It is, of course, the prerogative of private organizations to set whatever criteria they want for granting press passes (the situation is different for outfits that receive public funding), and the non-profit American Cetacean Society gets most of its support from members and grants that fund specific programs. Most journalists seem to understand that, but all those asked about Vance’s experience ranged from disappointed to appalled by the way the Cetacean Society handled the situation.

A comment on Oransky’s Embargo Watch post from John Travis, the European News Editor for Science, exemplified the reaction of many journalists. While not “condoning the society’s actions,” he argued that some journalists have come to expect that a press pass is right, not a privilege. “I and my colleagues at Science usually try to talk meeting organizers into a free ‘press’ registration but when they decline—usually more adeptly than McCormick here—we often pay the normal registration costs.”

Travis then raised an important consideration, however, noting that the $290 non-member registration for the conference was probably not an option for Vance. Indeed, with smaller budgets in newsrooms and, indeed, more and more journalists turning to freelance work, even relatively modest conference fees present an insurmountable burden for many reporters. Moreover, freelancers especially rely heavily on meetings, symposia, and conferences to find promising story leads. Queries asking about Vance’s experience sent to the listservs of the National Association of Science Writers and the Society of Environmental Journalists yielded a number of interesting anecdotes and perspectives.

“I’ve had some experience with this—typically org’s require a letter of assignment from a publication and proof that you’re a legitimate freelancer. I usually send organizers to my website or links to my stories, but I’ve never had a quid pro quo experience,” wrote freelancer Lisa Palmer. “Organizations are getting more savvy about the realities of freelancing and have set up guidelines to specifically address freelance journalists.”

Palmer cited one organization’s requirements, which she found reasonable, requesting that freelancers provide “a signed letter on company letterhead from your assignment editor confirming your assignment to cover the event” and “a by-lined story from the publication you are freelancing for dated within the last six months.”

Responding to a follow-up question, however, Palmer said she thought Vance had legitimate reasons for wanting to attend the American Cetacean Society conference, and suggested that reporters in his position should offer to pay for food or opt out of lunches (in addition to conferences, tours, and similar perks)—a strategy know as the “brown bag” approach that was echoed by many others who replied to my queries.

Putting clear criteria for press passes in writing is perhaps the simplest way to avoid confusion and confrontation with journalists. Requiring a letter of assignment to cover an event establishes an organization’s expectations, and saves it from appearing as though it is haggling for guaranteed coverage.

“There’s a difference between a society assuring itself that one is in fact a freelance science writer and demanding that an acknowledged freelancer promise publication in return for admittance,” wrote freelancer Harvey Leifert, who was the American Geophysical Union’s public information manager from 1998 to 2007. “When I ran the press rooms at AGU meetings, we had a simple list of criteria, any one of which would suffice to prove one is a science writer (e.g., membership in NASW, a bylined science article published during the past year or so). I think the same criteria endure today, and other societies have been using comparable criteria.”

Indeed, these criteria are readily available on AGU’s website. Conference organizers should realize, however, that most meetings are not newsworthy events in and of themselves. It is the people and information that journalists find there that fit that bill. AGU seems to get that, but smaller organizations (such as the Cetacean Society) seem to struggle with the concept.

In an e-mail, Jason Mark, the editor of Earth Island Journal, said that for several years he has attended on Ecological Farming Association’s annual Eco Farm Conference. The first year he did so, the association asked if he would “write about the conference” in exchange for a press pass. He explained that the conference itself wasn’t really newsworthy and that he was looking for story ideas “for the long run.” The association granted the pass anyway and apparently felt the decision was what the Cetacean Society’s McCormick would call mutually beneficial.

“As it happened, that year I crossed paths with some folks with a group call Farms Not Arms, who I ended up writing about for The Nation,” Mark explained in his e-mail. “Since then, [the farming association] has just given me a press pass.”

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.