, you must file
a written request. The Student Press Law Center offers an automatic FOIA letter generator. Address
the letter to NIU’s general counsel, and also send a carbon copy to the
head of the office you want the information from.
A sample FOIA request letter looks like this:
Northern Illinois University
Altgeld Hall 300
DeKalb, IL 60115
Dear Mr. Hoey,
Pursuant to the state open records law, 5 Ill. Comp. Stat. 140/1 to 140/11,
I write to request access to and a copy of the current employment contracts
for all NIU athletics head coaches. If your agency does not maintain these
public records, please let me know who does and include the proper custodian’s
name and address.
I agree to pay any reasonable copying and postage fees of not more than
$25. If the cost would be greater than this amount, please notify me. Please
provide a receipt indicating the charges for each document.
As provided by the open records law, I will expect your response within
seven (7) working days.
If you choose to deny this request, please provide a written explanation
for the denial including a reference to the specific statutory exemption(s)
upon which you rely. Also, please provide all segregable portions of otherwise
Thank you for your assistance.
Northern Illinois University
Campus Life Building, Suite 130
DeKalb, IL 60115
The Northern Star covers police news on and off campus. Our primary sources
are the NIU Police Department and the DeKalb Police Department, along with
the DeKalb County Sheriff’s office.
Along with full coverage of major crime stories, a big part of our police
coverage is Police Beat, the daily “blotter” report. Here’s what
goes into Police Beat and what doesn’t. Be consistent on this!
When someone is arrested and charged with a crime
When something worth more than $50 is stolen from a person or a business
Petty thefts (under $50)
Rely on public records of official law enforcement agencies. Be extremely
careful about using oral comments from police personnel or the general public
without having it backed up on the written report. Example: You’re taking
notes from a car accident report and the police sergeant walks by and says,
“Yeah, he was drunk out of his mind.” The accident report says
nothing about alcohol use. Don’t say, without attribution, that the crash
was alcohol related. Ask the officer who made the comment if the official
police suspicion is that alcohol was involved. If the answer is yes, then
use it with attribution. If the answer is no, don’t use it without independent
In general, a person accused of a crime should not be named in print until he or she has been arrested and charged by police. When you do name an accused person, use full name – first name, middle initial, last name – age and
address. The reason: There might be five John Smiths at NIU, but only one
John G. Smith, 21, of 555 Main St. By being specific, you reduce the chance
of the accused being confused with someone else.
We almost never use the name of a crime victim, for reasons of privacy.
Exceptions: murder victims, public figures in some instances.
A person under age 17 generally should not be named as a crime suspect because
he or she is a juvenile. Note: This is not a law. Newspapers withhold names
of juveniles out of sensitivity. Some serious crimes, like murder or attempted
murder, may warrant naming a younger suspect. In such cases, talk to your
What to use
Descriptions that are specific enough to be helpful. Don’t describe the
suspect by race only, unless a racial aspect appears to be the main reason
for the crime. A subject’s race or ethnicity should only be used if it’s
part of a more complete description including age, height, weight, clothing
and other distinguishing characteristics … and even then, it may not be
What not to use
“An NIU student reported being assaulted Tuesday by two black
men of medium height.”
That offers nothing useful, and contributes to a negative stereotype of
black men in general.
If a home is the scene of a crime, don’t use the specific address unless
it is critical to the story. Example: A home at 147 Main Street is burglarized.
We’d call it “a home in the 100 block of Main Street.” The reason
is protection of the victims: Criminals read newspapers, too, and when someone
is burglarized it signals that they’ll soon have new stuff from an insurance
claim, and be ripe for another burglary.
If a business is the scene of a crime, we generally name the business
only if pertinent to the story.
Suicide / attempted suicide
Names of people involved in suicides or attempted suicides generally are
not published. Exception: A public figure commits suicide.
