Student media guide to news gathering

“Getting the story”or “getting the shot” first requires getting into the places where news happens. But sometimes the informationyou need is behind a barricade — a physical one, or a legal one.

Knowing the law canopen many locked doors. And it can also help you minimize the risk of a nastyconfrontation with the authorities. This Guide provides some tips on using thelaw to gain access — safely — to the people, places and documents youneed.  We hope that this Guide willprepare you for some of the obstacles you might confront while out in the fieldand help you avoid common “traps” that can befall even seasonedreporters.

Access to places

Sitting by theemergency communications scanner in your newsroom or listening to one of yourother news sources has finally paid off, and you are off to the scene of anunfolding incident. But what happens once you arrive? Almost anything — and youneed to be ready for it.

Be courteous andrespectful of emergency personnel at news scenes; lives and safety can be atstake. Although emergency personnel generally understand the media’s need togather and report news, burning buildings and accident victims are their firstpriority.

Also keep in mindthat emergency personnel might have legitimate reasons for keeping you fromplaces that are not readily apparent when you first arrive at a scene.

For example, inAugust 1997, a New Hampshire man named Carl Drega shot and killed two statetroopers, a part-time judge and a newspaper editor (who died trying to save thejudge’s life) during a shooting spree.

Reporters who went toDrega’s property were told to stay clear: The house and barn were booby-trappedand rigged to kill anyone who entered; the rest of the property had yet to bethoroughly searched. In fact, the property turned out to be so laden with bombs,tunnels and other traps that authorities eventually decided to burn it downrather than risk lives to search it more thoroughly.1

That is not to say,however, that the police will always have good reason to keep you from a scene,and you should not hesitate to question them about their decision.

Just ask Chris Hahn,a student journalist at Ball State University in 1998. He was arrested forvideotaping a car accident scene because the arresting officer erroneouslythought he had no right to be there.2

“I kept tellingthe officer as he was handcuffing me, ‘I have a right to be here,'” Hahnsaid. “I told him repeatedly that it was wrong to arrest me.”

In a later statement,Ball State Chief of Police Joseph Wehner said Hahn should not have beenarrested and that he did have a right to videotape the scene.

Yet, harsh penaltiescould befall journalists who ignore, disregard, or are not attentive to policeinstruction, regardless of whether a reporter believes that the police are inthe wrong.

In 2009 Diane Bukowski,a reporter for The Michigan Citizen, was found guilty oftwo felony charges for resisting and obstructing police. The reporter allegedlycrossed a yellow police tape and began photographing the wreckage of amotorcycle crash.

The reporter wasfined $4,000 and sentenced to one year of probation. Bukowski filed an unsuccessfulappeal.3

In order to avoidarrest, you and your newsroom should always have a plan ready for when you aredenied access to a news scene.

Have the names andtelephone numbers of legal advisers and police officials on hand. Find outahead of time if the police have press guidelines and what they say. Get apress pass if police require them. If they do not, talk with local lawenforcement agencies about how your reporters can ensure they will be allowedto cover news scenes effectively.

Your plan should helpyou gauge whether you should stay at a scene after you have been told to leave (andrisk arrest for trespass) or leave knowing you did the best you could.

Public property v. private property

When headed to ascene, you want to find out if the news event is taking place on public-forumpublic property, on non-public-forum public property or on private property.

Public forumproperty, generally, is government property where public access rarely can bedenied.

Streets, parks andsidewalks are examples of public property that fall into the public forumcategory. Unless emergency personnel have an extremely good reason for keepingyou off or away from the property — such as a threat to public safety — youhave a right to be there, ask questions and take pictures in an unobtrusivemanner.4

Non-public-forumproperty includes government property that has not traditionally been wide opento the public, including government buildings and facilities, schools,airports, prisons, jails, military facilities and state legislatures. Thesetypes of property often have specific guidelines for how media coverage can be conductedon the property.5

Once again, your bestplan is to call ahead and have an updated list of the various media accesspolicies of local non-public-forum properties in your area.

Private property isproperty owned by an individual or business, and unless you have the permissionof the owner (or, in some cases, the police) to enter onto the property, yougenerally cannot do so.6

Where a media accesspolicy doesn’t exist, your newsgathering strategy will need to be more fluent,dictated largely by the event itself.

