Mark added that, in his experience, “it’s not all that unusual for conference organizers to ask that journalists ‘write about the conference’ for free registration.” Some groups will even ask a reporter to write for the organization.

Bud Ward, a veteran journalist and educator who runs the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, called to recount a strange experience he’d had in 2008, when he contacted the National Council for Science and the Environment (which receives some government funding) to request a pass for an upcoming conference. Ward said he was “fuzzy” on the details, but recalled refusing a “bizarre” request that he attend two specific sessions and write about them for some kind of in-house use by the council.

A call to Lyle Birkey, who handles press credentials for the council, shed some light on the matter. Birkey explained that his organization offers two types of complimentary passes to members of the press. There is the traditional, no-strings-attached type. In addition, there is a pass for those who agree to be note takers at one of a number of “breakout sessions” during the same period of time on the second day of council’s three-day meeting. These notes are then gathered the same night (and therefore receive only minimal editing for grammar, etc.) and distributed to conference goers on the next, and final, day of the meeting, so that participants can know what they missed in sessions they could not attend.

Birkey said that at last year’s conference, traditional press passes outnumbered note-taker passes by a margin of two-to-one. He seeks out journalists to fill the latter role because of the high quality of their note taking and writing skills, and generally has no problem finding willing participants. Birkey said he suspects that this was the offer made to Ward, and that if he wasn’t offered a traditional pass it was because those slots were already full. (There are also complimentary passes available to people who volunteer to man the registration table or guide people around the conference venue, but journalists rarely agree to accept them.)

Although the application form for a traditional press pass asks reporters about their “media/coverage intentions,” Birkey said that the council has “never made an overt policy saying you have to publish a piece on our conference. But we try to divvy out our press registrations based on the type of press that we see as a target for our event. And that changes from year to year. For instance, this year the subject is our changing oceans, so we would like a lot of ocean-industry and ocean-type press to attend the event.” He also noted that the council has to be cost conscious and that, “in this day and age anyone with a blog can technically call themselves a journalist of sorts, so there has to be some kind of vetting process.”

That was, in fact, a sentiment echoed by Ward, who stressed that reporters should be cognizant of the stress that conferences can put on organizations, and that, in the modern media world, people do occasionally “use and abuse” their press passes.

“I think it’s important to recognize the changing definition of who is and who isn’t a journalist,” he said. “This isn’t the old days where an organization inside the Beltway says, ‘press passes,’ and The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch show up, no questions asked. Now you do it and it’s 400 different Washington newsletters or blogs or websites that show up, including sites like yours and mine, frankly, that would not have qualified for a press pass in the old days.”

Abuse of press-pass privileges is clearly not unheard of. Freelance science writer and author Jeff Hecht wrote to say that he’s seen “a number of cases where students, unemployed scientists, consultants or other people who were not legitimate journalists talked their way into scientific or technical conferences claiming to be reporters.” And Leifert, the former public relations manager for the American Geophysical Union, said that on a couple of occasions scientists themselves “sought to evade the meeting fee by claiming to be a journalist on the strength of once having published an op-ed or a chapter in a science book for lay readers.”

Such behavior only serves to hinder the work of legitimate reporters—especially rookies who are trying to establish their credentials. Take Rachel Zurer, who has been freelancing for only five months. In that short time, she has racked up clips from publications like High Country News and Chemical & Engineering News, but when she recently contacted the organizers of the Behavior, Energy, & Climate Change Conference, which takes place in Sacramento, California next week, she was told that meeting barred freelancers.

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