Legislative analysts offer tips on transitioning to research

Kym Fox, associate professor of practice in journalism at Texas State moderates the workshop.
Associate Professor of Journalism Kym Fox moderates legal research panel Oct. 25. Photo by Cristina Carreon.

By Cristina Carreon

The law and journalism meet when the House of Representatives are in session, according to three legal research analysts who spoke at the “Writing about Policy as a Legislative Analyst” workshop on Tuesday.

House Research Organization analyst Janet Elliot has a varied career in criminal reporting, public relations, and most recently legal research for the Texas House of Representatives.

With ties like the Houston Chronicle, Wall Street Journal, and the state legislature, Elliott has been across the map in mass communications since the early eighties.

After a stint as a criminal news reporter, Elliott covered the Texas Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas Attorney General and Legislature, as well as Austin law firms for American Lawyer magazine.

HRO Director and licensed Texas attorney Laura Hendrickson was assistant professor of journalism at the University of the Incarnate Word, and received her Ph. D. in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.

Mary Beth Schaefer completed her master’s in Science and Technology Journalism at Texas A&M University, and interned for the Texas lieutenant governor.

These three women share a common background in journalism that has led them towards successful careers in state legislative research.

“I’m studying international relations, so I’m always looking for ways to combine journalism with political science for a career,” journalism senior Monica Martinez said. “It’s nice to know my other degree may not be wasted.”

The Texas House of Representative consists of 150 members that meet for five months every other year beginning in January.

The HRO is a non-partisan independent department that provides impartial research to the all 150 members of the state legislature and their staff, as well as taxpayers.

A job at the HRO often consists of reading bill assignments, watching hearings, as well as making calls or emails, writing and editing bill analyses and tackling legislative issues one cup of coffee at a time.

“Bills are not often written in plain language, so it is really important to find out what’s going on…who wrote the bill, and why it’s important,” HRO Analyst Elliott said.

Daily Floor Reports are published by the HRO during legislative sessions and each report contains a digest with arguments, background, and other relevant information about the bill.

Analysts will utilize testimonies from witnesses, interest groups or relevant sources for a bill analysis.

“It is important to paraphrase crucial information, or get ‘money quotes’ from your sources,” Elliott said.

When not in a legislative session, the HRO writes policy and state finance reports, as well as interim news briefs that keep the public up-to-date on legislation between sessions.

Journalism senior John Hernandez followed a bill during the last legislative session and wrote his own report about canine encounter training.

“I went to the House Committee meetings, and created my own report on it so it was really interesting to see what they do, the arguments and how that manifests into this organization that I really wasn’t aware of beforehand,” he said.

Experience in journalism is highly relevant to a job with a legislative research team.

Students tune in to HRO legal analyst Janet Elliott. Photo: Cristina Carreon

“The main part of a bill is the digest, which is a summary of what bill will do in plain language that House members get every day,” HRO Editor Mary Beth Schaefer said. “The goal is to translate something that’s really complex for general audiences, which is excellent for journalism majors.”

Schaefer said she reads reports from the government, the news, and the American Bar Association, keeps up with current state laws and legislative history, and watches hearings to stay up-to-date for her job.

Her research articles have ranged from “ballot selfies” to powdered alcohol to water desalination.

Elliott said the research team sometimes works on finishing up to 30 bills at a time during a legislative session.

“I remember when I was a reporter, I would look at the HRO report and think, ‘how did they get that report together?’” she said.

HRO Director Laura Hendrickson said that at smaller organizations, it is essential for an editor to be a jack of all trades by being able to fact-check and proofread simultaneously.

“At a larger agency, you might have more specialization, but the HRO consists of nine staff members and three full-time editors,” Hendrickson said.

Hendrickson said seven out of the nine staff members have backgrounds in journalism.

“The ability to translate complex information for a general audience is a skill that cannot be undervalued,” she said.

Although journalism senior Quixem Ramirez came to the session because it was held where his class normally meets, he was surprised to discover a new facet of journalism.

“I’m more into sports, but it was really interesting to see a different perspective of journalism,” Ramirez said.

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