- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2014

With bloggers, pundits and social media stars flooding the Internet, the definition of a journalist is changing rapidly. But a study by Harvard researchers has found that nontraditional journalists still face bigger hurdles from media gatekeepers when it comes to getting press passes.

Working journalists need these certifications to gain access to government proceedings and private events, but the survey found that organizations can have widely differing policies on who may receive press passes.

“There are no standards at all, no statutes and regulations,” said Jeff Hermes, one of the authors of the report.

Mr. Hermes, who directs the Digital Media Law project at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, said one of the biggest surprises in the data was that it didn’t seem to make much of a difference whether press pass applicants worked in traditional news outlets or in digital media.

What mattered most was the organization behind the journalist, Mr. Hermes said. Without a “legacy” media institution, even one that publishes only online, a journalist was more likely to be denied a press pass.

“It was less the technology a journalist was using [and] more whether they were being published by a third party who was exercising some sort of editorial authority on their work,” he said.

The study also suggests a bias against freelancers, who are increasingly used by even well-established news organizations in the wake of regular staff layoffs. Freelancers’ inability to obtain credentials may restrict access to important institutions and events.

“Employment-based decision-making doesn’t capture the importance of freelancers to public information,” Mr. Hermes said.

Although the study focused on credentials from public and private entities, it found criticism of governmental groups such as the press office that gives access to Congress.

In April, the Senate Press Gallery denied credentials to the widely read SCOTUSblog, which covers the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court does not have its own system to give reporters credentials and usually defers to Senate passes, though it has been re-examining its policy this year.

“What’s been happening with SCOTUSblog does trouble me,” Mr. Hermes said. “Organizations like SCOTUSblog provide unique perspectives, interest in particular fields and detailed coverage.”

Tom Goldstein, publisher of the blog, expressed similar concerns in a June 6 post on the site.

Subject-area journalists are “increasingly creating specialized publications that provide a public service. If the Committee is going to forbid it, the Committee is going to exclude a lot of valuable emerging media,” Mr. Goldstein said.

SCOTUSblog writer Amy Howe said the court has been reserving seats for the website’s writers in public areas during hearings, but access to hearings, and to senators who interact with the court, is restricted.

“It will be a problem with the Senate, for confirmation hearings in the future that we would cover,” Ms. Howe said.

SCOTUSblog had a hearing May 23 for an appeal of the decision.

“The Standing Committee of Correspondents is considering SCOTUSblog’s appeal and hopes to have a decision in the next few weeks,” Senate Press Gallery Director Laura Lytle said.

Ms. Howe said she was wary.

“They were very skeptical at the hearing,” she said.

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