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.
“I apologize for having to be so specific, but we have been burned in the past by people claiming to be free lance writers,” the conference coordinator wrote in an e-mail forwarded by Zurer. “It seems that anyone with a computer (or a pen) can be a free lance writer We also have to be certain that we are not burning our chances by having so much press that the press sees us as old news almost before the conference starts.”
Obviously, it is a shame when organizations establish restrictive press-pass policies, either because of past abuses or of their own accord, because staff writers and freelancers alike are increasingly less likely to have the means to pay registration fees. In light of that fact, individual journalists and journalism organizations should do whatever they can to curb the misuse of press passes, establishing guidelines and best practices for the field and opting out of meals and conference tours.
Likewise, conference organizers should draft clear press-pass policies and post them conspicuously on their websites. Ultimately, they can establish whatever criteria they want, but they should bear in mind that haggling and quid-pro-quo arrangements will not fly with most journalists. And, without subverting their own interests, they should strive to make these policies as flexible as possible, recognizing that it is generally not meetings themselves that are newsworthy, but rather the people and information that are found there.