While thedetermination of whether the property is public, non-public-forum property orprivate property is the first and probably most important step in determiningwhether you should stay or go; however, do not stop there.

You should also findout if access to the scene is restricted just to the media, or to the public asa whole. The media should have at least as much access as the general public toa scene.

Also, find out ifthere is a threat to public safety and what it is. If the police have goodreason to fear you will be blown to bits if you enter a property, they probablyhave the authority to exclude you from a scene.

It’s important, too,to sense the “urgency” of your reporting an event. In determining whether areporter acted reasonably, courts frequently examine the particularcircumstances under which the reporting occurred.  For example, breaking the rules whilecovering an event whose “newsworthiness” is less likely to be affected by thepassage of time — therefore allowing you a reasonable opportunity to contactthe relevant authorities for permission or clarification on covering the event(or appealing a decision made by someone on the ground to their supervisor) —will likely be viewed by a court with a more critical eye than your good-faithattempt to cover urgent, breaking news that could impact public safety.   

You will also want tofind out when the access restrictions are expected to be lifted; courts aremore likely to rule that access limitations are reasonable if they only last fora limited time.7

All that said, insome circumstances, you will find that it’s simply best not to ask questions towhich you don’t really need answers. In other words, if you are in a place thatyou reasonably believe you have a right to be, a place where you’ve not beentold (in person or by posted policy) to leave and in a position to gather theinformation you need safely and unobtrusively — do so.  Don’t flash your press credentials or yourfancy camera and start asking for permission. Quickly and quietly take thenotes you require and discreetly snap the photos or take the video you need.And then leave. Some officials — particularly some law enforcement officials —have an instinctive knee-jerk reaction to news media; it makes no sense toinvite a confrontation that can be avoided.     

All in all, thedetermination of whether you want to stay or leave is up to you, but remember,the First Amendment will not protect you from arrest for trespass charges ifyou unreasonably disobey police orders at a news scene.

The key is to staycalm and state the reasons you believe you should be given access to a scene ina convincing manner. This is not always easy, and in some situations it can beexceedingly difficult. Take a step back and think about what might change yourmind if you were in the official’s position.

Also, depending onwhere you are, you may want to find a spot close to the scene and stay thereuntil the restrictions are lifted or until you are able to speak to someonewith more authority.

Police, just likereporters, often respect perseverance in an investigation, and the more youdemonstrate in a firm and polite manner that you intend on pursuing the story,the more they may respect you.

Finally, everyreporter’s goal should be to work with authorities in a friendly andprofessional manner. But on the off chance you are arrested at a news scene,you want to be prepared.

In such an event,give police your name and other identifying information. Inform them that youare covering a story for your student news organization. Also tell police thatyou believe their action is illegal and that you will not say anything moreuntil you talk to a lawyer.

Even with the best ofprecautions, be aware that it’s possible for journalists who get too close to adisaster, riot or other volatile scene to get swept up in the chaos. In 2004,when Beth Rankin, a reporter with TheDaily Kent Stater, went to cover the Republican National Convention in NewYork City, she found herself in the middle of a street rally in Union Square.8

“There was a lot oftension and riot cops were everywhere,” Rankin said, “I had never seen suchlarge riot cops before. A police officer yelled that everyone was going to bearrested and we better just sit there.”

Rankin attempted toshow the police officer her Staterpress pass, but to no avail. “He didn’t listen, just zip tied my arms and satme down on the corner,” Rankin said.

Before sending areporter to cover a contentious scene, editors should establish a newsroompolicy in the event that one of their own is put behind bars. Field journalistsshould always bring multiple forms of identification, at least $50 in cash topost bond, and establish a meeting point with other reporters in case anyonegets into trouble.

Covering news at school

It is extremelyimportant that reporters — especially student reporters at public schools — havethe access and freedom to cover their schools so that the public can know how studentsare being educated, how its tax money is spent, and what events — be they bakesales or stabbings — take place on school grounds.

