Hundreds of journalists cover the White House on a daily basis. It is our job to report on the president of the United States, to shine a light and hold the administration accountable. The questions we ask in the briefing room or in the Oval Office are on behalf of the American people.

Many people have questions about how the White House Press Corps does its job — who gets to come to the briefing room and ask questions, who decides who gets called on, and why there is so much shouting. Below you will find the answers to all these questions and more.

For nearly a century, the story of the American presidency has been written through the eyes of the “press pool,” the small team of writers, photographers and technicians assigned each day to cover the commander-in-chief on behalf of the broader corps of correspondents.

The WHCA’s resident historian, George Condon, notes that poolers have been accompanying presidents on their personal travel since Franklin Roosevelt’s era. Through the uncertainty of World War II, three wire service reporters joined FDR on his train down to Warm Springs, Georgia, where the president received therapy for his paralysis. They were with him when he died there.

Poolers have been traveling with presidents since FDR, on their vacations as well as on official trips.

This system is mutually beneficial, for presidents and the press corps.

The pool’s proximity to the president provides a means for him to quickly summon a representative segment of the press and speak to the entire world whenever he chooses about a matter of national or global significance, such as a North Korean missile launch or a mass shooting.

The written accounts provided by the pool, shared with all members of the press corps, along with the images, footage and audio available to wire service subscribers and the partners of television and radio networks, provide a daily record of the presidency that forever lives in the archives of news organizations. After their daily use, pool notes, photos and footage become permanent fodder for authors, historians and documentarians.

Crafting that daily record is a duty that requires 13 journalists to be on assignment and away from their families on weekends and holidays, to serve on the watch from call time to “lid,” the official notice from aides that the president is not going to be seen in public for the rest of the day.

This duty can involve long shifts and short turnarounds, vast stretches of boredom, physical exertion when having to run with luggage and gear, restrictions on personal privileges such as bathroom breaks and meals, and sitting for hours in passenger vans.

As arduous and taxing as it can be, pool duty is an essential element of the work of White House correspondents because one never knows when the world will need good information about precisely where the president of the United States is and what he is doing at any moment.

Poolers were in the motorcade when JFK was shot during a parade. They were watching when, after a speech to trade unions, an attempt was made on Ronald Reagan’s life. And they helped write the history of 9/11 when George W. Bush was evacuated to two military bases following a visit to an elementary school.

None of those incidents were predicted by reporters or presidential aides in advance — all were covered by poolers who expected just another normal day. The material they produced for posterity was used immediately as proof of the continuity and strength of the American government, and later as evidence in investigations into the threats posed against the president.

For generations, news organizations and presidents of both parties have agreed that not having that material available as needed would be unthinkable.

In a moment of crisis, not having solid, dependable information on the whereabouts or condition of the president would risk national security and global stability by raising doubts about the American command and control structure. It would spark conspiracy theories.

The American public must never come to depend on a president’s aides alone to provide the world with information on his activities, or for images of the man when he is in public. The daily coverage of the president provided by the independent press is a uniquely American tradition, a solemn obligation that news organizations undertake at their own expense.

It is a function that the press performs on the public’s behalf every day of every year, any place on the planet, whenever the president is outside his residence.

It is a tradition that we reporters take most seriously, and it is one that must never be broken.

–Steven Portnoy, WHCA President

By Kelly O’Donnell

Senior White House Correspondent, NBC News

And Vice President, WHCA

There is a clamor at the end of many presidential events of all sorts and subjects.  That burst of energy is the shouted question from the White House press corps seeking answers, comments or reactions from the most powerful leader in the world.  The shouted question is a long used tool to engage the president on behalf of the public.  A president’s words carry weight unlike any other official’s.  While a press secretary or senior official can conduct briefings and provide information, no one can speak with the same force as a president.  Even a simple “yes” or “no” can send signals around the world, move markets and influence American culture.

