Who is a journalist?

At Boston College’s student newspaper, covering peace rallies during the war in Iraq or crazed Red Sox fans in downtown Boston is important, said editor Ryan Heffernan, because college students are often involved in such events. But after student journalists were arrested while trying to cover protests at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings in Washington, D.C., in 2002, Heffernan said he realized his staff needed press credentials ‘ both as validation of their status as journalists and protection from being arrested when on the scene of a crime or accident.

But when he went to the Massachusetts State Police Department in 2003 to obtain the credentials that other journalists routinely obtain, the police said his reporters did not qualify for credentials because they were not “regularly employed” as “a daily newspaper reporter, a television news reporter, a radio news reporter, a news magazine reporter, or a recognized news gathering agency reporter.” The Massachusetts State Police Department defines “regularly employed” as “devoting a significant portion of employment time to police news,” for the organizations listed above.

Heffernan was outraged at what seemed like an unfair distinction. “[Professional journalists] have press passes that will protect them from being arrested and badgered by police officers. Members of the college press, however, are left vulnerable,” Heffernan wrote in a letter to the Massachusetts State Police.

With unclear definitions of who is considered a journalist by different jurisdictions, many journalists run into problems trying to obtain press credentials.

Student reporters Beth Rankin and Nick Gehring from Kent State University in Ohio have no trouble using their Daily Kent Stater-issued press passes for local high-security events, such as presidential campaign speeches. However, when covering protesters at the Republican National Convention in New York City in August, both students were unable to show credentials that the New York Police Department considered valid.

The NYPD says it does not recognize a staff member of a student publication as a journalist. The NYPD also requires journalists who want credentials to regularly report and write about more than two of the city’s police precincts.

Reporters who want to cover Congress can run into similar problems. Accreditation to the Press Galleries of Congress in Washington, D.C. is restricted to “bonafide working press” living in the Washington, D.C., area and working for daily newspapers or news services. They define “bonafide working press” by asking questions concerning the number of times the publication is printed per week and if the job provides more than one-half of the reporter’s income.

Even student journalists have trouble becoming credentialed on their home turf. In the aftermath of the arrests at the Republican National Convention, the Stater staff tried to avoid another arrest by obtaining credentials from the Cleveland police for the vice presidential debates. Stater photographer Pat Jarret said he spoke with more than a dozen people at the Cleveland police station department.

“Nobody could tell me anything,” Jarret said. “The only thing they told me was ‘Don’t get arrested.’”

Critics say narrow definitions of who is a journalist leave no room for weekly reporters, freelancers, bloggers and, of course, student journalists.

Wendy Hoke, a freelancer and co-chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ National Mission Committee for Freelancers said there are two kinds of freelancers: those paid by a professional news source and others “who are looking for stories and hoping to get something out of an event without having pre-sold an article.”

Hoke said many freelancers have asked the SPJ to establish a form of press credentials. At the annual SPJ convention in New York in September, some members of the committee were not opposed to issuing credentials. Others expressed concern that if SPJ offered freelancers credentials, they would have to vouch for the journalists’ credibility, Hoke said.

The committee is working on another solution: giving SPJ members the option of putting a photo on their membership cards, which might carry extra weight in some jurisdictions.

“[An] SPJ membership says you are a serious journalist,” Hoke said.

Hoke said the discussion is ongoing.

Amy Green, a freelancer and board member of SPJ’s Tennessee bureau, used her SPJ membership card last year when writing an article for The New York Times about a tornado in Jackson, Tenn. She said a state trooper who was trying to keep people out of the neighborhood did not want to let her report on the casualties. Green said she was able use her SPJ membership card and her driver’s license to convince the trooper she was a legitimate journalist.

Green said she learned afterwards there was no way for her to obtain press credentials from The New York Times that would be acknowledged in her state.

“In Tennessee you’re required to have your primary employer on your media badge,” she said. “I freelance fulltime so I’m not able to meet that requirement.”

“I can see how there would be danger in SPJ issuing credentials but it sure would be such a huge help for me,” Green said.

