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How Do You (And Should You Need To) Prove You’re A Journalist?

How often have you, as a journalist, been asked to provide proof that you are, in fact, a journalist? At least one NPR.org contributor has been asked several times lately.

Alan Greenblatt explains in his story today that increasingly, government officials are asking him to prove his official journalist status before granting him interviews. Tides have turned and now it’s not just the reporter doing background research, but the sources are backgrounding the reporters.

The other day, I arranged to speak with Bob Wirch, a Democratic state senator in Wisconsin. The morning of our appointment, I received a call from one of his aides, instructing me to bring along a press badge or some other credential that included a picture and identified me as a reporter.

This rarely happens. In some 20 years of interviews, less than a handful of people have ever asked me to prove that I was the reporter I was claiming to be.

But, increasingly, elected officials and their staffs are checking journalistic bona fides, going online to read old stories and check out photos.

He points to other instances where this was the case, and notes the irony that the people politicians most need to be on guard against are not those allegedly pretending to be journalists — when someone says they’re a journalist you should be on your guard about what you say because the whole point is other people will hear about it — but from people who gain access and broadcast gaffes never intended to be shared.

His point, however, had me wondering… should you need to prove you’re a journalist? What type of proof is enough? What if you’re not working for an agency that hands out press badges? What’s stopping you from printing up your own press badge and business cards? It’s not like you apply for a license to be a journalist and can hand out your license number to verify with the state, as electricians or plumbers do. (I hope nobody gets any bright ideas.) And it’s not like medical professions where you need a certain degree and set of training to perform the job; you simply do not need a degree in journalism to prove you know how to ask who, what, when, where, why and how, and then write it up accurately. Plenty of good reporters didn’t learn those skills in the classroom. And plenty of bad reporters have a degree but still didn’t learn to apply those skills well.

In my personal experience, I’ve only ever run into the “can we see some ID” problem covering national political rallies (2008 presidential campaign, I’m looking at you) and crime/crash scenes in small districts I rarely made it to where I had every right to be and they just weren’t used to media attention. In most situations, bothering to make the call or show up with a notepad and camera — and sometimes a handshake of introduction — serves as proof enough.

You’ve probably heard about the federal judge ruling in a defamation case against a blogger that she wasn’t a journalist, and therefore not protected by shield laws. You’re likely, like me, a little leery of the courts deciding who is a journalist and who is not (though, in this case, I think it’s clear the self-proclaimed “investigative blogger” in question wasn’t). Lest we fall into the obscenity black hole of “I know it when I see it,” the judge at least elaborated on what standards he based a journalists’ credentials on (page 9):

Defendant fails to bring forth any evidence suggestive of her status as a journalist. For example, there is no evidence of (1) any education in journalism; (2) any credentials or proof of any affiliation with any recognized news entity; (3) proof of adherence to journalistic standards such as editing, fact-checking, or disclosures of conflicts of interest; (4) keeping notes of conversations and interviews conducted; (5) mutual understanding or agreement of confidentiality between the defendant and his/her sources; (6) creation of an independent product rather than assembling writings and postings of others; or (7) contacting “the other side” to get both sides of a story. Without evidence of this nature, defendant is not “media.”

Fortunately for me, as a working journalist and blogger, I can check off each of these seven in some way and when appropriate (i.e. I’m not going on background on most stories, and sometimes my blog posts are just an aggregation of pieces I think people should read). Whew. But what if you didn’t attend journalism school (No. 1)? What if you’re an opinion columnist/blogger whose job it is to be one-sided (No. 7)? What if your job includes curating a mass of content into a product that helps pull together a story from disparate sources (No. 6)? What if you’ve never been affiliated with a MSM news agency but instead set up your own news outlet (No. 2)?

I hope we’ve gotten beyond the bloggers can’t be journalists argument. But this isn’t the first or only case of courts trying to define who is and isn’t a journalist, especially when it comes to new media vs. news media. It’s not really an all-or-nothing, you-are-or-you’re-not sort of thing.

As I read the story of the NPR contributor above, it made me a little concerned that it’s not just the courts but also the court of public opinion today that has everyone questioning journalist’s status and credentials. With fewer traditional news jobs, the growth in the profession isn’t in mainstream media. I’ve always worked for recognized news outlets, where I could point to my title and my organization as reason enough to compel an agency to talk to me, give me information or at least dignify my requests by blowing me off with a “no comment.” (Not that I haven’t had to explain to public officials that even if I wasn’t a journalist, public information is public information. But that’s another story.) I recognize that in some instances this matters. (e.g. I’m not likely to be invited to the White House press corp. — the seating is limited and I’m not the best use of that space.) But someday, I may be the news site organizer, not just the reporter. And I won’t suddenly forget my ethics or my training just because I don’t have the backing of a “recognized news entity”. I hope I won’t suddenly have to fight to prove I’m a professional worth talking to when I ask pointed questions.

What do you think: Have you ever been asked to provide your credentials and photo identification to secure an interview? If not the seven items on the judges’ checklist, what credentials would you include as a threshold to prove you’re a journalist instead of an advocate?

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