Sidelined: Press credential restrictions cause concern among journalists

Steam rises off the shoulder pads of the collegiate athletes as they lineup at the 7-yard line for the last play of the game. The lights blaze overhead,reflecting off helmets. Cleats dig in to the grass as receivers get ready tosprint into the end zone.

The play starts. Pads crash together and the quarterback releases the ball.Fans hold their breath in anticipation of the game-winning pass that couldsecure the team a shot at a championship game.

School history is about to be made. But fans looking to the Web site of astudent newspaper or student television station for video and real-timenarrative of the historic moment may come away disappointed, because so manyconferences have banned game-action video from media Web sites and restrictedhow frequently reporters can blog about the events going on at the game.

This year, dozens of media organizations joined together to petitionathletic conferences within the NCAA for relief, because journalists wereunhappy with press credential requirements that limited use of game footage,photos or blog posts during athletic events.

After much discussion, many regulations remain intact, but the controversyhas put restrictive press policies in the spotlight and opened up a number ofquestions about the limits of press credential requirements. Officials,administrators and journalists have joined in the discussion to find a balancebetween league financial interests and press freedom.

HistoryNews organizations regularly get special access to sportingevents to be able to report the events to their readers. Reporters get presspasses from schools or sports conferences that allow them close proximity to theaction for photos and access to locker-room interviews. These passes come withrestrictions that allow those in charge of the events to protect copyright andtrademarked material. The requirements also aim to ensure press passes go tolegitimate newsgathering agencies.

The fairness of those restrictions was brought into the spotlight this yearwhen the Southeastern Conference (SEC) re-worked its press credentialrequirements for the start of the 2009 NCAA football season to adapt to thechanging nature of news reporting. The first draft of the re-worked policy,released July 20, immediately met resistance from media outlets covering SECgames. Within the first week of the release of the new policy, the AssociatedPress and Gannett both refused to have any of their reporters sign untilrevisions were made.

Some of the disputed terms of the document restricted the use of video toonly broadcast news programs and only within 72 hours of the game, completelyeliminating the possibility for newspapers or other media to use game footage ontheir Web sites. The first draft of the SEC policy also granted only limitedblogging ability, saying, “no bearer may produce or disseminate in anyform a ‘real-time’ description or transmission of theevent.”

And, the most troubling portion of the policy for student journalists atSEC schools like Robert Stewart, sports editor at Louisiana StateUniversity’s newspaper, The Daily Reveille, was a stipulation thatonly full-time salaried employees of media outlets were eligible forcredentials, disqualifying virtually all student media from covering their ownschools’ games.

“I was not happy with that version of the policy, and I know a lot ofother people were not happy with it,” Stewart said. “There were alot of unnecessary rules in place.”Media organizations teamed up tosend a letter to the SEC, outlining some of their concerns with thepolicy.

“The new credentials go beyond adjustments; they are wholesalechanges that restrain our members from covering your teams in ways that servefans without harming league interests,” reads the letter, which was signedby the American Society of News Editors, the AP Managing Editors and the APSports Editors. “Many of these changes may also violate existing law,which, in most instances, has not changed despite the advent of newmedia.”

The SEC eventually changed the policy, and after two drafts adoptedconcessions that included easing limitations on photo use, expanding who canapply for credentials and clarifying exactly what routine blogging ispermitted.

Despite the changes, though, not everybody involved is satisfied with thenew regulations. Stewart, for example, said the paper is no longer allowed tohave a videographer at the games, which has changed the way his paper covers andreports the events.

“It has changed things,” said Casey Gisclair, deputy sportseditor at The Daily Reveille. “[In the past] we posted gamehighlights on the days following games, but we’ve had to stop doingthat.”

Continued falloutAfter seeing the mixed success in dealing with theSEC, other media organizations challenged the press credential requirements inthe Big Ten Conference.

Tom O’Hara, adviser to the Ohio State Lantern newspaper, saidhe, along with the local paper in Columbus, Ohio, felt it was time to take onOhio State University and the Big Ten conference for their two-year old policy,which he said was too restrictive.

“The point is: somebody has got to draw the line here,”O’Hara said. “Otherwise, the line is going to keep moving until allyou’re going to be able to do is publish one photo and a boxscore.”

Media groups had issues with the Big Ten credentials similar to those withthe SEC, even though the Big Ten policy had been in place for two years withoutany confrontation, said Scott Chipman, assistant commissioner of communicationsfor the Big Ten.

A number of organizations got involved by sending a letter of complaint,saying the Big Ten policy was too restrictive because it did not allow secondaryuse of photos, drawings, or audio depictions of the event in anything other thandirect reporting on the sporting event. If followed literally, it would restrictuse of game content in season previews or commemorative issues ofnewspapers.

The Big Ten, despite pressure from the media organizations, decided againstchanging its policy.

