With the proliferation of less traditional, digital-first outlets, SCOTUSblog is far from the only outlet that has seen its journalists denied press credentials. More than one in five journalists surveyed reported being denied credentials by at least one agency since January 2008, according to a report on a new report being released today.The survey is a result of a collaboration between a number of organizations in an effort to understand how private and public institutions approach credentialing issues. The participating organizations were the Digital Media Law Project here at Harvard, the Investigative News Network, the National Press Photographers Association, Free Press, Harvard’s Journalist’s Resource, and us here at Nieman Lab. (You may remember our request for your help with the survey back in September.)
There were 1,339 total respondents, and their answers produced a number of interesting findings. Freelance journalists were more than twice as likely to be denied a credential than a journalist who is a full-time employee of a news organization. Photographers were nearly twice as likely to be denied credentials. Respondents who identified as activists were also more than twice as likely to be rejected when applying for credentials.
To learn more about the survey and discuss some of the findings I sat down with Jeff Hermes, the paper’s lead author and director of the Digital Media Law Project. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
So in many cases, it’s left up to the individual discretion of particular organizations or even particular people as to whether to issue a credential and who gets a credential. And even when there are regulations in place, they’re often inconsistent with one another and are inconsistently interpreted.
We were trying to figure out how do we address that question — how do we figure out what this landscape looks like — so we tried to do this survey of journalists and their actual experiences in the field. We saw a real distinction on a nationwide basis between the experiences of employed journalists and journalists who are working as freelancers. The concept that, if you were independently producing material that you were supplying, even to a major media organization, on a freelance basis, that could significantly affect your ability to gain access to important news-gathering events.
And there are hints of that in the laws and regulations that do exist. We do see, in certain cases, preferences for employees or definitions of journalism that rely on whether someone is employed by a particular organization. But to see that reflected not only in specific regulations, but also in a nationwide pattern was striking.
We were also somewhat surprised that we didn’t see more of a connection between the use of technology and issuance of credentials. The fact that there was a time when credentialing organizations complained about the number of bloggers who were out in the world and police departments and sheriff’s departments were saying, “How do we know who’s a journalist and who’s not when we have all these people” — I believe the phrase was — “blogging in their basements with their fuzzy slippers on?”
But when we asked about use of technology, whether people consider themselves bloggers or social media users and then whether those same people had received credentials, there wasn’t as strong a relationship. But there did appear to be some relationship between acting as an unpaid independent journalist regardless of how you publish — as well as being an activist, somebody who is getting involved and reporting on events because of their concern about certain issues, political issues, et cetera. Part of what this was suggesting — which was a little bit of a surprise — was that it’s less about the technology, less about these code words that come up when we discuss these topics, and more about what are they actually doing. Who are these people? Are they independent of media organizations? Are they unpaid? Do they have some motive that might potentially be contrary to the interests of the credentialing organization?
There’s another possibility, which is that freelancers are to a certain degree less controllable than employees at media organizations. If you look at this from the cynical position of a government organization that’s trying to control spin or a private organization that’s trying to control its public image, an employee of a media organization is going to be subject to control from within that organization by editors — by senior staff who want to maintain a relationship with the government credentialing agency or with the private organization. A freelancer who is developing a story on their own is going to be less susceptible to the soft pressure that can be put on a journalist in those situations. So that’s another possibility.
I should say that the survey doesn’t really answer that question — but it does raise these questions.
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But it is certainly the case, and I think this is being recognized universally, that the mere divide between online and offline, independent and institutional journalisms is becoming less relevant. We’re seeing more and more professional journalists moving to digital native startups. The Pew State of the Media report highlighted that fact. The old concept of, “Well, you’re publishing online, then you’re an amateur” and “If you’re publishing in The New York Times, then you’re a professional” — that divide just doesn’t work any more.
But It’s an interesting question. As a logical matter, it’s easy to see that photographers require a different kind of access than a written journalist when covering particular events. They need to have direct lines of sight. They need to be close. They need to be, to a certain extent, more intrusive than other journalists. That can raise questions and concerns with a credentialing organization. Is this person going to be interfering with the activities of law enforcement behind police lines? Are they going to be disrupting a conference if we allow them to stick a camera in particular places? In courtroom settings, we see this fairly frequently, where there are pool cameras used because a judge doesn’t want to allow a whole range of photographers into a room. So one person is let in but other people are denied.
So there are some practical issues that come up. But there is another potential issue, and this is something we’ve seen reflected in various interactions between police and photographers recently. The question of: If you allow a photographer in, what are they going to see and preserve that you didn’t expect to happen, and which you can’t control after the fact? For example, when we’ve seen run-ins between police and people who are filming them arresting suspects in public, and there’ve been attempts to either seize cameras or chase away photographers. That kind of sensitivity could very easily be echoing through these other credentialing situations. The idea being that, you know, it’s okay to let a written journalist into the room, they can report what they want and we can say what we want to say about what happened — but if there’s a picture that tells a different story.
Thirty-nine percent of unpaid independent journalists were denied credentials. That’s significantly higher than the rest of the survey respondents. Why do you think that is? One of the points raised in the report that I found interesting was that they might not even be applying for credentials.
In terms of why, when these people apply, it looks like there’s a relationship between falling into this category and not getting a press pass, again I think this is probably down to the difficulty many credentialing organizations have in figuring out how to deal with these people. It’s easier to say no in circumstances when no law or regulation is there telling you you have to do something else. Now, of course, where there is a law or regulation in place, that could be driving the decisions as well. It’s far from uncommon to have a statutory credentialing standard or a regulatory credentialing standard say something like “credentials shall be issued to employees, to people who are publishing regularly in the field, to insert-demographic-characteristic-here,” which can often be used to exclude the unpaid independent.
What is somewhat troublesome is the use of essentially shorthand terms or determining factors which don’t necessarily relate to an individual’s ability to inform the public. The idea about looking at something like employment as a determining factor — especially when we know so much journalistic activity in the country is now happening at the freelance level. Those are the type of standards where it would be nice to see a broader approach, a shift that recognizes other forms of legitimate journalistic activity.
What’s tricky is making sure that the folks who are representing the various segments of the journalism community are representing all of the interests of that community. The unpaid independent category, for example, is notable for lacking a unified voice in many circumstances, so who acts as their representative to go to the state police and say we’d like to find some accommodation so bloggers can have a voice here? That’s not always the case, but certainly it’s more challenging.
Certainly, an organization like the National Press Photographers Association, which had a role in the development of this survey, has been doing a lot of work specifically on behalf of photographers, and so I think in the first instance what we’re probably going to see is segments of the journalism community working to advance their interests. And what’s interesting is whether or not there can be coordination between those different segments, or whether we’re going to continue to see photographers saying, “Well, photographers need consideration under these circumstances,” and bloggers and online news saying, “We need to be brought in to the discussion here.” Basically, continuing the type of complex environment we have now.