NIU Police Department: 453.600, 453.900
DeKalb Police Department: 155.250, 156.090
DeKalb Fire Department: 154.090
DeKalb Ambulance: 155.340
DeKalb County Sheriff’s Police: 154.860
Sycamore Police Department: 155.250, 155.640
Sycamore Fire Department: 153.4850, 159.0150
District 2 State Police (Elgin): 154.695
DeKalb County Highway Dept.: 159.120
State plows: 47.380
Weather spotters: 146.730
Kishwaukee Hospital: 155.340
NIU Maintenance & Grounds: 458.600
Federal cases: We are in the Northern District of Illinois U.S. District Court. Cases in this district are tried in two locations: Rockford or Chicago. Court reporters should regularly check recently filed cases on the Northern District of Illinois’ website. You may view court documents using the adviser’s PACER account. See Shelley for sign-on info. You may get your own account, but it requires you receive password and sign-on info via snail mail, which often is too late once you release you need an account.
Other cases: Check the DeKalb County Circuit Court website for criminal/traffic cases and civil cases.
The DeKalb County court house is located at 133 W. State St., Sycamore.
Cameras and audio recording devices are not allowed in Illinois courtrooms.
Most crimes are state crimes, that is, violations of laws passed
by the state legislature. These include murder, robbery, burglary, sex offenses,
drunken driving and drug offenses. They are investigated by local police,
county sheriff’s deputies or state police. They are prosecuted by the state’s
Some crimes are federal crimes. This doesn’t necessarily mean
they are more serious, but that they are violations of laws passed by Congress,
not a state legislature. They include kidnapping, mail fraud, bank fraud,
drug offenses which cross state lines and tax fraud. Investigators could
include the FBI, IRS, postal and drug enforcement agents.
Arrest: Authorities take a person into custody (at least temporarily)
and deny that person the right to come and go. An arrest can be made with
or without a warrant. Authorities only need reasonable grounds to believe
a crime has been committed and that the person being arrested is the one
who did it.
Being arrested is NOT the same as being charged. That occurs
when the person is booked. That means the clerical process of charging
a person. It may involve fingerprinting, photographing and jailing.
Problem: Media often convey that a case is solved when
an arrest is made … cops tend to speak in terms of how they solved a case
… all before the defendant has his/her day in court. Be careful.
Felony: A crime for which the accused may be sentenced to imprisonment
of a year or more .
Misdemeanor: A less-serious crime for which the accused may be sentenced
to imprisonment up to one year.
In Illinois, a prosecution may be started by one of three ways: indictment,
information or complaint. All of these matters are public record as soon
as they’re filed with a court.
Indictment: a written charge signed by a grand jury
Information: a written charge signed by a prosecutor
Complaint: a written charge signed by an individual (usually a crime
victim or a police officer)
Common element: each must have probable cause to believe that
the person being charged committed the crime. This does not mean the person
is guilty (although that impression is prematurely given sometimes).
A grand jury is a panel of no more than 16 people. Nine must agree
for a person to be indicted. Grand juries are secret, and directed by prosecutors.
Suspects are not allowed to present their side. Grand jurors are prohibited
by law from ever talking publicly about what happened during the grand jury
process (but those who testify are not).
Prosecutors decide whether to use grand jury/direct indictment or holding
a preliminary hearing and having a judge decide if there is probable cause.
There is an initial court appearance for a person charged with a felony:
a bond hearing, preliminary hearing, or both. It’s also at
this point that a defendant is provided with an attorney if he or she cannot
afford one (a public defender at county expense).
Bail, bond: These mean basically the same thing: the amount of
money that must be posted for the defendant to be released as he/she awaits
trial. The judge may release a defendant on his own recognizance by issuing
an I-bond; set bail at an amount where the defendant must post 10 percent
to be released; or deny bail.
A preliminary hearing is not a trial, and is not held to determine
guilt or innocence, only probable cause. Prosecutors use as little evidence
as they can, to avoid tipping their hand, to convince the judge that the
defendant should stand trial. If the judge finds that there is no probable
cause, the case is dismissed and the defendant is released. If
probable cause is found, a date is set for an arraignment.
At an arraignment, the defendant pleads either guilty or
not guilty. A defendant who pleads guilty waives his/her right to
trial and moves directly to sentencing. A defendant who pleads not
guilty then decides whether he/she wants to be tried by a jury (jury
trial) or a judge (bench trial). All defendants have the right
to a jury trial, but may waive it in favor of a bench trial.