Presidents themselves play a huge role in how this plays out.  They can hold an event and call on reporters in attendance. They can stop by the James S. Brady Briefing Room, which is always wired and ready to transmit a president’s words to the world.  They can grant an interview.   But when a president chooses not to be accessible to questions, maybe for days or weeks, the shouted question could be the only option for reporters seeking answers on behalf of the public.

Looking back at press clippings from the 1980s, The New York Times ran a piece, “The Presidency; Shouting Questions at Reagan” that observed, “Such chaotic exchanges have become the primary way that Mr. Reagan communicates with the press corps these days.”  Longtime ABC newsman Sam Donaldson burnished his reputation with loud questions that changed expectations for where and when reporters would act.  A smiling President Reagan often cupped his ear, as if to suggest, he could not discern what was being shouted across the South Lawn.

The shouted question can be effective.  It can also appear ill-mannered.  The exercise of press freedom as part of our First Amendment is not always elegant or polite nor is it meant to be.  Experienced reporters do use discretion.  Events that are solemn or extremely formal are not suitable for shouted questions.  Reporters are not particularly fond of hollering.  Important questions often require careful and nuanced wording that does not lend itself to yelling.  That means questions are often reduced to a few key words in an effort to get the president’s attention.

The more presidents make themselves available to respond to urgent matters and news of the day, the less likely shouted question are needed.  Presidents also know that shouted questions are coming.  White House aides can use loud music at the end of an event to drown out reporters’ voices or use staging to keep reporters at a distance.  At times, presidents and their staff use shouted questions to their own advantage to address topics not on the day’s schedule.  They may see political benefit by sparring with reporters and appearing spontaneous.

There is a correlation between the frequency of shouted questions and a lack of access to more formal question opportunities.  Martha Kumar has been studying these interactions for many years and developed expertise.   Using her data comparing the first 20 months of several presidencies, the differences are noteworthy.  President Biden has done 42 interviews, the fewest of among presidents going back to Ronald Reagan.  Barack Obama, by comparison, did 232 in the same time period.  However, President Biden has engaged in many unscheduled exchanges with reporters. Kumar tracked Mr. Biden taking those informal questions 326 times.

Looking at formal press conferences, President Biden has done 17 press conferences.  President Trump did 39.  Presidents Obama and George W. Bush each held 37.   But going back a few decades, the difference is sharper. Bill Clinton held 71 news conferences and the elder George Bush did 61.  Those figures include both solo news conferences and when joined by another world leader during the first 20 months in office.

The White House Historical Association notes that President Carter held regular monthly news conferences and invited reporters to meet with him in the Cabinet Room.

Tensions have always been present between a president and the White House press corps.  Presidents often do not like their coverage.  Being at the center of shouted questions can be unpleasant.  When voices overlap and mix with background noise, it must be difficult to hear what is being asked.  President Biden let his frustration be known at the end of a White House event October 3, 2022 when he made a side comment to an event participant.  When reporters began shouting questions, the president ignored them but said, “Among the only press in the world that does this. Seriously.”  Americans journalists do question leaders vigorously which is directly linked to the freedoms of our system.  But the practice is not uniquely American, journalists in the United Kingdom and Israel are also among those known to pepper leaders to hold them to account.

Shouted questions do elicit answers that inform our fellow citizens.  Presidents respond to those questions because they can communicate directly and quickly to the public they serve.  What a president thinks and says matters here and around the world.  So when you hear those booming voices, the aim is not to make noise but to find more light.

By Todd Gillman

We get asked a lot about how things work for the press at the White House. Here are some answers.

Q. Who gets to ask questions at White House briefings?

A. The White House press secretary chooses which reporters to call on. By tradition, the Associated Press gets the first question. Correspondents from the TV networks and other large news outlets with assigned seats toward the front typically get called on more regularly. But the press secretary is free to call on anyone, including reporters standing in the aisles or who show up only occasionally. The WHCA has long encouraged press secretaries to “move around the room” to make sure journalists from smaller and specialty outlets get a chance to ask questions.

