National Press Club

Panel: Reporters have the same rights as everybody else

October 22, 2017 | By Gwen Flanders |

Amid a growing hostility to journalists over “fake news,” reporters have a greater need than ever to know their rights on the job, according to panelists in a First Amendment discussion at the National Press Club on Friday.

The Free Speech Week program focused primarily on barriers journalists sometimes face when reporting in public places or seeking information from government agencies.

“The press can’t be singled out. They have the same rights as others do” – to photograph a private business from a public sidewalk, for example, or to take notes in a meeting of lawmakers, said Paul Safier, an attorney with the media and entertainment law firm Ballard Spahr.

But the public doesn’t always see it that way as trust in news media falls, said Scott MacFarlane, an investigative reporter at NBC4 in Washington.

“Our favor with the audience is more at risk than it ever has been,” he said. “Government officials recognize it and are capitalizing on it.”

Ellen Crooke, vice president for news at TEGNA, a media company that owns 46 TV stations and other online operations, agreed.

“We have to work at creating the journalism that wins back that trust,” she said. “We have to work on creating the journalism that wins the hearts of the community.”

MacFarlane has a strategy: Be polite, he said. Explain why you’re doing the story. Don’t shove a microphone in someone’s face. Don’t run down the street after someone who’s trying to avoid being questioned – the kind of video that makes a reporter look bad.

Vikram Bhagat, in-house counsel at American Public Media Group and Minnesota Public Radio, advised: “Don’t assume the worst. Just like journalists aren’t experts in media law, most government officials aren’t experts in media law. … Try not to assume they’re out to get you.”

The panel offered some practical tips:

“You don’t have to know all your rights,” Crooke said. Have a circle of contacts and phone numbers with you – especially for your company’s lawyer – to call when someone tries to bar you from a scene. Check your rights ahead of time if you suspect access will be a problem.

To make long delays in Freedom of Information Act requests less likely, note in the letter that you are sending a copy to your company lawyer, Bhagat suggests. If there’s no response in a reasonable time, a phone call from your lawyer could bring a quick response.

An official’s work-related emails and texts are fair game for FOIA, Crooke said.

MacFarlane noted an exception: Congress and many state legislatures.

MacFarlane’s shortcut to good FOIA information: Request emails about your story and those that contain your name or your organization’s name.

“Nothing on social media is ever private,” Crooke said.

The event was sponsored by RTDNA, the Radio Television Digital News Association; the National Press Club Journalism Institute; the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication; and Reel Media Group, a training organization. A video of the full program is on the sponsors’ websites.