As both sides prepare for trial, they conduct discovery – that
is, research, interviewing witnesses and preparing for trial. Both sides
may make motions during this time, requiring a judge to rule. Common
motions include: to dismiss the case, change of venue, different
judge, continuance, to compel discovery and to suppress
evidence (including a confession or evidence believed to have been obtained
illegally). The exclusionary rule says evidence gathered by violating
someone’s constitutional rights is not admissible in court.
Sometimes, in the time between arraignment and trial, defendants decide
to change their not-guilty plea to guilty. The judge informs the defendant
of the maximum sentence and the sentencing process begins.
If the plea remains not guilty, the case is ready for trial.
In a jury trial, the first step is jury selection. The judge and
both sides’ attorneys question the potential jurors in open court. Potential
jurors may be dismissed if either side’s attorneys convince the judge that
there could be a partiality problem.
Once the jury is selected, both sides make opening statements.
Then, the prosecution states its case first, followed by the defense.
In a multi-day trial, this becomes a problem for a reporter trying to present
both sides of a story. One suggestion during the prosecution stage is to
give equal attention to the cross examination by the defense attorney (and
vice versa during the defense stage). You also can refer back to the opening
statements as a way to balance your story.
The Fifth Amendment protects against self-incrimination. At some
trials, the defense presents no evidence or the defendant does not testify.
Note: If a reporter misses a hearing, or a portion of a trial, talk
to the attorneys. Or the judge, off the record, for background or procedural
info. But there’s no substitute for attending every minute of the trial
if you want your coverage to be fair and accurate.
Both sides make closing arguments. The judge then instructs the
jury. The jury deliberates in private. Their verdict must be unanimous.
Court reconvenes and the verdict is announced.
A trial may end in a hung jury (meaning the jury cannot reach
unanimous agreement). A new trial with a different jury may result.
Not guilty: The defendant cannot be tried again for that crime.
Guilty: Judge sets date for a sentencing hearing.
Jurors may speak to the media after the trial, but they are not obligated
to do so.
In Illinois, there are six classes of felonies and three classes of misdemeanors.
Of those nine classes of crimes, two require imprisonment:
1. Murder. This includes murder (20-60 years) and capital murder
(life in prison with no chance
for release, or execution)
2. Class X felonies (6-30 years): armed robbery, attempted murder,
home invasion, certain drug
offenses, rape (aggravated criminal sexual assault).
The other 7 classes of crimes can earn any of these sentences (within
statutory range): probation, periodic imprisonment, conditional discharge,
supervision, restitution, fine.
A convicted and sentenced person may appeal both a conviction and a sentence.
NIU operates under a system called shared governance, under which
no one person or body is all-powerful. At ground level, a large number of
meet and make recommendations to the higher governing bodies:
Supportive Professional Staff Council
Operating Staff Council
These groups report to the University
Council, which in turn reports to the Board of Trustees
Board of Trustees
The NIU Board of Trustees
was established in January 1996, by an act of the Illinois General Assembly.
Seven voting members, appointed by the governor, serve either three- or
five-year terms, and subsequent appointments are for six years. One voting
student trustee, elected by students, serves a one-year term.
The BOT meets four times a year, as does each of the following board
- Academic Affairs, Student Affairs and Personnel Committee
- Finance, Facilities and Operations Committee
- Legislation, Audit and External Affairs Committee
These three committees are made up of BOT members only. Each committee
meets prior to the full BOT meeting. The committees’ votes then become recommendations
to the full board. Generally, the votes are unanimous, both at the committee
level and at the full BOT. This means that if you are covering this beat,
the meetings are not the place you will find much debate on issues.
- To establish the educational and academic policies of the university;
- Participate actively in decisions made on other matters that may directly
affect educational policies;
- To act upon reports from committees, boards, commissions, or councils
whose actions affect the educational and academic policies of the university;
- To advise on policies regarding academic salaries, sabbatical leaves,
leaves without pay, tenure, and promotion. (Much of this falls to the UC’s
- To establish such standing and temporary committees as needed
- To advise the president, and the vice presidents, on policies affecting
the quality of student life on campus.
- Membership: University Council members include faculty, SPS, Operating
Staff, students (SA)
- Leadership: One person serves as executive secretary of both the Faculty
Senate and University Council.
