Members of the Utah Legislature and the journalists who cover them serve the same people. Neither of them should do anything that gets in the way of the other doing its job.
That has become more challenging for both sides, and it’s time for the Capitol press corps to formalize its relationship with the Legislature in a manner similar to national correspondent associations that cover the White House and Congress. Such a group would represent the breadth of journalists covering the Capitol and would include senior staffers of legislative leadership.
Elsewhere, these groups facilitate conversations, negotiate rules and help credential reporters. More critically, they preserve transparency while upholding a professional code of conduct.
During the rapid and often confusing hurly-burly of an annual 45-day legislative session, it can be difficult for journalists, much less the public, to get a grasp on just what lawmakers are doing. Unlike in Congress, where the process of any bill can grind on for weeks or months, the Utah Legislature often greets a new idea, gives it hurried consideration and votes it up or down within a few days, or hours, before moving on. The way things are structured, they don’t have much choice.
That means the indefatigable but small corps of journalists who cover the Legislature must take advantage of every opportunity to learn not only what is about to be written into our laws, but why. What’s the point? Any downside? Where did this idea come from? Who benefits? Who pays?
Reporters can’t count on brief committee hearings or fiscal notes to learn all that, certainly not quickly enough to inform the public about the details of the legislative process in time for Utahns to contact their legislators and share their opinions, pro or con.
That’s why a proposed new rule being considered by the Utah Senate and now also the House worries members of the Capitol press corps, and should worry all who have an interest in what the Legislature is doing. Which means everyone in Utah.
Lawmakers and journalists need to work this out for the benefit of the public they both serve.
The proposal in the Senate, SR1, would make it much more difficult for working journalists to approach members of the Senate and ask questions about their proposals and votes. Instead of the long-standing practice of allowing journalists onto the Senate floor immediately after what’s called “floor time” — the part of each day when senators debate and vote on legislation — the proposed rule would require credentialed journalists to seek permission from Senate staff to visit with a particular senator to ask a few questions and then leave.
Given that it can be difficult to locate any particular member of the Senate, rushing as they are between the floor, committee hearings and offices, this access has been crucial to journalists in their efforts to give their audience a full picture of what’s happening. Removing it can only serve to help senators avoid public scrutiny.
The Senate has a duty to maintain decorum and efficiency during its debates and votes. Nobody, least of all the press, should be allowed to do anything that disrupts Senate proceedings. But denying reporters one of the few opportunities they have to put a few direct questions to the people who are making such important decisions, in very short amounts of time, does not serve lawmakers or the public.
If there are concerns about members of the press corps disrupting the people’s business, then leaders and representatives of the Fourth Estate should discuss the matter and work out a solution.
In the U.S. Constitution, the working press stands in for the public in questioning and explaining how elected officials use their power. By making it more difficult for journalists to do their job, lawmakers would only make it more difficult for the voters to do theirs.