On Tuesday, the American Cetacean Society denied a freelancer’s request for a press pass to attend the society’s annual meeting in Monterey, California, arguing that because he could not guarantee coverage of the event, granting the pass would not constitute a “mutually beneficial” relationship.
The society’s decision raises important questions about access to such events, especially at a time when the ranks of freelancers and independent bloggers, many of whom trawl such events for story leads, is swelling.
Erik Vance, a California-based freelancer, called the Cetacean Society in order to request a press pass to the group’s 12th International Conference, taking place this weekend. Vance said that the group’s executive director, Cheryl McCormick, asked what he was “going to do” for the society and that she could not give out “freebies.” In a follow-up e-mail, Vance asked McCormick to clarify what was expected in return for a press pass.
“As we discussed, my expectations for your attending the ACS conference as an invited member of the ‘press’ would be to cover the event,” McCormick replied in an e-mail. “Of course, I understand that journalists may cultivate additional news-related items while they attend the event, but in return for a gratis invitation, event coverage from invited press reps. is reasonable and mutually beneficial.”
Vance then wrote a final e-mail to McCormick explaining that neither he, nor a number of other reporters he contacted, had ever heard of being asked to agree to such an arrangement and that he would not attend the event.
The story of the altercation broke Wednesday on Embargo Watch, a blog run by the executive editor of Reuters Health, Ivan Oransky. Oransky reached McCormick by phone and transcribed large sections of the interview, in which she reiterated the rationale described by Vance.
“I don’t believe that Erik offered any return on investment for a gratis pass, and from my perspective he made the he made the mistake of using his association with press to get a gratis pass, and everything that’s associated with that,” she said. “And secondly, in return for that, he offered no coverage of the event, which is from my experience is what press passes are all about.”
In an interview, Vance said that his reasons for wanting to attend the conference were twofold. First, he is profiling someone (he declined to be more specific) in the field of cetacean research for Discover magazine. That person was scheduled to speak at the meeting, but could not make it. Nonetheless, Vance was hoping to speak with some of the person’s colleagues who would be there, and gather other background information for his piece. Vance has written for publications such as Nature, Scientific American, and The New York Times, and his second reason for wanting to attend was to hunt for other story leads.
In her e-mail to Vance and in her conversation with Oransky, McCormick acknowledged the dual purpose of Vance’s wanting to attend, but said repeatedly that granting him a press pass for these reasons would not be “mutually beneficial.” McCormick told Oransky that she was not insisting on positive coverage and doing so would be inappropriate. (Reached by phone of Thursday, McCormick requested that I submit a number of follow-up questions in writing, but failed to respond to further calls and e-mails inquiring about when I could expect a her to respond to the submitted questions.)
In an e-mail to Oransky, Vance said that McCormick “essentially said to me if I can’t guarantee a positive story in the paper then I’m not getting a pass.” In a follow-up interview, however, Vance clarified that statement, saying McCormick did not explicitly request positive coverage, but that he felt that was the implication. Indeed, it’s not hard to see how he got that impression. Referring the press pass in her final e-mail to Vance, McCormick wrote, “It troubles me that you would feel entitled to such benefits without offering benefits to the host organization.”
In retrospect, it seems fair to take McCormick at her word that the “benefit” she was requesting was simply coverage of the Cetacean Society’s event, and that she was not trying to dictate the tone or tenor of Vance’s story. Her language and phrasing displayed an extreme lack of tact, however, and reporters rightfully bristle at such demands. As Oransky noted in his post, “I probably don’t have to say this, but quid pro quos aren’t part of independent journalism. And scientific societies should know that.”