So Long, “Access Journalism” — & Good Riddance?

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CJR: “Access reporting tells readers what powerful actors say while accountability reporting tells readers what they do.” 

A long and interesting essay at The Awl (Access Denied) explores the notion that one of journalism’s biggest challenges in the current era is how to make itself valuable and distinctive when it’s being denied access to sources and agencies that have found ways to communicate with the public directly (though social media, email, etc.).

Long before the rise of social media, lack of access has been an issue for education journalists, who are routinely denied access to schools, educators, and information.

The result — take Chicago — isn’t always pretty for those who seek to control access. But more often, I’d argue, limited access to information and interviews has the intended effect of encouraging editors and reporters to chase tidbits and embargoed reports and “exclusives” doled out to them by press officers — and to avoid biting the hand that’s feeding them by doing their own reporting or writing stories critical of those who might favor a competitor the next time out.

For an example, check out this 2010 EdWeek profile of Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

What’s “access journalism”? This 2014 CJR analysis boils it down to this: “Access reporting tells readers what powerful actors say while accountability reporting tells readers what they do.”

Over-reliance on access is certainly an issue in other areas. Aggressive outfits like DeadSpin bragged about covering the sports industry “without Access, Favor, or Discretion.” 

You might think that foundation funding is a big concern for independent journalism. I’d argue that access-reliant journalism is just as much a problem.So I’m not sure I’m so sad about the demise of access journalism, if the result is more investigative reporting. Alas, that’s not necessarily going to be the case. The Awl piece argues that the likely result of access limitations and feed-based news of the future is more likely to be a glut of explainers (as in Vox).

Related posts: How That WNYC Reporter Got So Much AccessNeufeld’s School Turnaround Saga Turned Into Newark Book 

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.