Iowa Capitol reporters lose access to Senate press bench

(The Center Square) – Iowa Senate leaders have decided press will no longer have seating at the press bench at the front of the Senate chamber floor.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, most state legislatures allowed access to the chamber floors, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures April 2019 state-by-state report on media access and credentialing.

“Media access to the people who make laws is a critical component of representative government,” the Iowa Capitol Press Association said in a statement Friday. “Primarily for this reason, the Iowa Capitol Press Association is extremely disappointed in the Iowa Senate’s decision to move reporters out of the press work stations on the chamber floor and into the upstairs gallery.”

For more than 100 years, reporters have reported on meetings from press work stations on the Iowa House’s and Senate’s chamber floors, which has benefited the press, state lawmakers and the public, the statement said. Real-time access to lawmakers allows reporters and lawmakers to provide clarifications, context and additional information to the public, the statement said.

Iowa press will be stationed in the “crows’ nest” area to view Senate full chamber meetings, Secretary of State official Sam Sampson told The Center Square. The area is not publicly accessible, and there is room for video cameras to be set up, he said. However, Iowa Capitol Press Association President Erin Murphy told The Center Square in an emailed statement Friday that reporters are having to remain in the upstairs public gallery, as they did in the 2021 regular session for social distancing purposes.

“We were fine with that at the time because it made sense, and because most reporters last year covered the session virtually anyway,” Murphy said. “When we returned in the fall for the special session on redistricting, it was obvious the leaders were thinking about making that move permanent, even though the pandemic was no longer a factor.”

The Senate side had created media seating for the special session that included benches with outlets but no further COVID-19 mitigation strategies, which suggested the move was permanent, Murphy said. The association met with Iowa Senate Republican staff Dec. 1 regarding their concerns about seating.

Murphy said they convinced House leadership that reporting from public galleries is not acceptable for journalistic, logistical and safety reasons, but they found out Dec. 28 that the Senate is keeping media upstairs in the public gallery, she said. The association asked Senate leaders to reconsider and did not receive a response, she said.

Iowa Broadcast News Association Executive Director Dar Danielson and Board president Zarren Egesdal said in a statement the Iowa Capitol Press Association presented that their association supports the ICPA’s statement and requests Senate leadership to reconsider the policy.

“[Journalists] have served as the eyes and ears of citizens across Iowa who cannot be in Des Moines when the Legislature is meeting. … Barring journalists from access to the floor of the Senate chamber does not continue Iowa’s long and proud tradition of transparency that is a foundation of our democracy,” Iowa Freedom of Information Council Executive Director Randy Evans said in a statement also sent via the Iowa Capitol Press Association.

Sen. Chris Cournoyer, R-LeClaire, told The Center Square in a phone interview that she hadn’t heard that press would not have access to the Senate floor but that it had been the case during the pandemic.

Iowa Secretary of the Senate Charles Smithson and Office of the Senate Majority Leader Communications Director Caleb Hunter did not respond to The Center Square’s request for additional details.

Iowa House of Representatives Chief Clerk Meghan Nelson told The Center Square in a phone interview that Iowa reporters still have access to the Iowa House floor. They must complete an application form, which is on the legislative website, she said.

Disclosure: Mary Stroka, a The Center Square, recently became a member of the Iowa Capitol Press Association.

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