Journalists are losing access, but the public still expects the story
After denying access to Miami Herald beat writer David J. Neal for the football team’s opening game last Saturday, Florida International University has decided to credential him for the remainder of the season, according to Paul Dodson, the school’s assistant athletic director for media relations.
This weekend, Florida International University opened its 2014 football season at home in Miami against Bethune-Cookman University. The game was close, ending when FIU fumbled a field goal attempt that would have won the game as time ran out.
Pretty good game, I’m guessing. But I’m only going on the six paragraphs that ran on the Miami Herald’s website under a byline: “From Miami Herald Wire Services.”
The Herald decided not to cover the game. Why?
Because FIU refused to give a press pass to the Herald’s FIU beat reporter, David J. Neal.
“We did not issue a media credential to the Herald's beat reporter because of concerns we have brought up to the Herald's reporter and editors over the past few years about the reporter's interactions with our student athletes, coaches, and staff and the nature of the resulting coverage.”
“As far as we can tell," Managing Editor Rick Hirsch said in the Herald' story, "David has done a diligent, thorough job of reporting on the Golden Panthers. Not all of the coverage is positive. Teams win and teams lose. Programs have successes and stumbles. But in our review of his work, we believe it stands up to scrutiny as fair and professional.”
FIU did issue passes to a Herald photographer and columnist. But the Herald decided not to staff the game at all because, Executive Editor Aminda Marqués Gonzalez said, “The team does not get to choose who covers the program.”
Disagreements with management of sports teams about media coverage are nothing new. A colleague from the Inquirer reminded me of the time the owner and general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers visited the newsroom to demand that the paper’s pro hockey writer be replaced. He was not.
Both Marques Gonzalez and the FIU statement expressed hope that the situation will be resolved. I’m guessing it will. But here’s the reality:
This is just one fight in the escalating offensive against allowing journalists to cover news.
And forgive me if I don’t sense we’re winning.
The Obama administration has limited access by photojournalists and other reporters to White House events and to the President. Local governments and police refuse to speak with reporters whose work they dislike. Candidates restrict reporters to “press areas,” ensuring that conversations with the public are not overheard. Professional and collegiate sports teams have steadily made it more difficult to cover live events.
Many of those who control access have decided that thanks to technology, they need news organizations less and less to deliver their messages. So as they steadily build their capacity and expertise for communicating directly to the public, they grow bolder about telling journalists to take a walk.
All of this points me to two conclusions:
- Journalists must keep up—no, escalate—the fight for access to information the public needs and has a right to get.
- At the same time, we must get much better at covering the news without the access that others control.
Many journalism organizations are lobbying for greater access to information and events that should be available to the public; so have individual news organizations, which also file thousands of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests each year.
Join their efforts. It’s crucial to the ability of journalism to serve the public.
But while we’re fighting for our rights, we also have a job to do. And that job calls for us to fulfill the compact we have with the public:
Get the story. Even when others make it difficult.
Let’s be honest—the best journalism has often involved the reporter’s ability to obtain information someone did not want the public to have. Yet journalists got it anyway.
What I’m suggesting is that we need to apply that same mindset to areas of coverage that seem far more routine than our most ambitious enterprise work.
But we need to do it—because the public expects us to. And that’s who we work for. Not the government, large or small. Not the police. Not the local advocate for the disadvantaged. And certainly not any sports team.
We work for the public. And that’s why, when one of those entities tries to manage our coverage by denying us access, we need to ask:
What does the public want us to do?
In my experience, the public is a harsh employer. Aware of an increasing number of options for getting information, the public is likely to say:
Just get the story.
As I was browsing the web for some information on access, I stumbled upon a page on the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) web site. Headlined Shooting Sports: Tips from the Pros, the page featured six tips from Jim Colton, former Photography Editor for Sports Illustrated. Colton preceded his advice by addressing what he called a “Myth:”
“Great sports photos are only made from credentialed positions. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“It’s nice to be in the first or third base dugouts at a baseball game but some of the best pictures are actually made from the stands, or elevated positions. This is true for almost all sports, but especially outside the professional spectrum. More and more leagues are trying to control access and content so you will have better luck getting clearance on a collegiate, high school or even parochial level….and…you’ll probably make better pictures. There are many local sporting events that do not require a credential. Start there.”
Colton’s advice anticipates that the access which photographers have traditionally enjoyed will continue to grow more restricted. But he doesn’t suggest we respond by taking our cameras home. He urges photographers to seek alternatives—and note that he says “some of the best pictures are actually made from the stands.”
What if Colton’s advice had been applied to the Herald’s standoff with FIU? The Herald knew it had a responsibility to the public and addressed it by running a short wire services report. What would have happened if the Herald’s reporter, who bought a ticket to Saturday’s game, had written a full, bylined critique of the game from the stands? The message to FIU would be clear—you cannot tell us who will cover your game because we don’t work for you—and the public would get the benefit of Neal’s expertise.
Interviewed on Sunday, Hirsch said Herald editors had discussed having Neal write from the stands, but decided against it because of their concern for accuracy. He said they were reluctant to depend on the stadium’s PA announcements for accurate play-by-play information.
If Colton were giving advice on how to cover local government when officials stop talking with you, I imagine he might say forget the officials and turn your focus—both written and visual—to the people who are affected by the government’s work. Tell their stories. Draw connections between their situations and the government decisions that contributed to them. (And be sure to tell your audience that officials no longer talk with your reporter—and why.)
I know that what I’m suggesting sometimes will require additional work. And I know that at a time when newsrooms are strapped for resources, the thought of additional work seems unreasonable. But therein lies the part of this situation that makes me uneasy in the first place.
Access, sometimes, lets us take the easy way out.
Yes, sometimes we use our access to government officials or athletes or politicians to learn something important to the public’s understanding of an issue. No question.
But sometimes we use that access to get “official” quotes that ostensibly give our stories credibility. We quote the police, the school board member, the left fielder, even when their quotes mean little and paste over the fact we didn’t get to the truth.
Here’s my suggestion:
Let’s fight, harder than ever, for access to information the public has a right to get.
But let’s also stop leaning on access to get stories that fall short of what the public needs.
Let’s take a hard look at the stories we’re pursuing and the information we’re filling them with, and ask whether access—in some cases—is letting us take the easy way out. Maybe we should turn the focus of our government coverage toward the people who are affected before officials stop talking with us.
Because maybe that would be a better story.