What's the point of media credentials?

Is getting a credential really worth it any longer?

I had to wonder that, following the New York Police Department’s appalling treatment of reporters covering Occupy Wall Street protests.

Of course, the NYPD’s not busting up just reporters, which is part of my point. While credentialing helps make reporting easier, it brings with it a risk of compromise that can put us out of position to capture the full picture of a story. That’s worth thinking about as the NYPD’s actions draw fresh attention to media credentialing.

The whole point of media credentialing is a trade-off. We submit to a background check and approval from the police or some other agency or organization and it provides access in return. I don’t recall ever talking in journalism school about credentialing, and I haven’t had a police credential since I was reporting for the local newspaper while in graduate school, *cough**cough* years ago.

But when I had that police credential, that got me behind (some) police lines at crime scenes and demonstrations and behind the desk at the county jail, where I could do my work without getting busted by the cops, the way I would if I were a “normal” citizen in such places, without a credential card hanging around my neck.

What’s the point of having that credential, though, if it’s not going to keep you from getting hit, gassed or hauled off to jail with the rest of the crowd at a protest you’re covering?

I’m glad that so many news organizations are expressing their outrage to the NYPD, and making the NYPD’s attempt to enforce a news blackout of police response to the protests part of their news coverage. But it shouldn’t take an attempted news blackout to provoke outrage from journalists when police start busting heads and pepper-spraying unarmed, non-violent civilians for the crime violation of sitting on a public sidewalk or trespassing in a privately-owned vacant lot.

I wrote earlier this year about paying my own way when I review hotels, theme parks and other venues. And in that piece I wondered what sports reporting would look like if the journalists covering teams had to pay for their own tickets, sit in the stands and buy the meals at the concession stands, with everyone else. Even if they still got credentialed access into the locker room or media center after the game, for quotes, I’d bet that we’d see radically different coverage in many sports sections, with new focus on consumer and fan-experience issues, such as parking, safety and value, that too rarely make it onto the sports pages.

I understand that there are only a limited number of spots on the photographers’ stand at a press event. And that some businesses don’t have the space to welcome everyone who wants to be there for a new product launch. (I always suspected a Steve Jobs Apple product announcement could have sold more tickets than an average NFL game.) Last summer I paid my way into a conference I needed to cover, but left wishing I’d taken a press credential instead, simply to have gotten the free WiFi available the event made available for invited reporters. So I get why a credential process can work for both sides – meaning that credentialing won’t soon go away.

But special treatment can distort a reporter’s perception of the story, whether that be in a theme park, an NFL stadium or on the street during a protest when the police turn violent. The NYT story mentions that most reporters work without police credentials. And on the whole, I think the New York and national press have done a good job in covering the police response to the Occupy movement.

Perhaps it’s time to start disclosing more often when reporters are using credentials to do their jobs. If bloggers are suppose to disclose when they get a free product to review or get free access to an industry conference, perhaps the “mainstream” press ought to be doing a better job of letting our readers and viewers know when we used some special, non-public access to get a story, too.

It’s always bugged me when news publishers talk about the First Amendment protecting our industry. Freedom of the press doesn’t belong to one industry. It belongs to everyone. Public records aren’t just “press” records, they are what their name implies – they’re public. They should be available to everyone, officially credentialed or not.

When we’re getting access that’s not available to the public, that should be part of the story we tell. But access to the streets for protest isn’t something that should be available to a select few. If authorities are restricting First Amendment rights (which include the right to assemble peaceably), it’s our duty to get mad and speak up in defense of those rights – whether we’re credentialed or not, or those credentials are honored or not.

Wherever you see a demonstration, journalism has failed

Wherever you see a demonstration, journalism has failed.

I know that this might sound harsh to some readers, but people don’t take to the streets to support a cause that’s getting wall-to-wall news coverage. They take to the streets when they feel their voices aren’t being heard – and won’t be, unless they make a public demonstration.

Dahlia Lithwick nailed it in Slate this week:

We are the most media-saturated 24-hour-cable-soaked culture in the world, and yet around the country, on Facebook and at protests, people are holding up cardboard signs, the way protesters in ancient Sumeria might have done when demonstrating against a rise in the price of figs. And why is that? Because they very wisely don’t trust television cameras and microphones to get it right anymore. Because a media constructed around the illusion of false equivalencies, screaming pundits, and manufactured crises fails to capture who we are and what we value.

It’s not just Occupy Wall Street. Journalists missed the story behind the early Tea Party rallies, too, not to mention the stories that drove hundreds of thousands to take to the streets in support of immigrants’ rights and against the Iraq war, earlier in the past decade.

One year ago, I suggested the five most important beats for a local newspaper or website. One of those was labor. That’s because the business desk at most news publications and channels is devoted to covering the business news of what Occupy protesters call “the one percent” – the top one percent highest-income individuals in the country. Business news coverage obsesses over the management class – daily swings in the stock market and personnel moves among high-level executives. The business desk typically looks at public policy from the perspective of owners and rentiers – too rarely from the point of view of labor, renters or borrowers. I suggested that start-up news publishers establish a labor beat to counter this imbalance and to meet a need for storytelling within their communities that isn’t being met by traditional news organizations.