See a seating chart for the White House Briefing Room here.

Q. Does the WHCA decide who gets to attend briefings?

A. No. Any journalist can attend the briefings, even if their outlet doesn’t have an assigned seat. Reporters who regularly cover the White House are issued “hard passes” to enter the complex. Others can get a temporary pass through the White House Press Office.

Q: Who issues hard passes and what do they bestow on a journalist? 

The White House Press Office issues hard passes to journalists who regularly cover the White House. These passes allow access to the White House campus, without having to apply for a temporary pass each day. To get a hard pass, journalists must submit an application to the White House Press Office and undergo a background screening by the Secret Service, which protects the President and is responsible for security at the White House. This process can take several months. The hard pass is not required to cover events or press briefings, but since it allows journalists to enter the complex without permission ahead of time, it’s an important convenience for those who regularly cover the White House. When the Trump White House attempted to revoke a journalist’s hard pass, the WHCA advocated directly with the Administration and in federal court, where a judge ultimately deemed the revocation improper and restored the hard pass.

Q. Who decides where reporters sit?

A. The White House Correspondents’ Association board has been assigning seats since the Reagan administration, when fixed auditorium seats replaced couches and moveable lounge furniture. There are currently 49 seats.

Q. How are seat assignments made?

A. The WHCA board uses a number of criteria. In the most recent update, in December 2021, the WHCA considered an outlet’s long-standing service on the White House beat, and a number of factors intended to ensure that the briefing room “reflects the country it covers,” ideologically, geographically and in other ways. The outlets with the largest reach are at the front of the room, with the Associated Press front row center.

More here on the evolution of press work space from the White House Historical Association.

Q. What about those rude people at briefings? Can the WHCA kick them out or suspend them?

No. That isn’t the role of the WHCA. The organization doesn’t issue credentials or control who can enter the room. That falls to the White House Press Office and the Secret Service, which conducts security screenings. The James Brady Press Briefing Room is a unique space, located in the people’s house, and the WHCA advocates for journalists of all stripes to have access to try to question the President and the press secretary.

The WHCA strongly encourages decorum and respect among colleagues from competing outlets, but does not formally police behavior among peers.

Q. What is the pool and who gets to be in it?

A.  The Oval Office can’t possibly fit every reporter and photographer who’d like to be there when the president invites the press to witness a bill signing or meeting with a foreign leader.  Same with the Roosevelt Room and other venues at the White House complex.

So, the pool system evolved to allow a limited number of people to represent the full press corps. On campus at the White House, that’s typically a group of 20 correspondents from wire services, print outlets, TV and radio, along with photojournalists and sound operators.

The print reporter on duty that day files “pool reports” that get distributed by email to the White House press corps and a much larger list controlled by the White House Press Office. Since the Print pool serves the entire press corps, the WHCA reserves membership for outlets that have demonstrated commitment to the beat and to high quality, fact-driven journalism.

Roughly 32 print outlets serve in this in-town pool, so each gets a turn about once a month. TV and radio outlets have smaller rotations. AP, Bloomberg and Reuters have permanent slots in the pool.

By George Condon

When eleven reporters gathered in the White House Press Room on February 25, 1914, to form the White House Correspondents’ Association, it had been less than 21 years since a president had brazenly lied to the press and the nation about his health. Even though many of the WHCA’s founders were young, they all knew the story of how President Grover Cleveland had covered up his cancer and his private surgery in 1893.

Shortly after his inauguration, Cleveland had noticed a small rough spot on the roof of his mouth. It was diagnosed as cancer. Rather than announce the diagnosis and go to a hospital, the president boarded a friend’s yacht for what he said would be a four-day fishing trip from New York to Cape Cod. In his book The President is a Sick Man, author Matthew Algeo recalled, “It took about 90 minutes. They used ether as the anesthesia, and they removed the tumor along with about five teeth and a large part of the president’s upper left jawbone.”

