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The Debate Over Press Credentials

Where the rubber meets the road in the debate over "who is a journalist" is in the conflicts over press credentialing. Out of date credentialing laws are blocking journalists' access to report from statehouses to street corners, and unfairly landing some journalists in jail.


  1. Below is a timeline, capturing some of the debates about press credentials since 2008.

  2. In the Streets at the Republican National Convention, St. Paul, MN

    In 2008, fifty journalists were arrested in a mater of days while trying to cover the protests outside the Republican National Convention. When Amy Goodman was arrested, the first thing the secret service did was to remove her credentials.
  3. Amy Goodman Arrested at RNC
  4. In the video below Goodman discusses the incident with the press credentials.
  5. RNC: Amy Goodman on Being Arrested
  6. In 2008 NYPD debated whether they should stop issuing press credentials and "get out of the busieness" of deciding who is a journalist. In the video below a number of NYC journalists respond and talk about the struggles they have had with the credentialing process. 
  7. Credentials on Capitol Hill

    In the spring of 2009 a number of new online nonprofit journalism organizations contacted me about challenges they were facing when trying to cover their state government and federal lawmakers. As many traditional media have cut their statehouse coverage or closed their Washington, DC, bureaus, it is vital that credentialing policy doesn't discriminate against new kinds of journalism.

    We began meeting with members of Congress and studying how the credentialing system worked.
  8. On May 6th, 2009, Senator Kerry convened a Senate hearing on the future of journalism and ended his closing remarks with a strong promise to work on the credentialing issue. 

    “While we’re searching for answers to these questions, there’s one thing we can do today to recognize the contributions of online journalists who shoulder the responsibility that comes with covering congress: we can make sure that the rules for credentialing congressional reporters are modernized.  I will be working with Senate Rules Committee Chairman Chuck Schumer and the Standing Committee of Correspondents to make sure that is done.

    The Standing Committee of Correspondents was created in 1877 as a way to organize and regulate media access to the halls of Congress.  It was created to rid the press galleries of lobbyists, or “claims agents,” as they were once called. It was created to replace a system of questionable journalism practices. Before the committee was created, in fact, Mark Twain worked as a secretary to Senator William Stewart of Nevada at the same time he was also a “letter writer” to two newspapers – the Alta Californian of San Francisco and the Chicago Republican.

    The congressional credentialing system has worked well for more than 130 years, so we should be careful about how we change it.  The rules have undergone some changes over the years, and in the last three years, the Standing Committee has struggled with how to address the digital information age. Now is the time to make sure these rules treat online reporters fairly."
  9. In July of 2009 the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism released updated statistics about the number of journalists covering Congress and made a nod to the mounting pressure to update the credentialing rules to reflect the new journalism landscape. 

    "The latest data are available and come at a time when the Senate Press gallery is facing entreaties to accredit more organizations with non-profit status. In 2009, the number of reporters representing newspapers declined sharply from the previous Congress. This year, 819 mainstream U.S. newspaper and wire service reporters were accredited in the Congressional galleries, down from 1,012 in the previous Congress, a drop of 19%."
  10. In December of 2009 radio talk show host Bill Press gets fed up with being denied press credentials, so he comes up with an innovative solution that shines a spotlight on this growing issue. 
  11. In March of 2010 Laura McGann of the Nieman Journalism Lab writes a post about her experience trying to get press credentials in Washington DC when she was reporting for the nonprofit Center for Independent Media (now called The American Independent News Network).

    " I used to edit a nonprofit news site, The Washington Independent, where for two years I dealt with the reality of who gets considered “legit.” If you’re not, you lose out on the privileges given to traditional media outlets. Take Congressional press passes: The Washington Independent was denied admittance to both the daily and periodicals galleries because the site was not chiefly supported by subscriptions or advertising. (Our support came from donors and foundation grants.)

    The Independent’s reporters are resourceful, but not having that credential sometimes put stories out of reach. When Republicans released their alternative budget in a credential-required portion of the Capitol, we didn’t get to attend. We were shut out of an event where we would have had access to ask lawmakers direct questions. Congressional credentials are the toughest to get in Washington (compared to White House credentials, or campaign plane credentials, for example) and as such are sometimes used by other groups as the standard for access."
  12. See also this very good credentialing FAQ put together by the Center for Independent Media (now The American Independent News Network)
  13. In April 2010 the NYPD issued new press credential rules which the New York press organizations opposed.

    "The New York Press Club, the New York Press Photographers Association, and the National Press Photographers Association took issue with the proposed changes at a hearing April 7, hosted by the NYPD and the New York City Law Department.
    The groups, as well as individual journalists, photogs and representatives of media companies, said the new regulations were vague, complicated and did not reflect the best interests of working journalists."
  14. Sometimes the Struggles Continue Even After Getting Press Credentials 

    However, sometimes even once an organization secures press credentials they are challenged or discriminated against. The story below about The UpTake (the only Minnesota media outlet to cover the Franken/Colman Senate seat recount gavel to gavel for months) shows how traditional media outlets have tried to maintain the status quo and keep out competing voices.
  15. The example above is just one way people and institutions have been pushing back on the drive to open up the press corps. Some people believe to much emphasis in professional journalism is already placed on getting and maintaining access. Journalists desire to have access to policy makers, to boost rating and get page hits, has no doubt led at times to soft reporting and some journalists acting as stenographers to the powerful. However, as Laura McGann notes above, while there is a lot that can be done without access, some things are just out of reach.

    Does broadening who can get press credentials "waters-down" journalism?