While both of the debates were sparked at the onset of the NCAA footballseason, the implications of the decisions apply to college journalists for allsports. The balance between financial gain for those in charge of events andpress freedom for those covering the events is an ongoing struggle not limitedto any particular sport.

Ownership of rightsBoth confrontations raised questions about fairnessand legality in developing press credential requirements at schools, especiallythose that are publicly funded.

The credentialing issue is further complicated because there is no singleorganization in charge of setting credential requirements. They are set by theschools themselves, conferences, and, in the case of certain tournaments andlarge events, they are set by organizations like the NCAA and Bowl ChampionshipSeries (BCS).

Jim Brady, a member of the board of directors for the Online NewsAssociation, which fought for media rights during the Big Ten debate, said ithas been an interesting process because schools and conferences are trying toadapt their policies to handle situations arising with new technology.

“You’re not battling over the same issues you would have beenfive years ago,” Brady said. “Now you’re moving into the issueof each of the conferences and the leagues and the teams are your competitorsonline. They have rights to content — like video — which they see asvaluable. So it’s about where you find that line between what should beavailable for public dissemination versus what should be controlled by oneentity.”Brady, who is also associated with the National PressFoundation and the Associated Press Managing Editors, also said there are issueswith the restriction on dissemination of information in general.

“You’re not talking about a closed Cabinet meeting in the WhiteHouse, you’re talking about games that are often being televised tomillions of people,” he said. “At the same time, people at the gamesare being told they can’t disseminate information about it.”With the changing nature of news dissemination, student journalists areconcerned if they do not have sufficient rights to content, they will not havethe opportunities they need to be able to develop skills to be marketable inwhen job searching.

“I think it’s a big deal right now with how journalism isevolving,” said Matt Brown, football editor for Penn State’sDaily Collegian. “It’s important for students to get thatkind of training. If we’re restricted in that, we’re restricted inwhat we can learn.”

Brown also said he questions the legitimacy of coverage if it is doneprimarily by the conference.

“I think it’s troubling anytime you have a conference itselfcontrolling most of its media productions,” he said. “That’snot good for anybody. It’s not good for the fans and not good for us asmedia outlets.”

Andy Reid, the managing sports editor for the University ofMichigan’s Michigan Daily, said it is important for students tohave as much access as possible because hands-on experience is the only way theywill learn the tools of the journalism trade.

“It’s important to get access, because if this is really whatwe want to do, this is the only way we have to learn,” Reid said.”It’s trial by fire. As a student that wants to be a journalist, Idon’t know how we would be able to do that without gettingaccess.”

Like Reid’s school, a number of colleges either have limitedjournalism programs or no journalism programs at all, which means working for astudent media outlet is the primary chance students have to get journalismtraining.

The other sideWhile most conference administrators and other officialswant their sports to get as much news coverage as possible, they also have aninterest in shaping press credential requirements that allow them to maintaincontrol of anything that holds financial value. Charles Bloom, associatecommissioner for the SEC in charge of media relations, said the issue has beentough, and has required new thinking from the commissioners.

In the case of the SEC, the changes were made because of a new 15-yearcontract it signed with ESPN and CBS, Bloom said. After the broadcast, the SECwill have rights to conference games and, consequently, had to craft languageprotecting its video inventory on the Internet. Other conferences have similarconcerns when coming up with their requirements.

“Initially, I was very uncomfortable with the thought of curtailingexposure for our programs,” Bloom said. “There’s a part of measking why [restrict media coverage], when we should want everybody to seeit.”

He said it has been tough to switch to a mindset where conferenceadministrators are working to limit public exposure to games. Bloom said he,like others, is “an old-school guy trying to get into the newschool.”

Ultimately, he said, the issue in any conference comes down tomoney.”There’s a financial aspect to it,” Bloom said.”My feeling is that’s what’s driving it … it’s aboutdirecting sponsor dollars.”

As a journalist, Stewart said he could appreciate the reasons why a sportsconference would want to have a policy to control what happens with content fromgames. “It’s my opinion that they’re doing this to protectcontracts with ESPN and CBS,” he said. “I can certainly understandthat. But at the same time, they are excluding media outlets from the coveragethey’ve had in the past, which I don’t understand.”

Bill Hancock, executive director of the BCS, which issues credentials forfootball championship games, said sporting event administrators have a number ofinterests to protect in their credentialing policies.

“You want to credential the agencies that will reach the mostfans,” said Hancock, who worked as a sports editor for his collegenewspaper and also as the director for the NCAA Final Four basketballtournament. “However, I personally feel that it’s important forstudent media to be a part of these events whenever possible.”

He said there are a number of issues papers often don’t think about,from limited availability of space for press representatives to the frequency ofdistribution for the publication in question.

“The organizers’ task is to balance the need to reach as manypeople as possible with the need to include as many students as possible,”Hancock said.

