Facebook groups posing as media outlets raise credential questions

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The following questions were submitted by the Ink Free News (Milford), Newton County Enterprise (Kentland), The News-Dispatch (Michigan City)/LaPorte Herald -Argus:

Facebook groups posing as media outlets raise credential questions

Q: The mayor’s office contacted me with a question about credentialed media — specifically, how organizations are determined to be credentialed or not. We have a small issue in our city with Facebook pages forming and posing as media outlets with individuals coming to meetings and press conferences and stirring trouble. My understanding is that who gets a credential is determined by each media organization. How would you suggest a city government determine which media outlets are credentialed or not?

A: You are correct that there isn’t any agency that officially gives out press credentials. Indiana State Police did, but got out of that business years ago. Newspapers create their own press passes to identify their news staff, but anyone could print up a card and claim to be affiliated with a media outlet.

I see how this could pose a concern for the mayor’s office.

For public meetings, obviously anyone can attend and if the government unit allows for public comment, anyone could ask a question. And in general, reporters or interested members of the public might garner the attention of board members and ask them questions before or after a meeting. I don’t see how or why mayor would want to try and restrict access in this situation.

Press conferences by definition are for the media and are done through an invitation. I assume the mayor is trying to determine who they should invite. The mayor could start with any media outlet that has requested notices of meetings of the city council as noted in the state’s Open Door Law. My guess is that the Facebook entities probably aren’t aware of this provision of the Open Door Law.

Beyond that group, it’s going to be the call of the mayor who will have to determine some sort of criteria for its list of media contacts: Is the purported media outlet established as a business or non-profit entity with the Indiana Secretary of State? This would indicate a business model and not just a hobby by someone.

That would be a safer determination than the mayor choosing because he doesn’t like the coverage of A or criticism leveled at the administration by B. Someone could practice very sound journalism on a Facebook page, but with no business model, I don’t see how it could claim to be a media outlet. Filing the paperwork with the Secretary of State of Indiana would indicate a serious effort to become a sustainable media entity, even if it’s a non-profit plan.

From a public relations perspective, I wouldn’t recommend the mayor ignore queries from citizens (be they from Facebook writers, newspaper reporters, or citizens) because that only gives the non-professionals license to criticize the administration for being unresponsive.

The administration can respond to interview requests from these Facebook media as it fits the mayor’s schedule or records requests in accordance with the state’s Access to Public Records Act, but that doesn’t mean the mayor need invite the Facebook writer to a press conference.

State-set rates for notices does not apply to U.S. Marshal’s sale

Q: I am working on a U.S. Marshal’s Sale and it requires publication once a week for six weeks. Our system doesn’t have a rate for this type of request. Do you know if there is a special rate for this type of notice?

A: You are free to charge the federal marshal the rate you would change a local customer for a classified advertisement that they would want to run six times. The state-set rate for notices from government units only applies to Indiana and local government units. It doesn’t apply to federal agencies. So treat the Marshal as you would a local advertising customer.

State law requires law enforcement to make certain info available

Q: In the past, the Michigan City Police Department has sent us daily police reports – everything from dogs running loose to shootings. This included the formatted report, and officer’s narrative, which helped us write crime stories by providing more detail than the form portion. On Monday the MCPD daily reports did not include the narrative portion of the report, so basically all we get is the time, place, date and Indiana Code citation for the crime committed. This forces us to make a call to police for every single case we want to write about or to determine whether it’s worth writing a story. I spoke with the department PIO and he said the directive to stop releasing the narrative portion of the reports came from La Porte County Prosecutor John Lake. Does the prosecutor have the authority to stop police from sending out complete reports?

A: The prosecutor has an ethical obligation to protect the ability of a defendant to have a fair trial, but state law requires law enforcement to make certain information available when there has been an alleged or possible crime [I.C. 5-14-3-5(c)] in the state’s Public Access to Records Act. That information includes “the factual circumstances surrounding the incident.” That’s what the officer’s narrative usually covers.

You’ll need to ask the prosecutor what he expects the police to do to complete its statutory obligation when facing a ban on the narrative. If another form must be completed, the prosecutor will be doubling the paperwork for officers — unnecessarily from HSPA’s viewpoint.

The state law requirement for the provision of this information insulates the prosecutor from any disciplinary claim that he/she is violating any ethical canon. 

 

Send your questions to Steve Key, HSPA executive director and general counsel, skey@hspa.com.