U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Shifting access for journalists covering statehouses

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Published On
January 31, 2022
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State Legislatures, Part I | Shifting access for journalists

As legislative sessions began anew in 2022 across the United States in January, two state senates changed longstanding rules of access for journalists covering the chambers.

In Iowa, the Republican-controlled senate overturned more than a century of practice in announcing it would move journalists covering the legislators from benches on the floor to a public gallery upstairs.

In Kansas, the Republican-controlled Senate issued new rules for this session, also moving journalists from the floor to a public gallery.

Spokespeople for both cited the rise of digital or non-traditional media outlets in their reasoning: Iowa Senate Republican Spokesperson Caleb Hunter said in an email to statehouse reporters that the Senate struggled with the changing definition of “media” when considering journalists’ access to the chamber.

"As non-traditional media outlets proliferate, it creates an increasingly difficult scenario for the Senate, as a governmental entity, to define the criteria of a media outlet," Hunter wrote.

Mike Pirner, communication director for Kansas Senate president Ty Masterson, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that the move was not a press freedom issue, but spacing concerns and the rise in digital publications contributed to the decision.

In the Kansas Senate, Pirner said, there are six seats for journalists in the designated gallery; the floor held five.

Steve Morris, a Republican Kansas senator from 1993 to 2013, criticized the change in an op-ed: “There is no compelling reason to change the time-honored policy of allowing their close access to debates and other public workings of the Senate,” Morris wrote. “Senate leadership’s decision to move Kansas Statehouse reporters farther away from the action sends the wrong message and won’t help the people of Kansas better understand the discussions and votes.”

Tim Carpenter, a reporter who has covered the Kansas statehouse for 15 years, told the Tracker he’s worried about the escalation of restrictions. “There’s nothing that they can do that stops me from covering the statehouse as I see fit,” Carpenter said. But, he worries about the possible escalation of restrictions that bar public scrutiny and enable corruption.

State Legislatures, Part II | Rebuking the AP

In Tennessee, Rep. Bud Hulsey, a Republican, introduced a joint resolution this month to formally reprimand the Associated Press for an investigative piece it published in May 2021 on racism in the military. The resolution accused AP of “incendiary journalism” and engaging “in the lowest form of yellow journalism.”

An AP spokesperson told the Tracker that “The Associated Press stands by its reporting,” and Kat Stafford, the lead reporter on the piece, posted on Twitter that she stood by their work.

More from the Tracker this month

  • Reporter Tom Simon was covering a series of school board meetings in Williston, North Dakota, when the school board president initiated a police investigation to identify Simon’s sources. Simon’s cell phone was seized and phone records sought through two separate search warrants. Simon’s lawyer told the Tracker that this was “a perfect example of overreaching on behalf of law enforcement into the rights of private citizens and it simply cannot stand.”
  • Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, the former Treasury official who was arrested in 2018 for leaking details about suspicious banking transactions to a BuzzFeed News reporter, was released from her 6 month prison sentence about a month earlier than expected. She’ll serve three years on probation.
  • Look back at 2021 for press freedom with this analysis of the year’s aggressions against the press, as documented by the Tracker. While we did not see the scope of national social justice protests of 2020, I wrote how 2021 still outpaced the years before it for press freedom violations: Another record year for press-freedom violations in the US

As always, between these monthly newsletters you can follow us on Twitter @uspresstracker and support incident tracking and in-depth analyses with a donation.

Kirstin McCudden
Managing Editor, U.S. Press Freedom Tracker