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Chicago repeals fingerprint requirement for press passes

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  1. Newsgathering
Chicago journalists will no longer be fingerprinted to receive police-issued press passes after the City Council last week amended its…

Chicago journalists will no longer be fingerprinted to receive police-issued press passes after the City Council last week amended its credentialing ordinance to reflect reporters’ privacy rights and modern changes in the news industry.

However, the requirement that reporters who apply for press credentials from the Chicago Police Department undergo a criminal background check is still in effect. Chicago Police implemented both procedures shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, and many local news organizations — concerned about the invasion into reporters’ private lives — simply opted to forgo police credentialing, said Sue Stevens, president of the Chicago Headline Club, the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Opponents have been working since that time to have the policies revoked.

“The two [fingerprint and background-check] issues do go hand in hand, but this [amendment] is certainly an improvement,” Stevens said.

Roderick Drew, director of news affairs for the Chicago Police, distinguished the two policies by citing their differing levels of invasiveness, noting that the department kept reporters’ fingerprint records on file for months, but destroys background-check results immediately.

“We can still accomplish our mission of checking out potential reporters without having to go through the process of fingerprinting and keeping them on file for months,” he said.

The background checks are mainly conducted to ensure that credentialed reporters — who gain media access to the City Hall press room, the Police Department headquarters press area and crime scenes — have no outstanding warrants issued against them, Roderick added.

The new ordinance also expands the definition of “news media” to include periodicals issued in electronic format. A requirement that the reporter be employed “full time” also has been eliminated, a particularly significant development during a time when many news organizations are turning to freelance reporters, Stevens said.

The Chicago Police Department joins other public bodies that have recently recognized online bloggers and freelance reporters as credentialed journalists. A person need only present a letter from one news organization stating that he or she is working for it to be eligible for a Chicago Police press pass.

“If you’re blogging for an online magazine, and you can show a letter from that magazine, then presumably you’re covered,” Stevens said.

Drew said the new ordinance will go into effect in mid-October. Stevens said the local media do not plan to challenge the continuation of the background-check requirement.