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Fighting for Access: New Report on the State of Media Credentialing Practices in the United States

At the end of May, fifteen leading journalism organizations signed on to a letter calling for SCOTUSblog to be granted press credentials to cover the Supreme Court. A month earlier, not only was SCOTUSblog’s application for credential’s denied, but the committee who oversees press passes refused to renew Lyle Denniston’s credentials, even though he is a veteran Supreme Court reporter who worked for WBUR and wrote for SCOTUSblog.

A new report from the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the Journalist’s Resource project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy puts the SCOTUSblog fight in a national perspective. What is happening to SCOTUSblog in Washington, DC, is happening to journalists around the country. As the landscape of news is changing, laws and guidelines that dictate who can get a press pass are causing problems and, at times, blocking access to important new journalism organizations and individuals.

In many cases, these challenges are arising in places where freelancers and new newsrooms are trying to cover old institutions, like courts and statehouses, places where journalistic capacity has been dwindling.

Earlier this year, in Colorado, the nonprofit Colorado Independent was being blocked from getting access to the statehouse. At the time, the president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition wrote that the action amounted to “an unconstitutional abridgement of the freedom of the press.”

Until now, what we knew about the press credentialing process was almost entirely anecdotal. The new report, Who Gets a Press Pass?, finally gives us a sense for how widespread these problems are and who they are effecting most. The report is based on a nation-wide survey of more than 1,300 newsgatherers ranging from professional reporters at mainstream newsrooms to independent bloggers and freelancers to activists.

The study is a testament to the unevenness of credentialing laws around the U.S. and inconsistency of how those laws are enforced and enacted. Yet, Jeff Hermes, director of the Digital Media Law Project and an author of the report noted that “This study finds common threads that run through decisions by various types of organizations, as a starting point to make sense out of the vast array of credentialing practices in the United States.”

According to the report, one out of every five respondents said they had been denied press credentials at least once in the past five years. The report also found that:

“Freelancers are more than twice as likely as employed journalists to be denied a credential at least once. Those identifying themselves as photographers are almost twice as likely as others to be denied a credential at least once.”

The authors make clear that while “there may be reasonable grounds for denial in some cases, the data suggest systemic issues at many levels.”

Digging into the data, interesting stories emerge. For example, you can begin to see where journalists of different kinds run into different problems. 45% of freelancers reported getting denied press credentials from Fire Departments and Other Emergency Services, whereas no one employed for a newsroom reported being denied by those agencies.

The data also showed that reporters who identified as “activists” were more than twice as likely to be denied access. This bias against activist media may make sense to some, but the authors of the report point out the slippery slope this trend suggests.

“The practice of denying credentials based upon perceptions of bias can all too easily lead to viewpoint-based decisions made to protect the credentialing organization itself rather than the public. Among government organizations in particular, this possibility raises serious First Amendment concerns.”

The authors suggest instead that balance in reporting can be better achieved through providing more access to diverse viewpoints rather than “demanding that individual journalists adopt an artificially neutral point of view.”

The report is careful to describe the findings of its survey, without leaping to conclusions or recommendations. The points of conflict between journalists and institutions who provide access to reporting are diverse, but whether it be SCOTUSblog or a neighborhood blog, these findings make clear that as a nation we need to look carefully at issues of access and freedom of information.

Disclosure: Who Gets a Press Pass? is a report of the Media Credentialing Working Group, a collaboration of six non-profit organizations including my former employer Free Press. I consulted with the authors on the design of the study and helped promote the survey. The Media Credentialing Working Group includes: Digital Media Law Project, Journalist’s Resource, the National Press Photographers Association, Free Press, the Investigative News Network, and the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Illustration by Susie Cagle, used with permission. Check out her work here.

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