Takeaway of study on credentialing practices could have implications on students

Amid recent discussions of media credentialing processes, student journalists have largely been left out of the conversation. A survey released Thursday titled “Who Gets a Press Pass? Media Credentialing Practices in the United States” shed light on patterns in journalists’ experiences acquiring press passes from 2008 to 2013.

One in five journalists has had a credential request denied, according to the survey released by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

The survey freelance journalists were twice as likely to be denied credentials than journalists employed full-time by a new organization. However, finding out where exactly student journalists fall within these patterns isn’t entirely clear.

A portion of the total 1,339 respondents did identify themselves as students, but not enough to result in statistically significant numbers, said Jeff Hermes, lead author of the survey and director of the Digital Media Law Project. Instead, they fell into the categories of contributors or unpaid independent journalists, two categories which many times were less likely to receive credentials than full-time employees, he said.

In many cases, organizations giving out press credentials use the status of full-time employment as an way to determine who is or isn’t a journalist, Hermes said.

“Now that doesn’t mean that those standards are the best possible standards,” Hermes said. “To the contrary, a standard which relies on employment tends to disregard the important news gathering functions of other people in the journalism community.”

Student journalists, who almost never work as full-time employees, can be left out in the cold, journalism professor Dan Reimold said, who teaches at Philadelphia’s Saint Joseph’s University and writes the College Media Matters blog.

In October 2004, the Massachusetts State Police denied press credentials for student journalists at Boston College because they didn’t fit a full-time employee standard since their newspaper didn’t publish daily. The state police statue stated that credentials were only granted to “regularly employed full time as a Reporter devoting a significant portion of employment time to police news for Daily Newspapers, Television Stations or Networks, Radio Stations, News Magazines, or News Gathering Agency.”

Organizations’ reluctance to give student journalists the same accessibility as mainstream journalists stems from an underlying ignorance of what student journalists are capable of and also a distrust that younger reporters can properly handle hard issues, Reimold said.

“It’s four words in question form: ‘Who are these kids?’” Reimold said. “Then, typically there’s the follow up: ‘Who do they think they are?’”

Trying to work around the obstacles can be difficult because many of credential granting decisions are largely unregulated, and there is no overarching standard, Hermes said.

The only legal challenge would be on constitutional grounds, where a journalist could claim unlawful discrimination, which. But even in those cases, there needs to be specific evidence that there was discrimination based on a viewpoint, Hermes said.

“Legal challenges based on these decisions are very difficult,” Hermes said. “Usually there’s a great deal of discretion entrusted to government decision makers who are issuing credentials.”

But more often than not, student journalists are covering news just as well if not better than their counterparts, Reimold said. As daily newspapers across the countries have downsized their staffs, collegiate student newspapers have become increasingly more important in covering local news, he said.

“With the absence of professional press outlets and the amount of time and staffers that they are able to devote to stories about education or even covering some of the local communities, students are stepping up and filling that gap to a greater degree,” Reimold said. “Students are increasingly expand beyond the confines of their campus.”

In order for student journalists to gain greater respect from credentialing organizations, it will take a greater recognition of student journalists in the conversation of media credentialing as a whole. But, as of right now, it’s not something that’s being talked about, Reimold said.

“It’s probably on a level even below afterthought at this point,” Reimold said. “It’s simply not something, as someone who follows this stuff pretty closely, that’s being talked about in any sustained or formal way shape or form.”