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Police departments restructure press pass policies to adapt to bloggers, freelancers

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From the Fall 2010 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 30. Reporters have always received press passes…

From the Fall 2010 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 30.

Reporters have always received press passes to cover a wide range of events, from the White House to Woodstock to the World Series. But in today’s ever shifting media world, the rules for deciding who qualifies to receive press passes are anything but clear.

Police stations around the country are adapting their policies to deal with the onslaught of bloggers and freelancers requesting press passes in this booming era of citizen journalism. Some stations have stopped issuing press passes, while others are restructuring their programs, ramping up requirements for background checks or loosening the rules for who gets passes.

“It seems a week doesn’t go by where we hear what’s the latest thing we need to deal with? What’s the latest thing we need to adapt to?” said Capt. Mike Parker, head of media relations at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. “I definitely have the impression that the new media issue is a bigger issue than ever before.”

After eight years, the Chicago Police Department discontinued a policy of fingerprinting journalists before they would give press passes as well as a requirement that journalists must be employed as such on a full-time basis, reasoning the two were outdated procedures. The New York Police Department has changed policies, perhaps in light of recent lawsuits from disgruntled bloggers who weren’t reissued press passes.

Some law enforcement representatives said it has become challenging to decide exactly who needs a press pass, and who is and isn’t a journalist, a decision many media experts warn can be dangerous.

“I do think that more and more of them are wondering why they’re in that business because it’s very difficult to discern who is a journalist and frankly even if they make that decision, it really doesn’t have legal significance,” said Thomas Burke, a media lawyer at Davis Wright Tremaine in San Francisco.

Burke considers the press pass’s heyday to have passed. More citizen journalists are cropping up and journalists aren’t relying on press passes to get into events where the public can also attend, he said. Most police stations issue passes to reporters primarily for crossing fire and accident lines, giving journalists better access to the front lines than the public.

Media attorney Alice Neff Lucan says journalists should be wary of allowing the government to issue press passes.

“If you’re using it for access to the White House, then the state has a legitimate argument for security, especially nowadays. It’s a slam dunk for them,” Lucan said. “But if talking about the ability to attend a press conference for police, a press pass is just bogus.”

At any rate, police officials are caught in the mess of deciding who is a journalist, and their changing policies are a sign of a shifting media world.

Chicago press passes

The Chicago Police Department waived its fingerprinting policy in October after deciding the requirement was unnecessary, said Roderick Drew, director of the Chicago Police Department’s Office of News Affairs.

“I think the entire process some looked at as being too invasive, so in essence we agreed with them,” he said.

The police had been meeting with the Chicago Headline Club, the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, since the policy began in 2002, said Susan Stevens, president of the club.

The police department also did away with the requirement that journalists must work fulltime, after realizing the language was outdated and excluded growing numbers of bloggers and freelancers, Drew said.

The department still requires background checks, but the records are only held during the application process. Fingerprint records used to be kept on file much longer.

Many news organizations, including the Chicago Tribune, decided to forgo press passes, said Angela Rozas, Chicago bureau chief for the Tribune. The Tribune uses its own passes, but after the police department dropped fingerprinting, they are reconsidering their stance, she said.

Fingerprinting was first instituted as a security measure, to learn exactly who was being given access to city leaders and crime scenes, Drew said.

Christine Tatum, a former president of the Chicago Headline Club and the Society of Professional Journalists and a former Tribune reporter, remembers meeting with police officers at a Society of Professional Journalists-sponsored brown bag lunch at the Tribune Tower in 2002, when about 100 people packed the room to hear why the police were implementing the policy.

Tatum said citizen journalism was just beginning to surge and police were worried about handling the onslaught of bloggers and freelancers requesting passes. Police officers wanted to check out reporters to make sure none were registered sex offenders or had suspicious backgrounds, she said.

While Tatum understood the need for background checks, she can’t fathom the need for fingerprinting, nor could other agitated journalists.

“Really, did you really need my fingerprints?” Tatum said during a phone interview. “And where does the line stop? Are you going to tell me that you need biometrics? And is an iris scan next? This is a slippery slope.”

Tatum said the policies could open the door to abuse and was concerned that police could use details from a reporter’s background as a device for curbing critical police stories.

It’s the stories that matter, not who the journalists are, Lucan said.

“So what if you are walking around pretending to be someone different? If we’re talking about the use of this criteria to stop someone from telling this information that’s intended for the public, then it doesn’t matter if you’re trying to pass as Bozo the Clown,” she said.

Media lawyer Burke said it reflects a desire from law enforcement to keep tabs on who’s coming to their events, with journalists trying to prove they aren’t “mass murderers,” as well as a source of revenue.

“I think it’s a paternalistic remnant in the sense that [in] law enforcement there [was] some attitude in the past if we know who you are, then we’ll decide if you can attend our event, which is not consistent with the law and really reflects a desire to control the media,” he said.

Other department policies

The Los Angeles Police Department has required fingerprint and background checks for decades, though at least one reporter there doesn’t seem to mind.

Dan Weikel, an airports and transportation writer for the Los Angeles Times, has had a press pass for nearly 20 years and said the requirements have never been an issue.

“It didn’t really bother me,” Weikel said. “You get access to places other people don’t. It’s to check to make sure you wouldn’t abuse your privileges.”