The early Tea Party rallies tapped into the same frustration among working-class Americans that their voices weren’t being heard in the aftermath of the nation’s near-economic collapse. Many critics have dismissed the Tea Party using caricatures of the right-wing – racist, semi-literate opponents of a new black President. Subsequent polling has found that those who remain Tea Party advocates are simply the conservative wing of the Republican Party, with a different label. But in the early days of the movement, when tens of thousands came to the National Mall, they weren’t simply motivated by partisan zeal. Almost all of the Tea Party advocates I knew then were people who’d been left holding the bag when the housing bubble collapsed. They were real estate agents, mortgage brokers, and yes, more than a few flippers, but they were the ones left to take huge personal losses when the banks that financed their deals – and often pressured them to lie on mortgage applications to make those deals happen – got bailed out by the federal government instead. They took the fall instead, and they were mad that the banks didn’t have to.

One shouldn’t write about the development of the Tea Party without noting the role of the Fox News Channel in introducing, promoting and sustaining that movement. This wasn’t a grassroots movement, but a television production. But it wouldn’t have attracted the support it did if it had not hit upon a feeling shared by millions of Americans that their frustrations weren’t being acknowledged, much less heard and addressed, among national media and political elites. That Fox tried to manipulate that pain for partisan advantage doesn’t diminish the fact those pains were (and are) real.

Even as journalism as an industry under-covers stories that motivate people to protest, it’s usually individual publications and broadcasters who take leading roles in making protests happen. I’ve already acknowledged Fox News’ role in the Tea Party protests, but let’s not forget that it was Canadian magazine AdBusters that promoted the initial Occupy Wall Street effort. The huge immigration rights rallies that in Los Angeles that brought immigrants’ voices back into news budgets across the country several years ago happened because of the work of Spanish-language deejays in LA in promoting the event.

I want to see journalists do more to give voice to the voiceless, so that people with real grievances aren’t ignored, or exploited. We shouldn’t have to wait for people to take to the street in protests before noticing their stories. But when that happens, we should always ask ourselves “what’s the story that we’ve missed?” Sometimes that story isn’t always apparent on the signs that the protestors carry or the words they chant. But if you talk with people, and try to listen to their pain and their needs instead of mocking them, you’ll find the underlying motivation driving the protest.

And if journalists can’t be bothered to do that, well, we should ask why there’s a story that they’re so unwilling to tell.

Why don't some media pros 'get' social media?

An OJR reader recently emailed:

“I am amazed at how behind the curve some/many/most PR people seem to be with social media and I keep wondering why they don’t ‘get it’ – their field is communication and [social media] can be such a powerful way to communicate. But the people doing the PR seem to be stuck in the mud. Why?”

I wrote back that PR people who are used to serving as gatekeepers between sources and the press (and by extension) the public, aren’t going to be thrilled to embrace a medium that allows their clients to connect directly with the people the PR agent’s been setting them up with for years. It’s the same hang-up that many journalists have with social media – if you’ve built your career as the go-between for readers and sources, would you rather support or try to tear down an innovation that makes your go-between role unnecessary?

Unfortunately, too many journalists and PR people are either ignoring or trashing social media when they should be taking notice of the many new opportunities that social media’s created for media professionals. No, we’re not needed as gatekeepers anymore. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still much for us to do.

Here are five new roles for media professionals in social media:

Proxies: Sure, social media allows newsmakers to connect more directly to a global audience. But not every newsmaker has the time to watch a Twitter feed scroll by all day. Nor does every newsmaker have the technical chops (or patience) to learn every new iteration of the Facebook user interface. That creates a need for media professionals who can serve as proxies for these newsmakers, monitoring and publishing in social media on behalf of their clients.

Coaches: Let’s say a newsmaker (or wanna-be newsmaker) wants to take a hands-on role and watch and post on Twitter or Facebook for himself or herself. Smart newsmakers probably will recognize that they haven’t the time to learn social media best practices on their own. And they certainly don’t want to risk making a public mistake while they learn. These individuals will continue to need social media coaches to (a) show them best practices in these new media and (b) help them continue to improve the quality of their engagement with the public, over time. As Atul Gawande wrote in The New Yorker earlier this month, even world-class professionals can benefit from routine coaching.

Conduits: Not every great voice online is heard. The Internet might have removed the requirement that people access a media gatekeeper in order to speak to the world, but it’s delivered no guarantee that anything anyone says actually will be heard. So while worthy voices might no longer need access to a global conversation thanks to social media, they continue to need amplification to be heard by more than a select few. Journalists and public relations professionals can become the conduits that deliver unheard or under-heard voices to larger audiences of influence. We might not control the gate any longer, but we still have access to the express line through it.

Judges: As we media professionals have the ability to amplify worthy voices, we also should exercise our power to challenge unworthy claims. The information marketplace expanded by social media still needs judges who have the knowledge, ability and courage to stand up and challenge others who present information that is false or misleading. This is an important traditional role for journalists that persists in the social media arena, but reputable public relations professionals should not be timid about standing up and challenging bad information from others as well.

Curators: Great conversations should live beyond their moments in social media. Newsworthy tweets, posts and observations ought to be preserved for the public, especially when their authors attempt to delete or deny them later. Media professionals can help ensure these things happen by assuming a curator’s role toward social media, using archiving, narrative tools and whatever other technology they choose, develop or deploy to maintain significant moments in social media for future readers.

Gatekeeping? Who needs it? With all this work to be done in social media today, what reporter or press agent would have the time?