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.”

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.”

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.

“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.

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