behind the news

Who’s A Journalist?

Arrest of reporters at Occupy Wall Street protest raise questions about NYPD press credential process
October 7, 2011

John Farley, a reporter with WNET/Thirteen’s MetroFocus, was standing on the sidewalk interviewing two women who had been pepper sprayed during the Occupy Wall Street protest when it happened to him.

For Natasha Lennard, a freelancer for The New York Times’s City Blog, it happened as she live-tweeted events while walking alongside the crowd of protestors “taking” the Brooklyn Bridge.

And for Alternet freelancer Kristen Gwynne, who was among the bridge crowd, it happened while she was talking with protest participants.

Swept up by the NYPD along with Occupy Wall Street protesters, these journalists were kettled, cuffed, and bussed to a police station on where they were charged with disorderly conduct. Farley spent eight hours in jail on September 24; Lennard—who had Times editors working to free her—was in custody for five hours, and Gwynne for twice that long, on October 1.

It seems journalists themselves aren’t the only ones struggling to determine who, exactly, is a journalist. The three reporters are among the hundreds of individuals who have been arrested at the Occupy Wall Street protests in recent weeks. Each was there to cover the event, yet all three were treated in a manner that police tend to avoid with working journalists.

Why did this happen? Part of the answer is simply a byproduct of the everyone’s-a-journalist rhetoric that defines our media these days.

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The more proximate answer, though, has to do with how the NYPD has decided to determine who is a journalist. Simply put, without a press credential issued by the NYPD’s Office of the Deputy Commissioner for Public Information (DCPI), you are not a journalist in the eyes of the police.

The press credential permits journalists to cross police and fire lines, although it doesn’t guarantee that the pass-holder can cross those lines—it’s ultimately up to the officers at the scene, but with a pass you have the best chance to do so. To get this credential, you must submit an application and six published clips that prove you have covered breaking or spot news in the past. Peter Bekker, the consulting director of the New York Press Club, says the credential is essentially worthless since it doesn’t guarantee reporters access to anything.

The cases of Farley, Lennard, and Gwynne seem to indicate otherwise.

When Farley was arrested on September 24, he showed the officer his WNET identification. He and his colleague, Sam Lewis, had been using this identification effectively to move about the protest grounds throughout the afternoon. Lewis, who was not caught behind the police net, was with a pack of credentialed journalists, all of whom told the officers that Farley was covering the protest and should be let go. Lewis also called DCPI to see if they could get Farley released. In each instance, Farley and Lewis say they were told by officers that, “We know he’s a journalist, but he doesn’t have a credential. There’s nothing we can do.”

Lennard, who was arrested last Saturday, tells a similar story:

I was on the bridge trapped without a press pass. I only had my New York Times identification and they were just doing a broad sweep. They weren’t particularly interested in the fact that I was with the media; they wanted to sweep the bridge.

When she made it clear to her arresting officer she was with the press and that her editor had already called the NYPD to get her free, the officer told her it would be sorted out when she got to the precinct. While Lennard’s processing was expedited once she was at the precinct, she still was charged with disorderly conduct for her presence on the bridge.

Gwynne, too, raised the issue with an officer on the scene who she says told her, if she was media, she should have been separate from the protesters, standing with other journalists who were in a group on the side of the bridge. Unlike Farley and Lennard, Gwynne says she was there to support the protesters as well as cover them, and felt it was fair that she faced the same consequences; she says she wanted to witness what happened to the protesters after arrest.

Chris Dunn, an attorney with New York Civil Liberties Union, says this pattern that is emerging at the protests, of making the NYPD-issued credential the only way to differentiate reporters from protesters, is problematic:

I’m aware there are circumstances in which the police will release from an arrest situation people that identify as reporters. Where the rub comes is when they are using the DCPI credential as the sole acceptable proof that you’re a reporter. The DCPI credential is hardly the only evidence that someone is a bona fide reporter.

This seems particularly true in cases like Farley, Lennard, and Gwynne’s—reporters who don’t typically cover crime scenes or need to cross police lines in their work. Obtaining press credentials to cover the protests had crossed their minds, they said, but they didn’t expect to need them and couldn’t have obtained them had they tried.

Farley works at a local “multiplatform magazine” launched by WNET/Thirteen (New York’s PBS station) in July; he was at the protest to report “a smart, thinky piece about citizen journalism,” says MetroFocus Executive Producer Laura Van Straaten.

“We don’t have credentials because we don’t qualify,” she said. She explains:

The eligibility requirement is for individual reporters to have six clips to show that you’ve covered similar events. Our entity is two months old, and they are new reporters—they don’t have those kinds of clips, even though we are part of a larger organization that is an established media organization in this town. We don’t qualify and no individual on our team will qualify because we are a magazine. We didn’t go down there to do spot news.

