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Capitol reporters object to Iowa Senate moving press farther from lawmakers

Reporters in the Iowa Senate are normally allowed to work from desks that line the edge of the room, but this year they must sit a floor above in the gallery.
John Pemble
/
IPR file
Reporters in the Iowa Senate are normally allowed to work from desks that line the edge of the room, but this year they must sit a floor above in the gallery.

When the new legislative session begins on Monday, members of the press will not be allowed to work from the Iowa Senate floor as usual. Instead, Republican leaders have decided that reporters must work from an upstairs gallery.

Journalists who cover the legislature are asking them to reconsider.

Traditionally, media members have covered floor debate and voting from a row of desks lining one wall of the Senate chamber. This year, however, reporters have been told they will be given space in a viewing gallery one floor up.

A spokesperson for the Senate leadership said, with a growing number of online and non-traditional news outlets, it is too difficult to determine which reporters to seat in the chamber and which to leave out.

“As non-traditional media outlets proliferate, it creates an increasingly difficult scenario for the Senate, as a governmental entity, to define the criteria of a media outlet,” said Senate Republican spokesperson Caleb Hunter. “Delegating the ability to define ‘media’ to another entity is ultimately still government action. For that reason media seating will remain in the designated areas in the galleries.”

The Iowa Capitol Press Association said the move breaks with more than a century’s worth of practice and impairs journalists’ access to elected officials.

“Having real-time access to lawmakers allows reporters to provide important clarification, context and additional information to the public,” the group said in a statement. “Putting reporters in the upstairs galleries puts up new barriers to this process, and makes it more difficult for reporters to serve as the eyes and ears of the public.”

In contrast with the Senate, the Iowa House is allowing media members to work from the press benches. Reporters were asked to submit applications with the House Clerk to request a seat in the chamber. The policy requires that reporters work full-time for an organization that does original, nonpartisan reporting.

The addition of online news outlets has also raised questions within the ICPA about who should qualify for membership with the group, according to association president Erin Murphy.

“I get that that is a challenging discussion, but it’s not impossible,” said Murphy, who covers the Statehouse as the Des Moines bureau chief for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “You can make decisions and find ways to have media in the building at their normal spots doing their jobs without just saying, ‘Well it’s too tough to figure out so we’re just going to throw everybody upstairs.’”

Hunter claimed that, despite the seating change, the 2022 session “will be the most transparent in the history of the state.”

“All subcommittees will be available online and in person, so Iowans from across the state can have input into the legislative process in the Senate,” Hunter said. “All committees and floor action will also available online.”

The Iowa Freedom of Information Coalition and Iowa Broadcast News Association issued statements asking Senate leaders to reconsider their decision to relocate media members.

Some Iowa Public Radio reporters are members of the Iowa Capitol Press Association.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa