Reporters Fear Loss of Access

Oct 23, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Elizabeth Jensen

Special to TelevisionWeek

Freelance producer, cameraman and still photographer Bill Campbell is a frequent visitor to Yellowstone Park, working on environmental stories for CNN, PBS and others. He has a bird’s-eye view of a new policy being worked out by the National Park Service that he worries will essentially force some video journalists to pay to report from federal parklands, even when conducting an on-location interview with a park official.

Potentially devastating financial restrictions on TV crews shooting in the parks are just one of the many ways in which environmental reporters are feeling squeezed when it comes to access to government information. The Society of Environmental Journalists’ WatchDog Project TipSheet has closely tracked such disparate events as the closing of the Environmental Protection Agency’s libraries and White House involvement in picking and choosing which National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists would be approved for giving public interviews, particularly concerning the correlation of global warming data and recent hurricane activity.

Restrictions “have gotten worse this year,” said Joseph Davis, director of the WatchDog Project, which tracks secrecy trends and supports reporters’ use of the Freedom of Information Act.

“This administration in particular has launched a whole series of initiatives that would restrict the information available to the public and to the press,” Mr. Davis said. While reporters who cover the national security beat may have it worse, he said, “It’s a special problem in the area of the environment and energy and natural resources.”

In particular, he said, environmental journalists frequently write about “infrastructure that could be dangerous, whether it is pipelines or power lines or power plants or chemical facilities.” A great deal of information has been made secret in the name of homeland security, he noted. But he said some of the restrictions appear to be driven more by commercial concerns, such as government bodies deciding they can make money off of aerial photos.

What is potentially happening in the national parklands is perhaps a more minor issue than some of those confronted by SEJ, but Mr. Campbell worries that it is about to set a difficult precedent.

In a nutshell, after a commercial production on Washington’s National Mall left the Park Service holding the bill for an expensive cleanup, a 2000 law directed federal land management agencies under both the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture to start charging a fee for on-location commercial filming and some still photography. Various agencies interpreted the law differently; most shoots involving breaking news have been exempt, although some producers such as Mr. Campbell, who worked on longer-term projects, were required to obtain $200 yearlong, per-project permits.

A subsequent investigation by the Government Accountability Office chastised the Park Service for not implementing the law fully and directed it to move quickly to start charging location fees as well as the permit fees. So in April, as a stopgap measure, the Park Service started charging $150 a day for any commercial filming projects in the parks.

When journalists howled, the Park Service temporarily decided to exempt two-person news crews; also exempt from location fees are coverage of one-time news events such as fires or a visitor center opening, and stories that will be broadcast within 72 hours. But that doesn’t help documentary makers, journalists who are covering more in-depth stories or productions that require a correspondent, producer and camera person. PBS’s “Now” ended up paying $150 in location fees for an August report on the Endangered Species Act. The crew of established news people was in the park for 24 hours, did one stand-up report and an interview with the head of the Interior Department’s wolf reintroduction program, Mr. Campbell noted, “and we had to pay to do that.”

What has journalists concerned, Mr. Campbell said, is, “Where do you draw the line and how do you draw the line?” He is worried that the definition of what is breaking news and what isn’t “is going to be something worked out behind closed doors at Interior, and that’s where we as journalists really need to pressure them.”

“If this definition of news by the Interior Department continues to be so narrow and is adopted to apply to the new fee structures in a narrow way, it will have an effect on all kinds of news structures,” Mr. Campbell predicted. “My fear is this will affect the flow of information-it will set a precedent of paying to report.”

Lee Dickinson, special park uses programming manager for the National Park Service, said she understands the concern. “It’s an additional business expense that they’re not used to paying,” she said, and the magnitude of the impact will vary greatly depending on how the policy is implemented. But she added, “We’re not in the business of putting people out of business. We want to get a fair schedule, one that is fair to the government and fair to the individual using the federal lands.”

She declined to wade into the debate over the way in which the interim guidelines define news that is exempt from location fees. But she said that, contrary to journalists’ concerns, how the news exemption will be permanently defined “is open to discussion. It is something we have defined very narrowly, and I’m really not sure where documentaries are going to fall, and it’s not solely my decision.” Ms. Dickinson noted that several agencies are involved in defining the guidelines.

She encouraged journalists to make their views heard during an upcoming comment period. The proposed permanent regulations and a fee schedule are working their way through the Washington bureaucracy, she said, adding that she hopes the proposed guidelines-establishing who will need a permit and when-will be published in the Federal Register before the end of the year, with the proposed fee schedule to be published about one month later, most likely in early 2007.

Both proposals will be open for public comment for 60 days after publication, she said, double the 30 days that they could have been left open. “We think it’s important enough to keep it open longer,” she said. “This is an excellent opportunity for them to make their opinions heard.”

She speculated that it will take at least a year before the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife and the National Park Service publish the final regulations and fee schedule, because of the time it will take to process comments. Until then, the interim schedule of fees will stay in place.

All is not doom and gloom when it comes to access to information, Mr. Davis said. President Bush last month signed into law a bill that mandates the online publication of a federal spending database, so taxpayers and journalists can see where money is being spent. Also last month, a House Government Reform subcommittee approved a bill strengthening the Freedom of Information Act.

Passage is still unclear, but the move, Mr. Davis said, “demonstrates that almost nobody is willing to come out publicly in favor of secrecy. So if you can get these bills considered, and make the public aware, in fact politicians will want to be on board with them.” SEJ was involved in lobbying for that bill.