Sidelined: Press credential restrictions cause concern among journalists

Steam rises off the shoulder pads of the collegiate athletes as they line up at the 7-yard line for the last play of the game. The lights blaze overhead, reflecting off helmets. Cleats dig in to the grass as receivers get ready to sprint into the end zone.

The play starts. Pads crash together and the quarterback releases the ball. Fans hold their breath in anticipation of the game-winning pass that could secure the team a shot at a championship game.

School history is about to be made. But fans looking to the Web site of a student newspaper or student television station for video and real-time narrative of the historic moment may come away disappointed, because so many conferences have banned game-action video from media Web sites and restricted how frequently reporters can blog about the events going on at the game.

This year, dozens of media organizations joined together to petition athletic conferences within the NCAA for relief, because journalists were unhappy with press credential requirements that limited use of game footage, photos or blog posts during athletic events.

After much discussion, many regulations remain intact, but the controversy has put restrictive press policies in the spotlight and opened up a number of questions about the limits of press credential requirements. Officials, administrators and journalists have joined in the discussion to find a balance between league financial interests and press freedom.

HistoryNews organizations regularly get special access to sporting events to be able to report the events to their readers. Reporters get press passes from schools or sports conferences that allow them close proximity to the action for photos and access to locker-room interviews. These passes come with restrictions that allow those in charge of the events to protect copyright and trademarked material. The requirements also aim to ensure press passes go to legitimate newsgathering agencies.

The fairness of those restrictions was brought into the spotlight this year when the Southeastern Conference (SEC) re-worked its press credential requirements for the start of the 2009 NCAA football season to adapt to the changing nature of news reporting. The first draft of the re-worked policy, released July 20, immediately met resistance from media outlets covering SEC games. Within the first week of the release of the new policy, the Associated Press and Gannett both refused to have any of their reporters sign until revisions were made.

Some of the disputed terms of the document restricted the use of video to only broadcast news programs and only within 72 hours of the game, completely eliminating the possibility for newspapers or other media to use game footage on their Web sites. The first draft of the SEC policy also granted only limited blogging ability, saying, "no bearer may produce or disseminate in any form a 'real-time' description or transmission of the event."

And, the most troubling portion of the policy for student journalists at SEC schools like Robert Stewart, sports editor at Louisiana State University's newspaper, The Daily Reveille, was a stipulation that only full-time salaried employees of media outlets were eligible for credentials, disqualifying virtually all student media from covering their own schools' games.

"I was not happy with that version of the policy, and I know a lot of other people were not happy with it," Stewart said. "There were a lot of unnecessary rules in place."Media organizations teamed up to send a letter to the SEC, outlining some of their concerns with the policy.

"The new credentials go beyond adjustments; they are wholesale changes that restrain our members from covering your teams in ways that serve fans without harming league interests," reads the letter, which was signed by the American Society of News Editors, the AP Managing Editors and the AP Sports Editors. "Many of these changes may also violate existing law, which, in most instances, has not changed despite the advent of new media."

The SEC eventually changed the policy, and after two drafts adopted concessions that included easing limitations on photo use, expanding who can apply for credentials and clarifying exactly what routine blogging is permitted.

Despite the changes, though, not everybody involved is satisfied with the new regulations. Stewart, for example, said the paper is no longer allowed to have a videographer at the games, which has changed the way his paper covers and reports the events.

"It has changed things," said Casey Gisclair, deputy sports editor at The Daily Reveille. "[In the past] we posted game highlights on the days following games, but we've had to stop doing that."

Continued falloutAfter seeing the mixed success in dealing with the SEC, other media organizations challenged the press credential requirements in the Big Ten Conference.

Tom O'Hara, adviser to the Ohio State Lantern newspaper, said he, along with the local paper in Columbus, Ohio, felt it was time to take on Ohio State University and the Big Ten conference for their two-year old policy, which he said was too restrictive.

"The point is: somebody has got to draw the line here," O'Hara said. "Otherwise, the line is going to keep moving until all you're going to be able to do is publish one photo and a box score."

Media groups had issues with the Big Ten credentials similar to those with the SEC, even though the Big Ten policy had been in place for two years without any confrontation, said Scott Chipman, assistant commissioner of communications for the Big Ten.

A number of organizations got involved by sending a letter of complaint, saying the Big Ten policy was too restrictive because it did not allow secondary use of photos, drawings, or audio depictions of the event in anything other than direct reporting on the sporting event. If followed literally, it would restrict use of game content in season previews or commemorative issues of newspapers.

