What does it mean to be a journalist? That's a complicated question these days, but in Chicago for decades there's been a rule of thumb. A journalist is the one who gets to push through the crowd at fires and crime scenes and cross the police line That means he's the one who's carrying a Chicago Police Department-issued press pass.
In Chicago, these passes have historically gone to reporters employed full-time by the news organizations they represent. At one time most reporters fit that description. Today many are freelancers like myself, and we've been kept behind the yellow tape.
We've also been turned away from mayoral news conferences, Board of Education meetings, and other newsworthy events where the CPD press pass is the key to admission. But the days of part-timers and online bloggers having to stand back with the gawkers are over.
The city's journalists and media advocates chalked up a First Amendment victory Wednesday, September 8, when the City Council approved a string of changes to the ordinance governing CPD press passes. The old ordinance limited the passes to "full-time" employees of "newspapers, press associations, newsreels and radio stations." The full-time stipulation has been deleted, and the list of news media has been greatly expanded to include, among other things, "a newspaper or other periodical issued at regular intervals whether in print or electronic format."
"We realize that not everyone [who works in the media] is full-time," says CPD News Affairs director Roderick Drew. "The newsgathering business is not as black and white . . . as it has been in the past."
Another important change in the revisions, which sailed through the council just as last week they sailed through the Police and Fire Committee, is a repeal of the fingerprinting requirement added in 2002. Also gone is a stipulation that the journalist be "of good moral character." Still required by the police, though it's not specifically mentioned in the ordinance, will be a background check by the FBI's National Crime Information Center.
In rewriting the ordinance, Drew says, the CPD looked at credentialing practices from other cities and even the access regulations at the White House. The amendments were collectively drafted by the department and a number of local media organizations, some of which had been trying to get the fingerprinting requirement revoked since it became law eight years ago.
"The vast increase in freelancers and bloggers necessitated a change in the rules requiring full-time employment by news shops," says Sue Stevens, president of the Chicago Headline Club, one of the groups that helped draft the new ordinance. "Even if they don't have to show their press cards, they can be more confident in pursuing news."
Freelancers and part-timers will now be eligible for police passes if they can show a letter from at least one news organization stating that they're working for it. And "news media" is being defined more expansively to include news in an "electronic format."
This is good news for young writers pitching criminal justice stories on spec from bedroom offices, but major media outlets may take little notice of the change. "Every broadcast outlet I know in the city has hidden that some of its credentialed employees are actually part-timers/freelancers for years," WBBM radio's Bob Roberts, Freedom of Information chair for the Illinois News Broadcasters Association, told me in an e-mail. Roberts said he knew of entire shops that have refused to obtain CPD credentials since 2002 because of the fingerprinting and background check requirements. Most opted instead for Cook County passes, which offer similar privileges.
Drew says the main goal of the revisions was to make coverage easier for working journalists yet maintain security at crime scenes and sensitive hearings. "Because in a way, the media credentials gives you access to the leaders of the city," he says. "We have an obligation to make sure that the people who have that direct close access aren't a risk in a sense."