By Janis Mork
April 15, 2013 (San Diego)- Last week, in the KPBS studio at San Diego State University, U-T San Diego public engagement reporter Matt Hall moderated a three-member panel hosted by the San Diego Chapter of Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) to explore the controversial issue of press credentials.
Should San Diego Police Department stay in charge of who gets press credentials countywide?
Who needs press passes—and how does SDPD determine who does and doesn’t receive them?
These are among the questions addressed on a panel consisting of U-T San Diego public safety reporter Kristina Davis, true crime author Caitlin Rother, and freelance videographer James ‘JC’ Playford, who filled in for San Diego Reader journalist Dorian Hargrove originally scheduled.
San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne was invited, but indicated that he had a schedule conflict, Hall said. The Chief was represented by a photo perched in a chair and later, on a chalkboard, where panelists interacted with the "Chief."
Everyone with a “video camera and recorder” can be viewed as a journalist these days. This is creating headaches for law enforcement and controversies over just who should and should not be issued press passes, Hall indicated. Recently, some jurisdictions including Orange County’s Police Department have “stopped issuing press passes,” Hall said (photo, right).
There have also been challenges, including a suit filed by Playford, whose press credentials were revoked. Since the Sheriff and other law enforcement agencies in San Diego defer to SDPD for credentialing, this effectively prevents a reporter from covering a wide range of activities across the County where credentials are required.
Editor’s note: Playford’s suit was dismissed without prejudice but shortly after this event, Playford refilled the suit against SDPD and the San Diego Sheriff’s office, alleging that his rights were violated (View the amended complaint here.)
Before addressing the issues, the members introduced themselves. Davis (photo, left) has been at the U-T for seven to eight years. She started her journalism career in Phoenix.
Rother worked with the U-T and left there in 2006. She has since made a career out of writing and has held a number of different jobs to support herself, including a teacher and columnist as well as true crime novelist. Her latest book is Lost Girls about John Gardner killing Chelsea King and Amber Dubois. She has also written Poisoned Love and My Life, Deleted http://caitlinrother.com/
“I cannot do my job as a true crime author without a press pass,” said Rother (photo, right), who was denied admission to a courthouse during Gardner’s sentencing because she had been refused a press pass by SDPD.
Playford is with American News and Information Services. He considers himself an “independent photographer. I care about people’s right to know,” he said.
When asked if each considers themselves a journalist, Davis said yes. Playford replied, “I consider myself a photo journalist.” Rother told Hall, “I’m an occasional freelance journalist.” All have had press passes at some point.
Hall wanted to know when each has to show their pass passes. Davis answered, “...sometimes at the courthouse. Other times, it’s non-police, like going to a press conference at City Hall. It’s never been a problem for me. I worked the 2007 wildfires every day. All deputies asked to see my press pass, and I got in. I work more police stuff. When I go up to the yellow tape, I’m not asked to show my press pass. I think it’s a ridiculous exercise.” She has been allowed closer to accident scenes on rare occasions with the press pass, however.
Playford (photo, left) stated, “When I had a press pass, they said ‘Take the camera off me or they’ll revoke my press pass.” He also told the audience that press conferences are controlled to limit what the world should see and calls the arrangement “a good old boys’ network.”
Rother answered, “I had a press pass in the past, adding that police screen applicants to assure that they don’t have criminal backgrounds. Davis added, “You got to go through some background check.”
Playford believes that California law is clear that only the media can determine who’s a journalist and who should have a press pass, not police. “This is America,” he said citing the First Amendment and “my rights as an individual.”
Hall noted that a Reader reporter with hundreds of stories was denied a press pass.
Davis explained how Phoenix doesn’t require a press pass. “I was shocked when I came here.”
They then took questions from the audience.
An audience member said the local press pass system arose out of need after PSA plane crash. A section was added to the law as a result of problems at the scene.
An extended discussion occurred on whether press passes should be eliminated entirely, or whether SDPD should relax its requirements. While some panelists and audience members supported eliminating press passes completely to assure freedom of the press to access breaking news, others concede a need for security that the background checks provide.
Rother explained the difficulties she faces without a press credential. “It’s difficult. I have to go up to Orange County to write a book. You have to know your way around or you’ll lose your job.” She thinks she should be treated “the same as reporters.”
Another person wanted to know, “How are we going to change the situation? Who’s going to issue a press pass? Why not SPJ?”
Nicole ‘Kali’ Katt with KNSJ, an active turned journalist who was denied access to a police press conference on Occupy said, “This is to control information.” Playford agreed.
Someone demanded, “Why is there just one person [determining who gets a press pass]?
Rother said,”I think they want to keep it streamlined.”
ECM editor Miriam Raftery noted that corporations such as SDG&E have required press credentials from SDPD for certain events, such as the Sunrise Powerlink ribbon cutting, and that press credentials are also required for political conventions. She suggested the standard be broadened beyond a need to cross police and fire lines, so that political reporters, business reporters or others who may be required to show press passes for their work can obtain them.
Another person asked, “Who is a journalist and how do you determine that?”
Rother answered, “The key is whether you’re a freelance, part-time or full-time, as long as you have proof you’re a journalist.”
Davis said, “If you know how to behave yourself.”
Rother had an issue when she was denied from seeing Mayor Sanders. Ken Stone from Patch wanted to know why she was dealing with the gatekeeper (Gary Hassen at SDPD, who issues the press passes for San Diego Police Department) instead of going to Mayor Jerry Sanders’ office. She said she had done so but got no help. Hall asked if she would consider going to Mayor Bob Filner’s office now.
She said she will.
Someone said, “Do your own grunt work. Say you’re a journalist.” He held up a pass his news organization made—a tactic that may gain access to some situations, but would not be accepted at many others.
A final question from the audience summed up the dilemma: “Why should SDPD have the right to deny credentials for someone?”
For more background, visit: 1) http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs/news-ticker/2012/aug/16/sdpd-detectives-role-as-press-pass-monitor-questio/ 2) http://www.sdcitybeat.com/sandiego/article-10954-reporters-challenge-sdpd-credentials-process.html 3) http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2012/oct/13/lawsuit-says-police-shouldnt-decide-whos-a/?print&page=all 4) http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2013/jan/05/cops-want-press-credential-lawsuit-dismissed/?print&page=all 5) http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2013/mar/26/freelance-journalists-lawsuit-dismissed/.