When covering news atpublic schools, there are a few principles to keep in mind. (It is important tonote that private school officials generally have much more leeway incontrolling access to their privately owned facilities.) Among them:

  • Public school students do not “shedtheir constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at theschoolhouse gate.”9
  • Independently created student expressionis allowed on public school campuses as long as it does not create a”material disruption.”10
  • While schools can enact policiesconcerning how to avoid “material disruption,”11simply putting something in writing doesn’t automatically mean it’sconstitutionally valid.
  • Students have a First Amendment right toexpress themselves and talk to outside media if they choose.
  • Public school administrators cannot stopexpression because of their hunch that a disruption might occur; instead, administrators must make a fact-specificshowing why a disruption is likely to occur.12
  • There are no laws against talking tojuveniles without parental permission, but depending on the interview topic andthe age and maturity of the child, getting a parent’s permission might be agood idea. Most importantly, you want to consider whether the child is capableof “appreciating the nature, extent and…consequences” of theinterview or photograph.13
  • If you are a student at the school youare covering and are already on campus, you do not need special permission tospeak with fellow students or teachers or to take photos of school areas wherestudents are normally allowed to engage in such activities. But you will wantto observe the everyday rules of your school (for example, do not disrupt aclass for an interview, don’t unreasonably block traffic in a hallway, etc..)

Covering news at a shopping mall

In many communities,malls have become the modern version of the “town square,” hosting avariety of civic and social events. That means news.

Malls, however, areusually privately owned, and mall management often excludes the news media,people who want to hand out pamphlets or people conducting political protests.

The U.S. SupremeCourt has recognized that the more property owners open property to the public,the less control they have over the property. However, the Court ruled in PruneYardShopping Center v. Robins, 100 U.S. 2035 (1980), that there is no federalconstitutional right to free speech in privately owned shopping centers. Somestate courts on the other hand have found that their state constitutions mayprovide more expansive free speech protection and access rights than thefederal First Amendment. For example, courts in California, Colorado and NewJersey have held that there are some free speech rights available toindividuals in shopping centers.14

If you want to covera mall story, call ahead to find out what the mall’s policy is on mediacoverage, and if you disagree with it, check your local law. Regardless of amall’s policies, it is never legal for mall security to confiscate ajournalist’s camera, audio recorder or memory card as “punishment” forgathering news on mall property. If you or your belongings are seized, getnon-mall law enforcement — and a lawyer — involved immediately.

Press passes

In order to helpensure access to a scene, you may want to inquire about obtaining a press passfrom the local police department if they offer them.

A press pass may notgrant you access to a scene, but it will identify you as a member of the newsmedia who should be allowed access if access is allowed for anyone.

Obtaining a presspass normally should not be a problem. Generally it requires a trip to thepolice station to fill out forms, verify your identity and maybe pose for aphoto. Occasionally, however, student journalists have run into roadblocks.15

For instance,Massachusetts State Police denied issuing press credentials to a Boston Collegejournalist because, according to the police, students are not members of the“professional” media.

Several courts,however, have ruled that government agencies cannot arbitrarily decide who getsa press pass and who does not.16

Courts have alsorecognized that giving certain members of the media favorable treatment overothers could be contrary to the First Amendment. When one media outlet is givenaccess and another is denied, it allows the government to influence the kind ofmedia coverage a public event will receive.17

Convince police thateven though you are a student reporter, you take your job seriously and will beable to conduct yourself as professionally, composed and non-disruptively ascommercial journalists.

Subpoenas, searchwarrants and confiscation of reporter’s notes and film

Officials have beenknown to try to take away notes and film at a news scene. You want to beprepared for such a situation should you ever encounter it.

For example, PaulGleason and Kyle Smealie, two journalists from Annandale High School insuburban Washington, D.C., had pictures from their digital camera deleted by a policeofficer after the students photographed a cluster of squad cars not far fromschool.18

Gleason and Smealielater met with police officials where department heads apologized to thestudents for the officer’s conduct.

If a law enforcementor school official tries to confiscate your notes or film, protest theconfiscation right away. Keep your cool, but such action is almost alwaysillegal, and the official should be told so politely — but in no uncertainterms.

If the officialinsists or you are threatened with arrest, you will generally want to hand thematerial over. But again, make it absolutely clear (ideally with witnessespresent that are available to record or at least confirm your version ofevents) that you are doing so under protest and you intend to contest theiraction to their superiors. Then do so. You will usually win.

