Access Denied or Granted?

Relationships with sources are more scrutinized and more complicated than ever

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Access journalism. Follow threads about the press or conversations among journalists and it’s bound to come up in discussion. Fundamentally, access journalism occurs when reporters value landing a source more than the information gleaned from that source.

But what do readers, viewers, or other members of the public mean when they use the term as criticism? Is it simply expedient and pithy, just a new way to disparage the press?

More importantly, what does the practice or appearance of access journalism mean to the trust audiences and the public place in their news sources? And how should we prepare new journalists coming into the field for navigating the access minefield?

Jay Rosen is a professor of journalism at New York University. He’s noticed how allegations of access journalism are now bandied about on social media. While those conversations may once have been left to J-school academics and media critics, the term is currently part of the pop culture and vernacular.

“It has become quite common for readers to accuse journalists of it,” Rosen said. “It’s one of those criticisms of the press that’s been popularized, like ‘clickbait.’ Clickbait is how people explain something they don’t understand or strikes them as weird or odd…But there is something to the idea of access journalism, and this is what I mean: When you have beat reporters, they have different interests. They are trying to get the story and inform the public, to tell their audience what’s going on, but they also have other motivations and incentives, including developing sources and keeping sources.”

Rosen explained that journalists constantly weigh the value of sources and their potential for information over time: “You sometimes have to trade off a present good for a future good—meaning, you don’t want to alienate sources that you may need later on.”

The point when this becomes problematic and enters the realm of access journalism is when source handling interferes with truth-telling.

Another familiar dilemma for reporters is what to do when the source gets it wrong. Rosen said, “When a source lies or they’re wrong, when they give you bad information—especially confidential sources—almost every journalist would say, ‘Well, then you can burn the source because they violated the agreement, formal and informal, between the source and journalist. But in practice and every journalist knows, that almost never happens. Reporters have to calculate the future value of the source.

“Those kinds of things, which are not necessarily important to readers are very important to journalists…There is a conflict between forming audiences and keeping sources happy and keeping our access. That doesn’t mean that you can’t do both, but there is a conflict there, and that’s what you’re picking up when you see this term floated.”

Just as tribal politics unseated baseball as our national pastime, media criticism is now a popular sport too. This may be symptomatic of profound shifts in the relationships between the press, the public and the powerful.

Sources and the public have both “gained power” with the advent of the internet and social media, diminishing the power the press once enjoyed. Sources can speak to any number of news outlets or even directly to the public on social media and other digital platforms.

“Audiences have a lot more power because they have more options, and they can talk back to journalists,” Rosen said.

When Access is Denied
One of the challenges journalists have always dealt with is not getting access to a source. Today, however, denying access is a strategic and political weapon—a way for the powerful to control a narrative.

Former President Donald Trump’s press secretary Stephanie Grisham’s entire job was to show up and field questions, but she refused to hold a press briefing during her entire stint. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott held an event in July and barred most of the press from observing it.

“Recently, the governor of Florida had a bill signing and the only news outlet invited in to witness it was Fox News, not any of the local outlets,” said Joseph Lichterman, communication and editorial director at the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

Tennis superstar Naomi Osaka took a lot of flak from sports reporters when she opted out of press conferences at this year’s French Open, citing her mental health and an anxious, sometimes pointless, rapport she has with the press.

“Osaka was probably right: Tennis reporters always ask the same questions, and she didn’t see much point in it,” Washington Post’s media critic Erik Wemple said. “But if you’re a tennis beat writer or a sportswriter, you’ve got to write a story. She’s one of the top sports earners, and you’ve got to write your daily story, and you need her comment….I understand her position as well.”

Press conferences are by nature limiting to reporters, who are trying to write something unique and informative, Wemple added. Even if reporters have access to the source in this way, are they likely to ask questions that tip their hand about what they’re writing or the angle they’re taking?

Wemple advised reporters and editors navigating these dilemmas: “If you think your reporting depends entirely on one person helping you, it doesn’t. It is a pluralistic endeavor. There are people everywhere who can help and will help you if they see you are interested in a certain story. So, you may have one door close and many others open.”

Being denied access to a source may be frustrating to reporters, but it doesn’t mean the death of a story, after all. There is always the opportunity to seek out new sources and tell it from a different perspective—“the write-around” Rosen calls it.

“There’s inside-out reporting, where you have to get inside the White House, for example, to find out what’s going, but there’s also outside-in reporting, where you start far away—let’s say, with people at the agencies who are getting directives from the White House,” he explained. “It takes longer. It’s not as direct, but it might be more effective, because they don’t have the same motivations to spin you. You can switch from inside-out reporting to outside-in and make the argument that there are a lot of strengths to forms of journalism that don’t value access.”

Rosen offered The Intercept as an example of a news outlet that operates under the assumption that they won’t have direct access to power players its reporters may be covering. In fact, they may not want access to those sources at all, circumventing them entirely to get closer to the truth faster.

“Access journalism is why you need magazine reporters, freelancers and other rabble-rousers to come in and mix it up,” Wemple said. “It reminds me of (Michael Hastings), who did this huge interview with Gen. Stanley McChrystal that the Pentagon press corps was never going to write. You need people like that to come in and sort of shake things up.”

