October 17, 2007

The Interior Department has proposed codifying its rules on photography, filming, and sound-recording on public lands it administers - rules which some newsgatherers complain badly cramps their ability to do their jobs.

The deadline for public comments on the proposed rule is Friday, Oct. 19, 2007. The Society of Environmental Journalists and other groups expect to file comments urging Interior to ease restrictions on newsgathering.

The Interior proposal is not a drastic shift in policy - but it would make filming policy more consistent across some of Interior's major component agencies: the National Park Service, the Fish & Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. It is not clear that it would regularize policy across various Park System units, which now vary widely in how they apply the policy.

The proposal would decide several key issues in ways that restrict journalists:

  • Is documentary a form of news? The proposal allows agencies to say "no."
  • Are freelancers representatives of the news media? Agencies can say "no."
  • Are independent producers and production companies news media? Again: "no."
  • Can public radio reporters interview park staff or record wolf calls? The rule allows parks to require a permit, even though the law gives it no authority to do so.
  • Do still photographers with handheld cameras need permits? The rule allows a park service employee to deny permission to photograph if he/she feels the photography is "inappropriate."

While Interior's proposal continues the agency's current policy of exempting "news coverage" from permit requirements, it also allows a very narrow definition of "news." Current policy exempts only "breaking" or "spot" news (such as a wildfire or presidential photo-ops) from permit requirements. One park (Yellowstone) defines news as "an event that cannot be covered at any other time or location." That could exclude coverage of grizzly bear conflicts, snowmobile policy decisions, bioprospecting, budget and maintenance debates, and traffic jams.

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