North Carolina reporter: ‘no consistency’ on Capitol press credentials

ON FRIDAY, MELISSA BOUGHTON—a journalist for NC Policy Watch, the news arm of the nonprofit North Carolina Justice Center—was barred from a media table where she was covering a legislative hearing about redistricting. The incident, which Boughton publicized on Twitter, highlights the credentialing challenges facing contemporary news organizations that are attached to policy or lobbying entities.

The Capitol Press Corps is a group of print, TV, radio and online journalists who cover the statehouse. The group’s stated purpose, according to its official bylaws, is “helping to facilitate the rigorous coverage of the General Assembly and state government.” The group recommends to legislative leaders which reporters should receive the special credentials that permit access to the House and Senate floor. The Capitol Press Corps has denied credentials to NC Policy Watch reporters since the group’s reporters began covering the legislature in 2009.

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According to the Press Corps bylaws, a person will not receive credentials if he or she works for an organization whose “primary focus is the promotion of public policy,” or for “a trade organization whose primary purpose is to advance the cause of that trade organization before state government.” Jeffrey Tiberii, Capitol bureau chief of WUNC and head of the Capitol Press Corps, says NC Policy Watch falls into the first category because its parent organization advocates for progressive causes at the Capitol.

Boughton, who is a credentialed member of the North Carolina Press Association, doesn’t think that’s fair. The Justice Center pushes for policy and comments on it, she says, but the news arm is different and distinct—like separate news and opinion sections at a traditional news organization.

“You should think of NC Policy Watch just as you would a newspaper,” Boughton tells the lawmakers she covers. “There’s a split between the reporters and an editorial board.”

Questions about credentialing practices in state capitols are getting more complicated as reporters increasingly work for non-traditional news organizations. A 2011 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures recognized a changing media landscape amid newspaper retrenchment, where “bloggers and social journalists have filled the gaps or holes left by reporters who covered the statehouse as a beat.” In 2014, a Pew report found that nontraditional outlets make up about 16 percent of capitol coverage nationwide.

As more people get their information from non-traditional sources…then those non-traditional sources need access [the] same as daily newspapers and TV stations.

Notably, the NC Capitol Press Corps doesn’t take a position on new media versus old: The online nonprofit NC Health News is a member, as is the news site EducationNC. In recent years, more online outlets with points of view have emerged and dispatched their reporters to cover the Capitol in Raleigh.

John Robinson, a former editor of The Greensboro News & Record who teaches at the UNC School of Media and Journalism*, says it is likely time for media access rules to evolve in North Carolina.

“More media will become advocacy and it will become accepted,” he says, pointing to national cable leaders MSNBC and Fox News as examples on TV. “And as more people get their information from non-traditional sources…then those non-traditional sources need access [the] same as daily newspapers and TV stations.”

Boughton has been on the redistricting story—a big one in gerrymandered North Carolina—since she started with NC Policy Watch last fall. Typically, she has been able to sit at a media table when covering hearings, she says. No one asked if she had Capitol credentials. But on Friday, she says, a Capitol official told her she had to sit with the general public.

Both Boughton and NC Policy Watch have been acknowledged by journalism organizations for their work. Boughton is a former newspaper reporter for The Charleston Post & Courier where, with her P&C colleagues, she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist last year. NC Policy Watch has won numerous awards from the state press association.

In an interview with CJR, Boughton says she was embarrassed by the incident Friday at the Capitol, and calls it demoralizing. “That’s the personal aspect of it,” she says. “But the professional aspect of it is there’s no consistency.”

Dan Way, a journalist from The Carolina Journal, a nonprofit news outlet affiliated with the limited-government John Locke Foundation, was not asked to leave the media table, according to Boughton. While the John Locke Foundation does not receive Capitol Press Corps credentials, Way has the so-called “hard pass” credentials to cover the Capitol.

John Hood, chairman of the John Locke Foundation, says he believes The Carolina Journal got its credentials through the legislature’s director of services, a former local politician and GOP candidate for Congress named Paul Coble. (Legislative leaders can override Capitol Press Corps recommendations.) Coble did not return a voice message or email by the time this story was posted.

Hood says he has dealt with press credentialing issues for The Carolina Journal at the statehouse since the 1990s, before the internet and economic forces transformed journalism. Friday’s incident involving NC Policy Watch, he says, reopened the conversation. Hood plans to convene a meeting with media, public officials, and others to search for a way to provide credentials to journalists like Boughton and Way without opening the door to lobbyists or political activists.

The thing that’s frustrating for me is there’s still no conclusion.

Not having floor credentials had major consequences for one NC Policy Watch reporter in December. Protesters flooded the public gallery where Joe Killian, a former reporter for The Greensboro News & Record, was reporting. (As a NC Policy Watch reporter, Killian also is not allowed on the floor.) When police closed the public gallery of the House chamber during a debate and asked protesters and others to leave, Killian stayed to report, and was arrested. In its coverage of the arrest, The Raleigh News & Observer called the uncredentialed Killian a “journalist” and a “reporter.” (An account of the incident is detailed in Attacks on the Press, a book by the Committee to Protect Journalists.) The charges against Killian were eventually dismissed.

Boughton was not arrested on Friday. She was able to work from the public viewing area of the committee room, though she couldn’t easily take photos. However, she argues that she has provided more coverage in the past year on redistricting than many in the media section.

“The thing that’s frustrating for me is there’s still no conclusion,” she says. “There’s still not even a decision as to how to move forward, and we have the same meeting again next week.”

*A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that John Robinson teaches at Elon University.

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Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity In vestigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.