For example, WashingtonTimes reporter Susan Ferrechio had a notebook taken by school officials atMarcus Garvey Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., in 1986; schoolofficials, including the principal, were convicted of misdemeanor assaultcharges.19

If you are at a newsevent where it appears a confrontation could occur, consider giving yournewsgathering material, such as photo memory cards or audio chips, to acolleague who can exit the trouble zone while you pop in a new card andcontinue to cover the event. Setting up such a relay system back to thenewsroom has served news organizations well.

If you are subpoenaedin connection with a court case (a subpoena is a legal notice that orderspeople to testify in court or bring information to court), you should contactan attorney and see if you can get the subpoena quashed (or nullified).

The reporter’sprivilege is a First Amendment-based privilege based on the assumption thatnews gathering efforts will be chilled if reporters are forced to give upconfidential sources and testify about other matters learned during the newsgathering process.20

Additionally, most states,but not all, have enacted shield laws that create a statutorial privilege forreporters.

While there have onlybeen a handful of cases involving student media, such protections — with a fewexceptions — will normally cover students like any other journalist.21

While court-issuedsubpoenas to student journalists are fairly rare, students are more often askedto reveal confidential information by school administrators who areinvestigating misconduct.

No court has expresslydecided whether a student journalist may claim a privilege or the protection ofa shield law against inquiries by school administrators. A student’s bestargument against compelled disclosure is that school administrators — unlessthey seek the information through formal legal channels such as obtaining asubpoena — lack the authority to force students to reveal information.22If an administrator is demanding information, politely ask to consult aneditor, a parent and a lawyer before complying. If the administrator threatenspunishment for non-compliance, then politely ask to see the school regulationunder which you’re being threatened with punishment. The “regulation” probablydoes not exist.

Subpoenas that orderyou to bring information with you to court are called subpoenas “ducestecum.” These subpoenas have caused some journalists to question whetherthey should regularly destroy their old notes and negatives. (You should never dispose of your newsgatheringmaterial after a subpoena has beenissued; this could land you in serious legal trouble.)

Most media attorneysagree that there is no simple right or wrong policy regarding the retention ordestruction of notes and other news gathering material. Sometimes notes canhelp, sometimes they can hurt. The one thing that all lawyers agree on, however,is the need for a consistent newsroom policy. If, for example, you keep notesfor three months before throwing them away, follow that policy in every case.If you destroy notes, destroy them consistently.

Another potentialsituation you will want to be prepared for as a student journalist is theexecution of a search warrant.

In a case called Zurcherv. Stanford Daily, which involved a search of the newsroom of the StanfordUniversity student newspaper, the U.S. Supreme Court found that newsrooms areas susceptible to search warrants as private residences.23

Responding to Zurcher,Congress passed the Privacy Protection Act of 1980, which states that lawenforcement officials may not seize work product documents or other documentspossessed by the media.24

Newsroom searches areallowed only in a few limited — and rare — situations, including when thegovernment can prove that the information it is looking for is needed toprevent death or serious injury, or when the government can prove that theperson who has the information most likely committed a crime, and theinformation they possess is relevant to the crime.25

In addition to thePrivacy Protection Act, many states have passed laws that limit search warrantsagainst the press. Contact your state press association or the SPLC fordetails.

Access to meetings, records and judicial proceedings

Open meetings andrecords laws are often called “sunshine” laws because of the lightthey shed on government proceedings.

Take advantage ofthem.

Reporters, as well asother citizens, regularly take advantage of open meetings to stay informed.

Open meeting laws

You never know whatyou are going to find when you go to a government meeting.

Meetings can rangefrom orderly, polite blessings of democracy to disorderly and angry battlesthat nearly end up in a fistfight in the parking lot.

Many public schoolstudents might be surprised to learn the information they can glean about theirschool from attending, for example, a school board meeting.

Topics discussed atschool board meetings can range from the hiring of new teachers and theirqualifications to whether funding for arts and music programs should becontinued.

Not only that, butstudents — high school students in particular — might get to see a side oftheir school superintendent or principal that they do not get to see during theschool day.

The key to attendingmeetings is regular attendance. Like everything else in news gathering, younever know when something important is going to happen. And the more you arearound, the more people will get used to your presence and the more likely theywill be to let their guard down and talk to you frankly.