What it means for studentsHaving as much access as possible isimportant for students because it allows them to build their portfolios withthings like highlight videos, special commemorative editions, blogs and digitalslideshows.

“I think for us, the policy does limit [the studentjournalists],” Stewart said. “We don’t have videographersgoing to football games learning how to shoot footage and edit on top of that.We don’t have as much of the action footage as we would want … to maketheir videos better.”

Ben Jones, sports editor for the Kentucky Kernel newspaper at theUniversity of Kentucky, also in the SEC, said the new policy has forced studentsto look to other sources to find chances to develop multimedia skills they wouldhave been developing at games.

He said reporters at his paper had to decide ahead of time they would workwith video footage of press conferences, which generally gets less traffic andfeedback than actual game footage.

Tough fight for the underdogWhile student journalists face challengesin having limited use of sports content, it is no simple task for students toget conferences and schools to change policies to be more friendly to studentjournalists or more in line with First Amendment free speech principles.

“I feel like it’s violating the First Amendment and freedom ofthe press — they’re trying to control us,” Jones said.”I don’t know how much we can do as a student paper to controlthat.”

If the media were to write its own policy, he said, it would be verydifferent from what the SEC and Big Ten conferences have written. When it comesdown to it, though, he said his school’s paper would accept thecredentialing process because there is no other choice.

“I think it’s a violation of the First Amendment,” saidGisclair, the LSU student editor.

“I think it has taken away a right to get the information out there.At the same time, I think the feeling among journalists is you don’t haveany other real alternative.”

Like Jones, Gisclair said his paper will have to comply with the newrequirements, even though he considers the regulations less than ideal.

“Ultimately, we don’t necessarily agree with everything in it,but we have to go along because we don’t have any other choice,”Gisclair said. “The alternative is not covering the game, and that’snot a choice.”

Whether the credential requirements are in violation of the First Amendmenthinges on a number of criteria.

First, a person first has to figure out whether the organization issuingthe credentials is a government entity, said Frank LoMonte, executive directorof the Student Press Law Center.

“There have been cases that have held the NCAA is not a governmentarm,” LoMonte said. “However, it is not established exactly what thelegal status of a conference is.”

Any government body, LoMonte said, can make access to events on publicproperty conditional on reasonable requirements, so the body issuing thecredentials would have to figure out exactly what are “reasonable”requirements.

“Outright prohibition on all video is pushing the bounds ofreasonableness in the 21st century where that’s how news isdisseminated,” LoMonte said. “However, there’s not a generalFirst Amendment right just to be where news is happening, which is tricky in thecase of a sporting event.”

Throughout the discussion in the SEC and Big Ten, some of the schools andorganizations involved have made attempts to incorporate the interests ofstudent media. Ohio State changed its policy to give media more freedom withcontent. And the SEC went to great lengths to ensure the conference was notstepping on First Amendment rights when they changed the policy, Bloom said,especially in the case of student media.”In the initial document,there was some language that would have hampered student media,” he said.”It was taken care of in the first revision. It was never the intent ofthe conference to inhibit any student media rights, but that’s how thelanguage was when we first released it.”

He said as part of the development process the conference tried toincorporate suggestions from student media, and that conferences and othercredentialing entities do not try to hamper the rights and abilities ofstudents.

Looking forwardDespite fears of the consequences of press credentialpolicies, student online, video and print publications are finding ways to existand thrive with what they are given.Gisclair said he liked the encouragingadvice given by one of his editors about what student journalists could stillaccomplish, regardless of credential policies.

“The editor explained that the restrictions are only on game days, sothat means you have six other days to go out there and do good work and get goodclips,” he said. “But it does hurt that you’re not getting thehighlight footage on football games and you’re being restricted on howoften you can blog.”

He said he has hope for how journalists will cope with the situation.

“Journalists are pretty creative people,” Gisclair said.”We discovered initially it would be cool to put videos on a Web site. TheSEC came back and said you can’t do that, so I don’t know whatit’s going to be next, but in the next 10 years journalists are going tofind another thing people like to see and they’re going to try itout.”

O’Hara said it is important at the end of the day for people whodraft credential requirements to remember that students are journalists, andshould both be treated and act as such.

“The students who work for [the paper] and the editors who work for[the paper] need to have as much of a real-world experience as possible,”he said. “Putting out special sections, like a football or basketballspecial edition, are all things normal publications do. It’s importantthat students who work for student newspapers are able to use the material theygather to do the same.”

While there are still challenges ahead, and both student journalists andcredentialing organizations will have to work together to come up with fairpractices, O’Hara said he thinks there is a bright potential future forrelations between the two.

“My hope for the future is colleges will view college newspapers as apart of the same institution that the athletic department is part of, and viewcoverage from the student paper as not only something to the athleticdepartment, but to the student newspaper,” he said.