Why Is It So Hard to Get Press Credentials?

Every couple of months, questions arise over who qualifies as a journalist — and who has the power to make this judgment.

Recently there’s been a lot of discussion about the difficulty many journalists and media outlets have had in obtaining press credentials. The accreditation process has created significant barriers for nonprofit, nontraditional and online journalism outlets in particular.

Consider, for example, SCOTUSblog, a widely trafficked website covering the Supreme Court.

Founded by two attorneys in 2002, the blog now has over 20 contributors and is sponsored by Bloomberg Law. However, SCOTUSblog has struggled to get the press credentials it needs to cover its beat indefinitely.

To get a permanent press pass for the Supreme Court, you first have to get Senate and House credentials through the Congressional Press Galleries.

The criteria for accreditation to the Senate Daily Press Gallery state that an applicant “must not be engaged in any lobbying or paid advocacy, advertising, publicity or promotion work for any individual, political party, corporation, organization, or agency of the U.S. government ...”

Startups can have a different interpretation of this guideline than the Congressional Galleries' Standing Committee of Correspondents, a five-journalist board (primarily made up of representatives from mainstream media outlets) that issues congressional press passes.

The Senate Gallery has told SCOTUSblog not to bother applying for press credentials — in part because the Standing Committee of Correspondents said SCOTUSblog had “failed to show that [it was] separate from” its sponsor.

Because of this, SCOTUSblog can cover the Supreme Court only through longtime reporter Lyle Denniston, who has a Court credential because he also files reports for WBUR, Boston’s NPR affiliate.

A fact sheet from the Center for Independent Media, now the American Independent News Network, suggests there is also a “financial litmus test” outlets must pass to obtain press credentials, posing a particular challenge for nonprofit outlets.

In the rules for the Senate Periodical Press Gallery, one guideline states, “Applicants must also be employed by a periodical that is published for profit and is supported chiefly by advertising or by subscription, or by a periodical meeting the conditions in this paragraph but published by a nonprofit organization.” This rule represents a big hurdle for nonprofit journalism organizations, which are not generally supported chiefly by advertising or subscriptions.

When journalists need to report in places like the federal press galleries where space is limited, press credentials are important. But what’s most crucial to note is that the guidelines currently in place are rooted in an old model of journalism and need to adapt to the new media marketplace. The current accreditation process privileges the mainstream journalists who write the rules. With many changes in the field of journalism, including a rise in citizen journalism and nonprofit outlets, the credentialing process should be updated to better reflect the new ways that news is reported.

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