It is important to realize that you do not need a press "credential" to take pictures or cover events in public places (streets, parks, sidewalks that are not closed off to public access). You do not need government approval to work as a journalist, although it may be beneficial to obtain a “Press ID” or an official government-issued press credential for other reasons. Press credentials related to news coverage are usually issued by law enforcement agencies. Requirements for the issuance of credentials are established by those agencies and vary by department. One agency may not recognize the privileges granted by the credentials from another department. Event specific press credentials are usually provided by the organizers of the event, i.e. major league sports, concerts, festivals, press conferences, corporate meetings.
General Press ID
News organizations generally issue their own ID cards that identify employees and in some cases freelancers as working for that organization. Many photographers have created their own ID’s, using Photoshop and laminating it. Stating "Press" or "Media" on the ID, along with your name, photo, and company name (if you have one) may assist you in identifying yourself but will not necessarily provide any additional privilege or access beyond what is available to the general public. Do not make any false statements on the card (such as the name of an organization or company that you do not represent).
The NPPA also provides its members the opportunity to purchase a Member Photo ID. The NPPA Member Photo ID is for identification purposes only. The ID’s are available to NPPA members only. More information and application requirements are available here.
It is important to note that any press credential or ID will not necessarily entitle you to greater access than the general public. It may, however, help identify you to organizations and subjects who may be requesting such information. A government issued press ID may provide improved access in some situations. It is another form of identification and in some communities may be acceptable to law enforcement agencies for purposes of access beyond police and fire lines (but this is always at the discretion of the officer in charge of the scene). Some courts may allow media with a court-issued ID or other government issued press pass to enter the courthouse without being screened (a big help when you are late for court and have lots of camera bags to run through the x-ray machine). Other courts may require a special ID.
There is no single answer for how to obtain a press ID from a governmental agency. Every municipality that provides press ID’s has its own policies. Agencies providing press ID’s usually have a public information officer (PIO) whose job it is to deal with the media. The PIO may be a good first point of contact for obtaining credential information and applications. In some large cities, the media credential policy may be available online. See list below for some links:
It is also very important to realize that nothing about being a journalist entitles you to free access to private events like sporting events or rock concerts. Organizers to these events often grant credentials to members of the working press in order to make it easier to cover and photograph the event. Such enhanced access is controlled by the event organizers. If you are shooting the event on assignment for a publication, the assigning editor may be required to request the credentials on your behalf.
If you are not shooting the event on assignment for an organization, you may still attempt to obtain credentials through the same channels. While every event is different, most will have a specific public relations or press contact person. If you cannot find a contact on the website, call the main number and ask for the person who handles media inquiries. Then explain the project you are working on and ask if they will provide you with a media credential.
If the event is run by a governmental agency, they may be required to grant equal access to all members of the media. In such cases, it will be your burden to show that you are actually covering the event as a member of the media and not just looking for a free ticket or better access than the general public.
If you do not meet the requirements to obtain a press credential, you may be required to pay an admission fee to enter the event if you wish to attend. Please note that many events prohibit photography or recording of the event/performance and that purchasing a ticket is for admission purposes only, subject to other restrictions. Never assume that that because you have purchased a ticket to an event that you may also photograph or record the event/performance. Also be aware that event press credentials may also contain certain restrictions. It is extremely important to read any agreements before signing them. By accepting press credentials you may be waiving certain rights, including the copyright to your images!
RCFP Article: Police departments restructure press pass policies to adapt to bloggers, freelancers.