Open meetings lawsexist in all 50 states, and they often also apply to meetings held at publicschools, colleges and universities.

In 2005 at HostosCommunity College in New York, a student attempted to attend a closed meetingof the College Senate  —  a board composed of faculty, students andadministrators. During a closed session, the senate approved recommendations tochange the college curriculum during a secret vote.

A court later ruledthat because the City University of New York’s Board of Trustees  —  whichoversees the College Senate  —  is subject to open meetings laws, so was theCollege Senate.26

Open records laws

Records can also bean important part of the news gathering process.

Using an open recordslaw is usually as easy as simply asking the appropriate official for a copy ofthe record — or writing a letter. To make things easy for you, the SPLC Website includes an automated freedom of information law letter generator you canuse.27

Like open meetingslaws, open records laws also exist in all 50 states.

If it is federalrecords you want to access, check out the federal Freedom of Information Act(FOIA).28

Public recordsabound, and creative use of them can lead to excellent stories.

For instance, studentjournalists at Desoto High School,just south of Dallas, used public records to reveal that a company hired byadministrators to study the school’s gang problem lied on its application.29

The company, ProjectJAMS (Just Another Means of Success) falsely claimed to have worked withseveral schools in the past, including Columbine High School after the 1999shootings there.

Public records canalso be useful for finding people; you cannot talk to a source if you cannotfind them.

Telephone books andreverse directories — which will give you a name and address from a phonenumber, for example — are available in most public libraries and online and areboth excellent places to find information.

The laws on motorvehicle records vary from state to state, but often you can find a name andaddress from a license plate number and vice versa.

City, town and courtproperty records can tell you everything from who owns a particular piece ofproperty and the property’s assessed value to whether tenants have filedcomplaints about the property’s upkeep.

Property recordsmight be of particular interest to college journalists who are trying to keepstudents who are new to renting apartments informed on the issues involved.

One obstacle thatoccasionally confronts reporters is the federal Family Education Rights andPrivacy Act (FERPA)  (otherwise known asthe Buckley Amendment  ) that was passedby Congress in 1974 to ensure students access to their educational records andto protect students from unauthorized dissemination of their records.30

Because of FERPA,many records having to do with a student’s academic life, and even those thatare extremely newsworthy, can be either difficult or impossible to obtain byoutside parties. Unfortunately, however, FERPA is frequently abused by schoolofficials and pointed to as an all-purpose excuse to avoid disclosure ofinformation that should be available. It’s important, therefore, that allreporters covering schools understand the basics of FERPA and more informationis available on the SPLC Web site.31

Law enforcement records

Your access to lawenforcement records will generally depend on the agency you are dealing with.Some police departments are very open about records, but others release thebare minimum to stay in compliance with the law.

Daily policeblotters, incident reports, investigation reports, arrest and booking logs,miscellaneous crime records, accident reports, parking ticket records, 911tapes and transcripts, criminal histories, safety policies, security budgetreports and incident reports at specific addresses are among the police recordsyou may want to ask for at any given time.

For more informationabout covering crime, see the SPLC’s publication Covering Campus Crime: A Handbook for Reporters.

Court records and proceedings

Open meetings andrecords laws may not necessarily apply to legislative and court hearings; however,these proceedings and the records surrounding them, for the most part, are alsoopen to the public.

Criminal, civil,divorce, bankruptcy, and probate records can all be extremely valuable sourcesof information — and all you have to do is go in and request them.32

When it comes tocourt records, however, you may want to call ahead and find out if the courtrequires record requests to be in writing. You may also want to ask what kindof information would be most helpful in a clerk’s search for the records youwant.

The job of a courtclerk is always made easier if you come armed with as much information aboutthe records you are trying to obtain as possible (for example, parties’ names,dates of birth, approximate case dates, etc.).

Juvenile criminal recordsare generally not available to the public, but check your state law.33An increasing number of states have opened juvenile records and courtproceedings if the defendant has committed a felony or other adult-likeoffense.34

While excellentstories can be found in press releases, from phone calls and on bulletinboards, only the glory-seeking and the attention-thirsty will receive coveragein your newspaper if you stick to these sources. You owe more to your readers.