Likewise, Lennard, who has worked at Politico and Salon over the past couple of years, typically writes features and pieces in “non-combat zones” for the Times. “I’ve never applied because I’ve never needed one,” she says, adding that when she was assigned to cover last weekend’s Occupy Wall Street march, “we didn’t have time to get me a police pass, nor did we think that it would be absolutely crucial for me to cross police lines.”

Gwynne, who graduated from journalism school at New York University in May and interned at The Village Voice in the spring, conceded she had no idea how to go about obtaining press credentials.

The DCPI has thirty days to process a reporter’s application for credentials, but because a journalist has to set up an appointment simply to submit the application to a detective in person, the credentialing process can take much longer.

Chris Robbins, a reporter/editor at Gothamist, a news site that reports on New York City (he has also been covering Occupy Wall Street), began spearheading his organization’s efforts to get DCPI credentials for its reporters (none of them have credentials now) over a month ago. He’s still trying to set up an appointment with a detective to submit his own application, and describes the process as frustrating and one that demands “many phone calls, many e-mails,” and perseverance. DCPI, which rarely returns phone calls or e-mails, has a month-long backlog of applications, according to Robbins.

Yet this system, backlog and all, is roundly considered by journalists and civil liberty types to be an improvement over the NYPD’s press credentialing process that was in place until 2010, and was notorious for being opaque and inaccessible to bloggers and journalists from nontraditional media organizations—so much so that three men filed a lawsuit against the NYPD for unfairly denying them credentials in 2008. As Gothamist reported at the time, the reforms to the system in 2010 were intended to “help the Police Department modernize the City’s credentialing system to reflect changes to the media industry and, for the first time, expressly incorporate online-only media such as blogs.”

The NYPD did not respond in time to comment for this story.

The NYPD’s efforts have paralleled those mounted by police departments across the country, striving to come to terms with new media. In 2010, for example, Chicago’s police department opened its credentialing process to freelancers and non-traditional journalists, and dropped the requirement that journalists seeking credentials be fingerprinted and “of good moral character.”

The New York Press Club’s Peter Bekker says complaints from journalists who felt they were unfairly denied DCPI credentials have decreased since the reforms were implemented. Meanwhile, complaints from DCPI that the service is a resource drain—especially because of requests for credentials by reporters who don’t regularly work the police beat—have grown stronger. Bekker is generally dismissive of the idea of press credentials, and of journalists who seek them for a sense of legitimacy. “Journalists clamor for these things for some reason,” he says.

He notes:

The New York Press Club unequivocally supports the right of legitimate working journalists, credentialed by NYPD or not, to freely report on events and issues of interest and value to the public without fear of arrest, detention or prosecution. A free press is a fundamental American principle. Upholding that principle is a core mission of the New York Press Club.

At the same time, Bekker says, the NYPD’s process is fair. “It’s not a high hurdle,” he says, noting that they just want proof the reporter has a history and a need to cover events involving police and fire lines in the future. He also questioned the circumstances under which the journalists at Occupy Wall Street were arrested. “Are these people marching with the protesters? Or are they covering them?” In Gwynne’s case, at least, that line may not be as clear as it should be.

Gothamist’s Chris Robbins agrees that the “chicken and the egg” issue presented by the requirements for young reporters can be worked around. “If people really want to report stuff, they’ll go down and report it whether or not they have a press pass,” he says, suggesting that with some hustle and hard work, a reporter can cover breaking news in the city without the credential. To him, the problem with the system is not that the requirements are unfair, but that the process takes so long.

While he waits on DCPI, Robbins has been covering Occupy Wall Street without credentials, and despite the arrests thinks he can continue to do so without trouble. He wants the credentials because, he says, “they just help” to have on the job. Robbins notes that the DCPI credential works as a sort of EZ Pass for reporters to get into press conferences, where seats are limited, and eases things at crime scenes. Otherwise, he says, reporters face the “ordeal of having to explain to someone that you’re press and fumbling for your business card, and the officers kind of looking at you skeptically.”

Lennard also says that she now wants the DCPI credentials, and that her arrest last weekend has made her reconsider the risks involved in reporting on events in the city.

I think if organizations can’t get their reporters, or even their stringers, appropriately credentialed to do their job then they shouldn’t be sending them out. I don’t think that’s been a problem as much until now, but as it becomes obvious that big marches and police presence in New York will—and does—become confrontational that seems to be enough to take the precaution.

Whether or not the police should be in the business of credentialing the press, and regulating who gets to cover what, is a longstanding debate. For now, journalists like Lennard seem willing to cede that ground so long as they’re allowed to do their job.

But the NYCLU’s Chris Dunn urges caution: “I think most people would agree there are certain types of events in which press credentialing is appropriate, but that’s a pretty small pool of events. The DCPI pass has become the uniformly accepted press credential and that puts the police in the middle of legitimizing reporters which they should not be doing.”

Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.