The Big Ten, despite pressure from the media organizations, decided against changing its policy.

While both of the debates were sparked at the onset of the NCAA football season, the implications of the decisions apply to college journalists for all sports. The balance between financial gain for those in charge of events and press freedom for those covering the events is an ongoing struggle not limited to any particular sport.

Ownership of rightsBoth confrontations raised questions about fairness and legality in developing press credential requirements at schools, especially those that are publicly funded.

The credentialing issue is further complicated because there is no single organization in charge of setting credential requirements. They are set by the schools themselves, conferences, and, in the case of certain tournaments and large events, they are set by organizations like the NCAA and Bowl Championship Series (BCS).

Jim Brady, a member of the board of directors for the Online News Association, which fought for media rights during the Big Ten debate, said it has been an interesting process because schools and conferences are trying to adapt their policies to handle situations arising with new technology.

"You're not battling over the same issues you would have been five years ago," Brady said. "Now you're moving into the issue of each of the conferences and the leagues and the teams are your competitors online. They have rights to content -- like video -- which they see as valuable. So it's about where you find that line between what should be available for public dissemination versus what should be controlled by one entity."Brady, who is also associated with the National Press Foundation and the Associated Press Managing Editors, also said there are issues with the restriction on dissemination of information in general.

"You're not talking about a closed Cabinet meeting in the White House, you're talking about games that are often being televised to millions of people," he said. "At the same time, people at the games are being told they can't disseminate information about it." With the changing nature of news dissemination, student journalists are concerned if they do not have sufficient rights to content, they will not have the opportunities they need to be able to develop skills to be marketable in when job searching.

"I think it's a big deal right now with how journalism is evolving," said Matt Brown, football editor for Penn State's Daily Collegian. "It's important for students to get that kind of training. If we're restricted in that, we're restricted in what we can learn."

Brown also said he questions the legitimacy of coverage if it is done primarily by the conference.

"I think it's troubling anytime you have a conference itself controlling most of its media productions," he said. "That's not good for anybody. It's not good for the fans and not good for us as media outlets."

Andy Reid, the managing sports editor for the University of Michigan's Michigan Daily, said it is important for students to have as much access as possible because hands-on experience is the only way they will learn the tools of the journalism trade.

"It's important to get access, because if this is really what we want to do, this is the only way we have to learn," Reid said. "It's trial by fire. As a student that wants to be a journalist, I don't know how we would be able to do that without getting access."

Like Reid's school, a number of colleges either have limited journalism programs or no journalism programs at all, which means working for a student media outlet is the primary chance students have to get journalism training.

The other sideWhile most conference administrators and other officials want their sports to get as much news coverage as possible, they also have an interest in shaping press credential requirements that allow them to maintain control of anything that holds financial value. Charles Bloom, associate commissioner for the SEC in charge of media relations, said the issue has been tough, and has required new thinking from the commissioners.

In the case of the SEC, the changes were made because of a new 15-year contract it signed with ESPN and CBS, Bloom said. After the broadcast, the SEC will have rights to conference games and, consequently, had to craft language protecting its video inventory on the Internet. Other conferences have similar concerns when coming up with their requirements.

"Initially, I was very uncomfortable with the thought of curtailing exposure for our programs," Bloom said. "There's a part of me asking why [restrict media coverage], when we should want everybody to see it."

He said it has been tough to switch to a mindset where conference administrators are working to limit public exposure to games. Bloom said he, like others, is "an old-school guy trying to get into the new school."

Ultimately, he said, the issue in any conference comes down to money."There's a financial aspect to it," Bloom said. "My feeling is that's what's driving it ... it's about directing sponsor dollars."

As a journalist, Stewart said he could appreciate the reasons why a sports conference would want to have a policy to control what happens with content from games. "It's my opinion that they're doing this to protect contracts with ESPN and CBS," he said. "I can certainly understand that. But at the same time, they are excluding media outlets from the coverage they've had in the past, which I don't understand."

Bill Hancock, executive director of the BCS, which issues credentials for football championship games, said sporting event administrators have a number of interests to protect in their credentialing policies.

"You want to credential the agencies that will reach the most fans," said Hancock, who worked as a sports editor for his college newspaper and also as the director for the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament. "However, I personally feel that it's important for student media to be a part of these events whenever possible."

He said there are a number of issues papers often don't think about, from limited availability of space for press representatives to the frequency of distribution for the publication in question.

"The organizers' task is to balance the need to reach as many people as possible with the need to include as many students as possible," Hancock said.