In his New York Times Magazine article “Fear and Laptops on the Campaign Trail,” novelist and contributing writer Matthew Klam wrote about his experiences with bloggers at the 2004 Democratic and Republican National Conventions.

The Democratic National Committee gave the bloggers press credentials, but they were given the worst seats, according to Klam.

Klam said it was harder for bloggers to obtain credentials at the Republican convention. “Were they supposed to pretend to be regular reporters?” he asked.

Former Society of Professional Journalists president Mac McKerral said it’s the definition of “journalist” that is the heart of the issue.

“Law enforcement or anybody who issues press credentials sometimes take a very narrow view,” requiring reporters to be affiliated with their definition of a news outlet, McKerral said. “Clearly it’s getting harder for non-journalists to define [journalists].”

“A number of student journalists and other journalists in mass are concerned about the criteria that the state police choose in order to give out these press passes,” said Jeff Pyle, a media lawyer in Boston who represents newspapers and magazines. “The criteria ought to be broad enough to encompass all journalists.”

Court decisions suggest government agencies cannot make arbitrary decisions as to who gets credentials and who does not. In 1977 the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., ruled in Sherill v. Knight that media credentials cannot be denied randomly or for less than a compelling reason, such as security or space constraints.

Courts have attempted in a number of contexts to decide when a news gatherer is a journalist. One example is who would be covered by the reporter’s privilege. As recognized in one 1987 case, Von Bulow v. Von Bulow, the privilege allows reporters not to be compelled to testify in court or disclose their sources.

The court ruled in Von Bulow that the reporter’s privilege applied as long as “the individual claiming the privilege [can] demonstrate, through competent evidence, the intent to use material — sought, gathered or received — to disseminate information to the public and that such intent existed at the inception of the newsgathering process.”

“The definition of reporter is not contingent upon the reporter working fulltime, or otherwise subject to a minimum number of work hours. Instead, the core of the test is whether an individual gathers information in the course of newsgathering duties and has the intention to disseminate the information to the public,” the court held.

Applying the “news gatherer” standard seems fair, journalists’ advocates say. “I think that applying the reporter’s [privilege] definition of who a journalist is a workable solution,” Pyle said.

In 1993 the issue was brought up in Shoen v. Shoen, which involved an investigative author who was writing a book about a prominent family. The author was subpoenaed for his notes and interviews concerning a murder within the family. The court found that his intent to write a book, combined with the newsworthy nature of the story, gave him the reporter’s privilege. Courts have ruled that determining whether someone is a journalist does not depend on the medium by which one communicates.

The definition has also been extended to students. In the 1993 case Blum v. Schlegel, oen court referred to student journalists as “less traditional news gatherers”. In this case a professor subpoenaed a law school student newspaper reporter for her notes from an interview with the school’s associate dean. The court said that because the student reporter intended to use the information for the student paper, she did not have to respond to the subpoena.

Journalism advocates are lobbying governmental agencies for a broader definition of who is a journalist.

“Anyone who wants to communicate with other people and is in a place solely to do it is a journalist,” said Gregg Leslie, the legal defense director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press. “Courts have said it has nothing to do with employment, it’s how you present yourself to people,” Leslie said. Leslie said this new definition could be affirmed in the near future by cases in several federal courts.

The California Highway Patrol discontinued its system of issuing media passes to reporters in early November, saying that the nature of journalism has changed. To cover a highway crash or other incident, journalists only have to show a “media-affiliated business card” or “media pass” to prove their journalistic integrity, said California Highway Patrol spokesman Tom Marshall.

In the aftermath of the International Monetary Fund demonstrations and journalist arrests, Washington, D.C., City Council member Kathy Patterson drafted a bill to provide greater protection to those who attend protests, including journalists. Eric Lieberman, counsel to the Washington Post, testified at the bill’s committee hearing, saying the bill’s authors needed to address the question of who should be issuing credentials.

The goal of credentials is to make sure a journalist’s job is not interrupted, Lieberman said. Issuing credentials should not be the sole responsibility of the police, he said. For instance, if a media accreditation board is created, journalists as well as police should be members of the board.

“Journalists need as much access as possible in order to cover issues in a meaningful way,” Lieberman said.