Freelance Writing, The Press Pass and the Art of Getting “In”

The A-B-P of Passing for a Journalist

“So you’re a journalist, eh? Can you prove that?”

Does that question sound familiar to you?
I’ve heard it numerous times since I am a freelance writer for a local newspaper here in Germany. And I have been denied access to places and information that would have been relevant to my reporting, mostly when I was onto a story that was not an assignment. There are several tricks you can try, but none of them are foolproof:

For a “regular” reporter with permanent employment the proof is not a problem. If you earn most of your income through journalism, you qualify for a press pass – the magic key to the world of news (Check out the requirements here).

For a student freelancer like me, things look a little different. You have to develop ways to get “in” without the proper proof.

How to “Pass” for a Journalist without a Pass?

1.”A” is for Accreditation

If you are on an assignment for an employer, ask them to call ahead and put you on the guest list. It can make your life easier. Sometimes you even get an event pass and should be fine. But accreditation is no guarantee!
The other week when I went to report on a Ska festival, I was on the guest list with two people (me and a photographer). When I arrived, security wanted to deny me access because the photographer from the company was already there!

2. “B” is for Business Look

There are different ways to “be” (read: look) like a journalist.


Chose the right attire. In post-Katrina New Orleans "practical" and "protectice" beat "professional"!

Dealing with “civilians”, most often accessories will do the trick.  A big camera and camera bag are helpful. Also a notebook and a pen, ready at hand to write everything down, especially the names of people who deny you access (people like their jobs!).
It’s a plus if any of your accessories carry the company brand. Although anyone could have that, it gives you an additional air of credibility.
None of these will work with “officials”, e.g. the police. They want proof of who you are. Full stop.


Attire, I have experienced, depends on the occasion of your story.
Most of the time it is helpful to avoid looking like a participant. The less you look like you belong there, the more reasonable it is that you are “just a journalist” and don’t care to see the band / show / event except to write about it. Make your dress say “journalist”, even if it supports stereotypes. However, dress sufficiently professional. Extravagant outfits are usually not helpful.

On other occasion, I have found it helpful to look like a participant. However, it reduced me to one side of the story: Reporting on a Neo-Nazi demonstration and counter demonstration in Wiesbaden-Erbenheim, I was easily admitted to the left side of the demonstration wearing my slouchy greenish-brown outdoor  clothes. My outfit was supposed to say “journalist” (including accessories and all). Funny enough I also got all kinds of information such as numbers of participants etc. However, when I wanted to cross over and couldn’t produce a press pass, I was denied access.
As a police man told me: He would have granted me access as a participant (with all rights and duties) of the demonstration on the right, had it not been for my attire.

As the example shows: Looking like a participant is not always desirable, although it might help.

Business card for a journalist who likes to be on the road!

Business Cards:

Yes, anyone can have any business card they like. However, most people won’t go through the trouble to do so just to pretend that they are journalists. Having a business card with your name, address and telephone number adds credibility to your appearance. I have recently ordered my own business cards. What do you think? Professional or Road Runner? 😉

3. “P” is for “Prove it” (with a different Pass)

Since all the options above are very unreliable, I have decided to try a different way or actually just a different kind of pass!

A “Youth Press” pass by the Youth Press Assocoation is easier to obtain than a regular press pass (if you are under 27 that is!). It is made especially for those who are not yet part of the full-time journalistic world. All you need to do is prove your identity and provide a small number of publications of your work. Plus the fees of course. You can find the application here.

I am not sure as to how serious people, especially officials, will take this “light weight” version of a press pass. However, since I prefer not to have to fight my reporting ressources, I am willing to give it a try.

If you have additional hints or tips on how to make reporting easier without a press pass, please feel free to add them in the comments! 🙂

    • H
    • June 21st, 2010

    Really interesting post I must say…

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