What it means for studentsHaving as much access as possible is important for students because it allows them to build their portfolios with things like highlight videos, special commemorative editions, blogs and digital slideshows.

"I think for us, the policy does limit [the student journalists]," Stewart said. "We don't have videographers going to football games learning how to shoot footage and edit on top of that. We don't have as much of the action footage as we would want ... to make their videos better."

Ben Jones, sports editor for the Kentucky Kernel newspaper at the University of Kentucky, also in the SEC, said the new policy has forced students to look to other sources to find chances to develop multimedia skills they would have been developing at games.

He said reporters at his paper had to decide ahead of time they would work with video footage of press conferences, which generally gets less traffic and feedback than actual game footage.

Tough fight for the underdogWhile student journalists face challenges in having limited use of sports content, it is no simple task for students to get conferences and schools to change policies to be more friendly to student journalists or more in line with First Amendment free speech principles.

"I feel like it's violating the First Amendment and freedom of the press -- they're trying to control us," Jones said. "I don't know how much we can do as a student paper to control that."

If the media were to write its own policy, he said, it would be very different from what the SEC and Big Ten conferences have written. When it comes down to it, though, he said his school's paper would accept the credentialing process because there is no other choice.

"I think it's a violation of the First Amendment," said Gisclair, the LSU student editor.

"I think it has taken away a right to get the information out there. At the same time, I think the feeling among journalists is you don't have any other real alternative."

Like Jones, Gisclair said his paper will have to comply with the new requirements, even though he considers the regulations less than ideal.

"Ultimately, we don't necessarily agree with everything in it, but we have to go along because we don't have any other choice," Gisclair said. "The alternative is not covering the game, and that's not a choice."

Whether the credential requirements are in violation of the First Amendment hinges on a number of criteria.

First, a person first has to figure out whether the organization issuing the credentials is a government entity, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

"There have been cases that have held the NCAA is not a government arm," LoMonte said. "However, it is not established exactly what the legal status of a conference is."

Any government body, LoMonte said, can make access to events on public property conditional on reasonable requirements, so the body issuing the credentials would have to figure out exactly what are "reasonable" requirements.

"Outright prohibition on all video is pushing the bounds of reasonableness in the 21st century where that's how news is disseminated," LoMonte said. "However, there's not a general First Amendment right just to be where news is happening, which is tricky in the case of a sporting event."

Throughout the discussion in the SEC and Big Ten, some of the schools and organizations involved have made attempts to incorporate the interests of student media. Ohio State changed its policy to give media more freedom with content. And the SEC went to great lengths to ensure the conference was not stepping on First Amendment rights when they changed the policy, Bloom said, especially in the case of student media."In the initial document, there was some language that would have hampered student media," he said. "It was taken care of in the first revision. It was never the intent of the conference to inhibit any student media rights, but that's how the language was when we first released it."

He said as part of the development process the conference tried to incorporate suggestions from student media, and that conferences and other credentialing entities do not try to hamper the rights and abilities of students.

Looking forwardDespite fears of the consequences of press credential policies, student online, video and print publications are finding ways to exist and thrive with what they are given.Gisclair said he liked the encouraging advice given by one of his editors about what student journalists could still accomplish, regardless of credential policies.

"The editor explained that the restrictions are only on game days, so that means you have six other days to go out there and do good work and get good clips," he said. "But it does hurt that you're not getting the highlight footage on football games and you're being restricted on how often you can blog."

He said he has hope for how journalists will cope with the situation.

"Journalists are pretty creative people," Gisclair said. "We discovered initially it would be cool to put videos on a Web site. The SEC came back and said you can't do that, so I don't know what it's going to be next, but in the next 10 years journalists are going to find another thing people like to see and they're going to try it out."

O'Hara said it is important at the end of the day for people who draft credential requirements to remember that students are journalists, and should both be treated and act as such.

"The students who work for [the paper] and the editors who work for [the paper] need to have as much of a real-world experience as possible," he said. "Putting out special sections, like a football or basketball special edition, are all things normal publications do. It's important that students who work for student newspapers are able to use the material they gather to do the same."

While there are still challenges ahead, and both student journalists and credentialing organizations will have to work together to come up with fair practices, O'Hara said he thinks there is a bright potential future for relations between the two.

"My hope for the future is colleges will view college newspapers as a part of the same institution that the athletic department is part of, and view coverage from the student paper as not only something to the athletic department, but to the student newspaper," he said.

reports, Winter 2009-10