  1. Goldberg, Carey, Rampage in NewHampshire Kills 4 Before Gunman Dies, NewYork Times, Aug. 20, 1997.
  2. SPLC Report, Fall 1998, p. 10; Tingley, Ken, Post-Star will fightreporter arrest,, July9, 2011.
  3. Reporters Committee For Freedom ofthe Press, Jury convicts reporter whocrossed crime-scene tape, May 5, 2009. The Michigan Court of Appealsopinion can be found at
  4. U.S.v. Grace, 461 U.S. 171 (1983); Haugev. C.I.O., 307 U.S. 496 (1939).
  5. Pell v. Procunier, 417 U.S.817 (1974); Adderly v. Florida, 385 U.S. 39, 47(1966); JB Pictures, Inc. v. Dept. of Def., 86 F.3d236 (D.C. Cir. 1996).
  6. Wilsonv. Layne, 526 U.S. 603 (1999); Dietemann v. Time, Inc., 449 F.2d 245, 249 (9th Cir. 1971); Food Lion v. CapitalCities/ABC, 887F.Supp. 811, 820 (M.D.N.C. 1995).
  7. Reporters Committee for Freedom ofthe Press, Access to Places, p. 13.
  8. SPLC Report, Fall 2008, p. 18.
  9. Tinkerv. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503, 506(1969).
  10. Id.
  11. 513.
  12. 509.
  13. Restatement (Second) of Torts, §892A, comment on section 2.
  14. GreenParty of N.J. v. Hartz Mountain Industries, Inc.,164 N.J. 127 (2000);Block v. Westminter Mill Company, 819 P.2d 55 (Colo.1991); Robins v. PruneYard Shopping Center, 592 P.2d 341 (Cal. 1979),aff’d, 447 U.S. 74 (1980).
  15. SPLC Report, Fall 1998, p. 5.
  16. Sherrillv. Knight, 569 F.2d 124 (D.C. Cir. 1977); Getty Images News Services, Corp. v. Dept. of Def., 193 F. Supp. 2d112, 115-16 (D.D.C. 2002); Quad-CityCmty. News Serv., Inc., v. Jebens, 334 F. Supp. 8 (S.D. Iowa 1971).
  17. UnitedStates v. Antar, 38 F.3d 1248, 1360 n.13 (3d Cir. 1994); Anderson v. Croyovac, Inc., 805 F.2d 1,9(1st Cir. 1986); Chicago Reader v.Sheehan, 141 F. Supp. 2d 1142, 1146 (N.D. Ill. 2001); Quad-City Cmty News Serv., Inc., 334 F. Supp. at 17; Sw. Newspapers Corp. v. Curtis, 584S.W.2d 362, 363-64 (Tex. Civ. App. 1979).
  18. SPLC Report Fall 2004, p. 37.
  19. Reporters Committee for Freedom ofthe Press, Access to Places, p. 1.
  20. Branzburgv. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665 (1972).
  21. For example, In 2011, West Virginia enacted ashield law that specifically covers student journalists. Code ofWest Virginia. Art 3?§57-3-10(a).Ten years earlier, a Montana court applied the state’s shield law to protect ajournalism student preparing to disseminate a video documentary. Linda Tracy v. City of Missoula, Missoula County Cause No. DV-00-849 (2001). For a 50-state survey ofhow reporters privilege laws protect student media see the SPLC’s Student MediaGuide to Protecting Sources and Information.
  22. See, e.g., Nicholas D. Kristof, Freedom of the High School Press, pp.67-68 (1984) (presumably an argument for students at public colleges as well).?
  23. Zurcherv. Stanford Daily, 436 U.S. 547 (1978).
  24. 42 U.S.C. § 2000aa(2010).
  25. § 2000aa(a), (b).
  26. Perezv. City Univ. of N.Y.,840 N.E.2d572 (N.Y. 2005).
  28. 5 U.S.C. § 552 (2010).
  29. SPLC Report, Winter 2005-06, p. 3.
  30. 20 U.S.C. § 1232(g)(2010).
  32. RichmondNewspapers, Inc. v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555, 572 (1980).
  33. Reporters Committee for Freedom ofthe Press, Access to Juvenile Courts,Spring 1999.
  34. Id. at 3.