On January 8, Maryland became the latest state to require criminal background checks for journalists covering the state house. The new credentialing requirement is part of an ongoing movement across the country of state and local jurisdictions, including Pennsylvania, Chicago and Los Angeles, to come down on the side of regulation while balancing public safety concerns and greater press access.
Beginning with the 2014 session of the Maryland General Assembly, even those reporters with previous, unexpired press credentials are required to undergo a criminal background check to comply with the new rules, according to a December 6, 2013, press release from Governor Martin O’Malley.
The rules were a second proposal of the sort. In October, the governor’s office considered offering credentials only to those reporters who work inside the state house exclusively, which would have effectively eliminated press access for any other journalist. However, since then, the office of the governor has said it will offer credentials to all reporters covering the state house if they are able to pass a criminal background check.
Press credentials are needed to bypass security checkpoints when entering the state house or to access press areas. These credentials will be approved or denied by the governor’s press office.
According to O’Malley spokeswoman Nina Smith, the background check consists of a search of the state’s judiciary website for all criminal charges where the person was found guilty.
Those reporters who are flagged as having a felony on their record will be denied credentials. Those who pass will be issued a press credential. However, those initially denied may have their denial overridden by House Speaker Michael Busch or by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.
According to the state, these measures are needed to ensure security at the state house in Annapolis.
Pennsylvania leads the way on restrictions
Maryland is not the first state to implement criminal background checks as a prerequisite to receiving press credentials at a state capitol. In 2002, the Pennsylvania Department of General Services (DGS) took a number of steps to further secure the state capitol in Harrisburg.
Previously, the press had wide access to the capitol using press credentials issued by the state senate. However, the DGS proposed requiring reporters to pass a criminal background check to be credentialed.
After discussions with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association (PLCA), the DGS and the PLCA agreed to a proposal of three options by which reporters could gain access to the Pennsylvania state capitol.
First, reporters could choose to comply with the new DGS proposal, undergo a background check at their own expense and be approved for a press credential. Second, a reporter’s employer could review the background check to verify if that reporter would be eligible for a pass. Third, reporters could refuse the background check but still gain access to the capitol by going through security checkpoints and by showing valid identification.
By creating a flexible system, the DGS and the PLCA say they were able to ensure safety of the capitol without imposing strict requirements on the issuance of press credentials.
In 2013, according to Holly Lubart of the DGS, a new system was implemented that offered a two-tiered approach to press credentialing at the state capitol.
News outlets and individual journalists could choose one of two identification badges to gain access to the state capitol: either a badge for those who did not work on capitol grounds, or a badge for those who worked in the capitol newsroom.
While the issuance of the two badges is roughly equal, Lubart says, the former requires journalists to pass through the public entrance and display their badges to capitol police, while the latter badge grants 24-hour access to the capitol, allowing journalists to enter any door with a badge reader at any time.
Access appears to be the only difference in badge types, as Jan Murphy of the Harrisburg Patriot-News, whose fellow reporters generally work from the capitol newsroom, says that both credentials require the same state police criminal background check and a fee of $30.
Chicago moves to fingerprinting
Police departments across the country have also had a history of requiring criminal background checks for journalists to obtain their credentials.
Though it had been on the books for decades, in 2002 the Chicago Police Department began enforcing an ordinance that required all journalists applying for press credentials with the department to be photographed and fingerprinted for security purposes. Chicago Police Department press credentials allow journalists to cross police lines.
Chicago journalists heavily opposed the move. However, David Bayless, director of news affairs for the Chicago Police Department at the time, emphasized that in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the city of Chicago had become a major terror target. The review of all security policies, including press credentials, was initiated as a result of the high-security, post-9/11 world.
The Chicago Police Department’s original policy was later amended in 2010 when the Chicago City Council revised the ordinance to reflect both reporters’ privacy rights and to update antiquated language that referred to news reels but did not mention television, cable, or online journalism.
While the amendment preserved the criminal background check, it repealed the fingerprinting requirement. Further, it mandated that the results of criminal background checks be destroyed immediately upon completion of the background check. Additionally, to obtain a Chicago Police press pass, a journalist must present a letter from a news organization proving their employment.
According to the Office of News Affairs of the Chicago Police Department, the Department now receives little to no complaints as to their credentialing process, which was implemented without much opposition.
Los Angeles Police restrictions
The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) also has different requirements to obtain press passes. The LAPD’s requirements come at a cost of both time and money, charging $16 to apply and imposing a processing period that can last up to 45 days.
After the application has been processed, journalists must undergo fingerprinting and a Department of Justice criminal background check. If applicants are able to pass a background check and can prove that over the course of two years they have crossed either a police or fire line six times, they are eligible for press credentials.
Dan Weikel, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, has had a press pass with the LAPD for nearly 20 years and takes no issue with the requirements.
“I still have my original thumb print from my LAPD background check,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me. It’s always been that way here.”
Bloggers and freelance journalists
The processes required by state governments and local police departments reflect the traditional role that journalists play. However, these standard procedures can become less applicable to the ever-evolving world of modern journalism, leaving a generation of new journalists less likely to obtain press credentials.
Maryland’s credentialing policy does not exclude bloggers or other new media specifically. However, critics of the policy worry that it would allow the state to judge who is a journalist and who is not. This concern was most evident in the case of attorney and blogger Jay Liner.
In late 2009, Liner was denied a request by the governor’s press office after applying for a press pass to cover the 2010 session of the General Assembly. While no reason was given for this denial, Liner wrote in his complaint that he believes that his press credential application was denied because his blog did not contain “original content regarding state government,” a delineated reason for the denial of a press pass. Following a suit against the governor’s office, however, Liner was credentialed.
The Chicago Police Department’s policy regarding press credentials has also evolved. In the ordinance first enforced in 2002, the Chicago rules for press credentialing made no provision for part-time or freelance journalists.
In 2010, however, the new ordinance expanded the definition of news media to include electronic periodicals, which would include online news sources, as well as blogs. Further, a requirement that the reporter be a full-time employee of a news outlet was removed, allowing part-time and freelance reporters access to press passes.
Philadelphia issued press credentials to bloggers and freelancers so long as they provided work samples from the past three to four months. However, the city no longer issues press credentials whatsoever, not unlike many other cities.
Overall, the policies have not evoked strong reactions from those upon which they are imposed. Across the nation, these new policies have been implemented quietly and without much pushback from local journalists.
This also seems to be the case in Maryland.
“We ultimately agreed that the process was not overly burdensome on our reporters, and it was for a reasonable cause,” said Jack Murphy of the Maryland Delaware and District of Columbia Press Association.