The Faculty Senate consists of one elected senator from each academic department at NIU except those having more than 50 faculty members which shall elect two senators. Additionally the faculty members elected to the University Council shall be voting members as well as one Senator from the College of Law and the University Libraries. Non-voting members include a member of the Supportive Professional Staff, members of faculty members of the University Advisory Committee to the Board of Trustees, and the faculty
serving as assistant chairs of the Academic Planning Council, the Graduate Council and the Undergraduate Coordinating Committee.
Governance is a shared process with faculty predominance in all policy
decisions involving curriculum, admission, academic standards and the faculty
personnel process. Further, the Faculty Senate is charged with promoting
a climate of academic freedom, maintaining an optimal learning environment,
promoting artistry and research, representing faculty concerns to the administration,
defining standards of faculty ethics and professional responsibilities …
Faculty Senate committees:
Academic Affairs; Economic Status of the Profession; Elections and Legislative
Oversight; Faculty Rights and Responsibilities; the joint FS/UC Committee
on Resources, Space, and Budget; and Rules and Governance.
Other governing councils
Operating Staff Council
Supportive Professional Staff Council
1. Take the home’s market value from current assessment notice
(or available at the county supervisor of assessments office, 895-7120).
2. Take 33% of the market value to determine assessed value.
3. Subtract any applicable exemption. The homestead exemption, given
if you own your own home, is $3,500. The senior citizen exemption for taxpayers
65 & older is $2,000. And there are some other possible exemptions.
Note: Best bet is to figure the tax with just the homestead exemption.
Whatever the case, the story should note which exemptions are and are not
figured into your total.
4. Apply the county multiplier. DeKalb County’s is almost always 1, but
you want to check this every year to be sure. If the multiplier is 1, you
can skip this step.
5. Divide by 100. Why? Because taxes are figured per $100 of assessed
6. Multiply by the total county tax rate (or by the specific rate for
the bill you want to calculate, i.e. DeKalb School District)
7. Total tax bill
The average home in DeKalb costs about $125,000. One-third of that is
$41,250. Subtract the homeowner’s exemption, $3,500, and you have $37,750.
Divided by 100, it’s $377.75. Let’s say the tax rate in question is 0.8600,
or 86 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. Multiply $377.75 by 0.86. Answer:
Now let’s say the school district is promoting a referendum to raise
one portion of the total school-tax rate from 37 cents to 86 cents. First,
multiply $377.75 by 0.37. That’s $139.77. At the new rate, 86 cents, the
tax is $324.87.
What’s the percent increase ? Take the new figure minus the old
figure, then divide result by the old figure. $324.87 minus $139.77 equals
$185.10. And $185.10 divided by $324.77 equals 0.569, or a 57 percent increase.
More significant for readers, though, is how much more money they will
pay. So, in this story, you would say the owner of a $125,000 home would
pay an extra $185 a year if the referendum passes.
Also note that this is not the total DeKalb School District tax bill,
it’s one of many funds. The 2001 cumulative rate for the district was $5.2704.
That equates to a tax bill of $1,991 for a $125,000 home. So, if you really
wanted to figure that person’s percent increase from last year’s tax bill,
assuming the other rates stay the same, you’d add $185 to $1,991, which
equals $2,176. Increase: 9.29 percent.
To figure a tax amount for the owner of a $125,000 home in DeKalb, multiply
the rate by $377.75.
Public school taxes make up about 63 percent of the average homeowner’s
property tax bill in Illinois.
In an average year, schools receive close to 60 percent of their funding
from property taxes. State government contributes about 30 percent, and
the remaining 10 percent comes from the federal government.
Don’t get fooled by politicians
Someone may tell you that they’re keeping taxes in check because the
rates aren’t rising. But, homeowners’ bills are still going up. What gives?
Look first at the levy, not the rate. The levy is the total amount
of money a public body asks that the government raise via property taxes.
It almost always rises from one year to the next.
The formula for figuring the tax rate is this: Rate = Levy divided
by Tax Base
Tax base is how much all of the property in the particular city, township
or county is worth. That is determined by assessments. Assessors
assign a fair market value to each home.
So, when tax rates don’t rise but tax bills still do, look at the assessments.
They will have risen. And it’s a way that politicians can say, “We
didn’t vote for higher taxes,” when in fact they did by voting for
the new, higher budget. That’s where the levy comes from.