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and novelist, who currently pens a column for USA TODAYand teaches journalism at Kent State University.

“I tell my students all the time that some of the most important information will come from secretaries, receptionists, clerks,” she said. “If you’re assigned a government beat—for example, covering the mayor, you’re going to get to know everyone who works for the mayor. These are people who at times will feel unappreciated, who will see people behaving badly and reach their limits. If they can trust you, they’ll tell you what’s happening or point you in the right direction. They will get you into offices that claim they have no time for you. That is the basics of good journalism.”

Immediate access to a source, particularly in the wake of breaking news, doesn’t always guarantee good reporting, Schultz noted.

“Let the dust settle, even if it’s for a day or two. While everybody is out repeating the breaking news, that’s when you take the time to go in and tell the rest of the story,” she said. “I worry that young journalists aren’t going to learn this if we place too much emphasis on who’s first, who’s getting a book deal, who’s holding onto reporting—and we see this increasingly—so they can put it in a future book.”   

 

Rebuilding Trust
For Lichterman, the term “access journalism” is often used in bad faith.

“I think the term is used (when) partisans on either side who feel a reporter is not being critical enough of a source,” he said. “During the Trump era, we saw criticism of someone like Maggie Haberman (White House correspondent for The New York Times) from the Left because she was probably one of the most well-sourced and even-handed reporters. But people on the Left often accused her of access journalism because they didn’t feel she wasn’t tough enough on Trump.”

Another phenomenon is that criticism comes at the press from the public, who may not be informed about the role of the press, our code of ethics, or how the work is done.

“News organizations and journalists need to do a better job of educating people on how they go about reporting, so when people see anonymous or unnamed sources in the publication, we explain what that means—that we know who they are, that our editors know who they are, but that we can’t share that information because of the position the source may be in. We need to provide all the insight into the independent rigor that goes into the reporting,” Lichterman said. “Trust—being the most important currency—requires that you be as transparent as you can. … I think that can go a long way.”

More often, journalists innocently stumble into access traps, Lichterman said. Unfettered access to sources and the pressures of producing content sometimes leads to untenable situations and lackluster journalism. Lichterman offered a recent example: “There was a bunch of hub-bub about a brand of cast-iron pots. They had a fancy Instagram feed and a millennial-friendly brand. There was a big story in Business Insider about the two women who’d used a lot of family money to start a business, who got all this fawning press coverage, just because they were available.

“The interesting story was that they weren’t making their own products. They were just relabeling things made in China or overseas. But they were out there promoting themselves, and journalists were eager for content, and as a result, it became a mutually beneficial cycle behind the scenes,” Lichterman said. “The more interesting story was that it was a poorly run business that had taken advantage of these larger consumer trends and generational wealth to start this organization. … (Access journalism) happens in more subtle ways.”

Wemple said that political reporting is particularly “ripe for corruption along the access-journalism line,” by virtue of the imbalance in the ratio of journalists to sources. Hundreds of reporters working the D.C. beat often vie for the attention of a singular figure, who, if inclined, can only grant so many interviews.

“I think ‘access journalism’ has just become another way of dissing journalists,” Wemple said. “If someone doesn’t feel the interview was tough enough, it’s access journalism…But sometimes it’s true. If you’re talking about the definition of access journalism, I don’t think you need to go a hell of a lot further than just Fox News’ coverage of the entire Trump Administration. I mean, that was exactly access journalism, precisely and every time, whether it was ‘Fox & Friends,’ Sean Hannity or Jeanine Pirro, or any of the others. That was the most awful sort of extreme, corrupt access journalism you’ll ever see, making everything else pale in comparison.”

Even though access journalism now has a place in pop culture, the practice and its exploitation isn’t novel. In Dan Rather’s and Elliot Kirschner’s book, “What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism,” the authors reflected back on how adept President Nixon was at manipulating the media—casting doubt, insulting the press, and granting access to local or regional reporters while snubbing the big-title journalists, knowing full well that a reporter getting one and only shot at questioning a president might shy away from anything too hard-hitting or controversial.

“We knew Nixon hated us, but he wasn’t calling us ‘enemies of the people.’ We didn’t have to worry about the mob turning on us every time we showed up to cover something,” Schultz reflected back on Nixon-era reporting. “We’re having a very different conversation now because we’ve just survived four years of Donald Trump as president…I think the Trump Administration had a trickle-down effect. Trump would refuse to answer questions. He insulted the media, so every county commissioner who didn’t want to talk to journalists started doing it. It was affecting regional and local journalists, who had nothing at all to do with reporting on the Trump Administration or even on politics. You may think because you’re not a Washington journalist that you don’t have to deal with Washington, but you are most definitely dealing with it now.”

Gretchen A. Peck is an independent journalist who has reported on publishing and journalism for more than two decades. She began her reporting career covering municipal government at a suburban Philadelphia daily and also served as an editor-in-chief/editorial director for a magazine publisher. She has contributed to Editor & Publisher since 2010 and can be reached at gretchenapeck@gmail.com.

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