At the LAPD, press passes cost a one-time fee of $16 and can take anywhere from seven to 45 days to process, said Andrea Bassett, a secretary who handles press passes at the LAPD. The applicant must then independently get a background check through the California Department of Justice. LAPD spokesman John Romero explained that if applicants have a mostly clear record and can prove they cross police and fire lines at least six times in two years, they’re eligible for a press pass.

Romero sticks to the standard of how many times a reporter crosses police lines to help solve the problem of how to issue passes to freelancers, bloggers and the increasing number of community newspapers.

“It’s very easy to do, but if a blogger is doing news from behind a desk, then you will not meet the standard,” he said.

The LAPD is extending its current policy for another three years, to decide if the number of times crossing is an appropriate amount and to figure out where else the press pass entitles reporters to go, Romero said.

Other departments have simply done away with the press pass, while some find it an increasing challenging to decide who needs it and who doesn’t.

“I don’t think the market has successfully adjusted to the absence of the conventions that worked well for many years,” said Peter Scheer, executive director of the California-based First Amendment Coalition. “I think the trend has only gotten worse, or better, depending on your point of view, so police departments have found it harder to make these kinds of determinations.”

The Philadelphia Police Department created a new press pass credentialing policy in 2009, overhauling a prior administration’s policy, said Aviva Kievsky, a senior press aid at the department. She said the agency wanted clearer records and a better idea of who was receiving press passes.

The application doesn’t require background checks or fingerprinting, but applicants must fill out an application each year with a signature from a supervisor and submitted works. A blogger or freelancer must submit work samples from the past three to four months.

“Nowadays with media being kind of a broad spectrum, there are a lot of independent smaller organizations so we want to give them the opportunity to have access, but we need work proving you are who you say you are,” Kievsky said.

The Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., also implemented a new policy about two years ago, modeled on New York City’s police department, said Kevin Palmer, manager of Internal Communications at the Metropolitan Police Department. When Palmer arrived, press passes were typewritten and glued by hand.

More and more people from Maryland and Virginia are asking the MPD for press passes, particularly because other police stations have stopped issuing credentials.

“I think that the lines of distinction have been blurred quite a bit, and I think that may have been why some of the agencies have stopped doing it altogether,” Palmer said.

For example, the Boston police no longer provide credentials because they’re familiar with press members, said James Kenneally, a spokesman for the Boston Police Department.

Last year, Palmer estimated D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department issued 700 passes and about 500 this year. Big news organizations like Washington, D.C.’s WUSA and WJLA television stations have stopped applying for press passes, and bloggers, freelancers and independent small publications have replaced them, making it more difficult to decide who gets a pass, Palmer said.

“Because there’s such a diverse pool of people that are putting together blogs and Internet publications and so forth, it’s a broad spectrum now that’s much less defined,” Palmer said. In the U.S. alone, 1.4 million blog entries are posted every day, according to the upcoming newspaper documentary “Fit to Print.”

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has found a way to make a distinction. It differentiates between bloggers who are hobbyists and those who are journalists, Captain Parker said. If a blogger asks for a press pass, Parker asks for their business license, which most do not have. Parker said he’s encountered little criticism of the policies — in fact, at a recent meeting hosted by the Radio Television Digital News Association between the sheriff’s department and foreign journalists, he says reporters were appreciative of the policies that ensured those with press passes are legitimate journalists.

Still, Parker has encountered growing numbers of bloggers and smaller publications applying, forcing him to adapt the department’s policies for these new circumstances.

Bloggers’ rights

At the New York Police Department, this “new media issue” has blown up as well. In 2007, the NYPD refused to reissue a press pass to Rafael Martínez Alequin, a blogger who covers city hall, because he worked for a non-traditional media outlet, news reports said. Alequin argues the denial was due to the critical questions he asked of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The 77-year-old from Puerto Rico, who has had a press pass since the early 1990s, filed a lawsuit against the NYPD with two other bloggers who were denied passes.

“I was shocked because after so many years of getting it, I say why?,” Alequin said. “To me, it’s like bloggers are recognized as journalists that they will be issued a press card like any writer from The New York Times or New York Post and so on. I’ve been singled out.”

Leonard Levitt, a former police reporter and columnist for Newsday who writes the blog NYPD Confidential, also got turned down for a press pass in 2007 after having one for 24 years. When the NYCLU threatened a lawsuit, the NYPD gave him a press pass, he said.

Levitt filed a freedom of information request seeking information on the police department’s press pass policy and its decision to not renew Levitt’s pass, to which the department never responded. New York’s Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of Levitt in 2008 for its refusal to release information. The NYPD turned over the documents later that year.

“The police department has issued press passes to all kinds of people who they shouldn’t have according to their policy, but not to those who are in need and deserving of a pass,” Levitt said in a 2008 The New York Times article.

In August, the NYPD issued a new press credential, but did not respond to requests for comment. Under the new rules, reporters must cover at least six breaking news restricted-access events in person within a 24-month period, according to NYPD’s website.

Bloggers will always have trouble obtaining press passes, Lucan said. “Because as long as you are allowing the state to set the standard, there will be a hundred-thousand’s of bloggers who simply don’t meet that criteria,” she said.

Burke isn’t convinced that there will be a large movement of bloggers requesting press passes — an anachronism he considers to be fading. “Since it’s not required and journalism in this country does not require a license, I don’t expect there to be any groundswell movement toward bloggers and other journalists suddenly wanting to get credentialed,” Burke said.

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