Press Gang

Week in Review / by Evan Lerner /

With New York City about to let bloggers qualify for press passes, a look at what breaking down the walls between old and new media means for science reporting.

Illustration: Mike Pick

A long awaited breakthrough may be about to occur on the streets of New York City. On Tuesday, The New York Law Department released a proposed revision to its press credentialing rules that decreed “online journalists will now be considered as 21st century journalists and be treated equally to print, television and radio journalists.”

This decision comes as a coda for a two-year old law suit initiated by three journalists who work exclusively online. The NYPD’s credentialing rules of the time required proof of employment by a “traditional” media outlet, i.e. a newspaper, magazine, radio station, or TV network. In lieu of that, freelancers could use six articles they had written that had required press clearance, though the obvious chicken-and-egg dilemma that situation presented was never resolved. Until now, that is (provide these proposed rules take effect).

The three journalists at the heart of the law suit were issued press passes earlier this year; now, this new credentialing system aims to smooth over the distinction between bloggers and journalists. The taxonomic debate going on here is much more complicated than a blogger/journalist binary, however, as many around these parts have attested. 

Working under the same umbrella as the mighty ScienceBlogs network, it’s easy to forget that some still see blogging and journalism to be inherently at odds. That’s why I was surprised to learn that ScienceBlogs’ own new media revolutionary Bora Zivkovic was denied access to the press room at the AAAS meeting last week, despite his association with no less than four media organizations that could vouch for him.  (Update: It should be made clear that Bora was, after some confusion stemming from the fact he was also a presenter at the conference, granted a press pass based on his affiliation with PLoS. For more on how this situation was resolved and more details on the blogger credential guidelines at AAAS, see this post from the director of AAAS’ Office of Public Programs, Ginger Pinholster)

On Twitter, Dave Munger and Bora hashed out what purpose credentials actually serve, with the latter wondering if they served any at all. Perhaps this is more of a playful jab than a serious argument, but it bears some delving into.   

Everyone in this discussion over who is a science journalist clearly cares whether or not journalists do a good or bad job in communicating science to the public. Doing a bad job could have dangerous consequences, such as setting public opinion down an erroneous course when it comes to vital scientific issues like global warming. To me, that says there should be some system for telling good from bad, trustworthy from untrustworthy, which doesn’t always involve familiarizing oneself with their entire catalog of works.   

Moreover, there are purely logistical issues: Organizations involved in newsworthy events have incentives for privileging journalists over others. These incentives fall somewhere on a spectrum between society-minded and self-serving, depending on the news being covered.

On one end of the spectrum, you have organizations like the police department of a major metropolitan city. Surely its responsibilities toward keeping people safe and crime scenes secure are not in question here; it has a vested interest in controlling who can cross certain lines and who can’t. 

On the other end, you have organizations like conference-holders that need to balance the desire for media coverage with the ability to charge admission. The calculation of who’s a journalist is essentially one of return on investment: Is the publicity that person’s coverage generates greater than or equal to a registration fee? Of course, organizers generally rely on outmoded proxies of reach and influence in making that calculation, but lowering the bar to anyone with a laptop and WiFi connection would equally defeat the purpose. 

The other logistical reality is that reporting from AAAS is not like reporting from a crime scene. Very little in science journalism is. Other than gaining access to highly sensitive research sites or very busy people, a journalist’s reputation as an individual is likely just as important as the institutional bona fides to which one can attest. Perhaps 90% of science reporting—explaining the most recent findings or untangling ongoing policy debates—occurs within that zone, where credentials are not particularly relevant to actually getting the job done.

However, the other 10% is where you need to convince hospital workers to help you prove that their institutions’ radiological treatments have led to preventable grisly deaths. In those cases, having the New York Times’ imprimatur helps, though that’s not to say it would be impossible for an individual to drum up the same clout. 

Getting past the journalist versus blogger argument is easier said than done. It means dropping some vestigial turf-war attitudes and preconceptions that stem from the gray area journalism’s professional status resides in. We accept that having just anyone practicing law or medicine could lead to some pretty bad outcomes for the consumers of those services. We have high barriers to entry to those fields and legal provisions for stopping people who are particularly bad at their jobs from doing them. Not so with journalism. There is a more rigorous accreditation process for repairing air conditioners than for reporting, writing, or otherwise delivering new information. 

Perhaps life and death are not so often on the line with journalism, but if online-exclusive bloggers, journalists, and whatevers are finally breaking down the walls that separate them from their “traditional” brothers and sisters, we’ve got to accept the seriousness of that responsibility. Scientific matters, such as global warming, often dominate the blogosphere, even when they’re largely ignored in the world of print. So what does it mean that a climate skeptic like Anthony Watts is the most popular science blogger in that category?

The breakdown of these walls forces us to face some uncomfortable juxtapositions. The social goods of reporting are increased by giving more people access to the tools necessary to do it, but lowering the barrier to entry means taking the bad with the good. At the end of the day, a press card hanging around one’s neck doesn’t help us distinguish the two.

Each week, Seed’s Evan Lerner offers his take on the events and issues that shape science, science policy, and science journalism. Read previous Weeks in Review here, or follow him on Twitter.

Originally published March 5, 2010

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