Shortened Georgia Legislative Session Raises Challenges for Journalists

Georgia Public Broadcasting's Jeanne Bonner moderates a panel discussion at the Atlanta Press Club

Georgia Public Broadcasting’s Jeanne Bonner moderates a panel discussion at the Atlanta Press Club

This year’s shorter legislative session is creating some challenges for journalists covering the session. By law, Georgia’s annual legislative session lasts 40 days. In most years, the session begins in early January and stretches through late March or even early April. Not so this year, as legislators are determined to get through the session as quickly as possible so they can campaign and raise money for primary elections in May (usually held in July).

At a Feb. 20 Atlanta Press Club breakfast panel, Georgia Public Broadcasting’s state capitol reporter Jeanne Bonner moderated a conversation with Associated Press statehouse correspondent Christina Almeida Cassidy and Morris News Service Atlanta Bureau Chief Walter Jones.

The panelists talked about the key issues they’re covering. Top issues they mentioned were the gun bill, programs to help with re-entry after prison, the medicaid expansion bill and education issues.

We asked the panel how the shortened session was affecting their ability to cover all the issues, bills, etc.  Both indicated it was challenging to cover everything in such a short period.  Not that the key issues aren’t getting some good scrutiny, but it seems there’s a downside to a shorter session.

Jones noted that in a typical session, there’s a lot of opportunity for hearings, where parties in support of and against bills come to air their views.  There’s less of that this year, he said, and sometimes hearings are announced only a few hours in advance, meaning opposing viewpoints don’t get heard. He added that unpopular bills are getting less attention.

Cassidy said the faster pace has narrowed the list of legislative priorities.  She agreed the shorter session made coverage challenging, with less time before floor votes to dig deeper into some of the bills with lower profiles because they were moving so quickly through committee.

The panelists mentioned that there are fewer reporters covering the legislature overall.  Although I don’t have a point-by-point comparison on that, the AJC, AP, local radio and TV still seem to have strong teams on legislative coverage. Jones said that in the past Morris had three reporters, two editors and three interns. Now it’s just him.  Some other regional cities that used to send reporters to Atlanta for the session no longer do so, including Chattanooga, Columbus and Marietta.

For journalists, that means they don’t get to talk to people with opposing viewpoints … and thus, the public doesn’t get the full story.  For those advocating for specific issues, be it money for education or changes to gun carry laws, the shorter session is clearly an issue.

The AP's Christina Cassidy and Morris News Service's Walter Jones at the Atlanta Press Club talking about the current legislative session.

The AP’s Christina Cassidy and Morris News Service’s Walter Jones at the Atlanta Press Club talking about the current legislative session.

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