When a reporter two months later got what Algeo called “one of the greatest scoops in the history of American journalism” and reported on the surgery, the White House and the president attacked him so viciously that it destroyed the reporter’s career.

The WHCA founders knew that history. What they didn’t yet know is that they were covering a president who would try to match or even top Cleveland in covering up presidential disability. And this despite the fact that President Woodrow Wilson’s personal physician, Dr. Cary T. Grayson, was one of their best sources inside the White House about everything other than the president’s health.

Grayson lied to reporters when Wilson came down with the flu during the Flu Pandemic and then again about his incapacity after the president suffered a massive stroke in 1919. It was a hard lesson to learn for White House reporters—access to the president’s personal physician was a good start but not as important as an overall White House commitment to be open and tell the truth. Neither was in evidence four years later when President Warren Harding became the sixth president in 82 years to die in office.

From the start, when Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, his physician Dr. Ross T. McIntire was dedicated to keeping the truth about the president’s health away from the public. “The health of the chief executive… is his own private business,” he once wrote. That was the philosophy that guided McIntire from 1933 to 1945, when Roosevelt became the seventh president to die in office.

The disconnect between McIntire’s rosy reports and the graying pallor of the president drove the correspondents to a desperate step at the WHCA dinner on March 22, 1945.

“Everybody knew he was fading, but how do you write it?”, lamented Walter Trohan of the Chicago Tribune, WHCA president in 1938-39.

With officials in the White House covering up the truth, Trohan plotted a way to get an unbiased opinion. As the reporter in charge of arrangements for the WHCA dinner that year, Trohan put an unannounced guest near FDR. “I put a doctor from Johns Hopkins underneath Roosevelt to look at him and tell me what he could,” Trohan told an interviewer from the Truman Library. The doctor told him what all 800 guests at dinner that night could see—the president was near death.

One week later, FDR left for Warm Springs, Georgia, where he would die within a month. Even as FDR was dying, McIntire continued to deny that the president had severe medical issues.

One man watching this denial was Dwight Eisenhower, who also had been a close observer of the White House cover up of Woodrow Wilson’s stroke more than three decades earlier. It was the impetus for Eisenhower, when he became president, to revolutionize the way the White House talked to correspondents about a president’s health. When Ike suffered a heart attack in 1955, he “thought back to President Wilson… and instructed his press secretary to take the opposite approach,” wrote author Kasey S. Pipes. His instructions to Press Secretary Jim Hagerty were clear: “Tell the truth, the whole truth; don’t try to conceal anything.”

Eisenhower did not always live up to his own advice. But, as only the second president ever to be hospitalized during his presidency (Harry Truman was the first), he charted a path for the 12 presidents to follow, as trips to hospitals became more routine. He had his doctors come out and take questions from White House correspondents. It became known as “the Ike Rule” for handling presidential illnesses.

Ike’s successor, John F. Kennedy, often misled the public about his own ailments in his shortened time in office. But since then presidents have generally followed Eisenhower’s example. White House correspondents over the last six decades have come to expect a president’s physician to take their questions when there is an illness or episode. There have been blips, as in 1986 when first lady Nancy Reagan, still angry about public talk of her husband’s intestines after a procedure the year earlier, barred both aides and doctors from answering questions when President Ronald Reagan went to Bethesda Naval Medical Center to have three polyps removed from his intestine.

But Reagan and the other presidents generally complied with the Ike Rule. Its biggest challenge came in 2020 when President Donald Trump was hospitalized for Covid. The White House misled on the timeline, the testing regime and the severity of his sickness. They did, however, twice bring out his physician Dr. Sean Conley, to take questions, though he refused to answer about Trump’s oxygen levels or when he had last tested negative. It showed that even a president as openly hostile to the press as Trump understood that having his physician face questions was the minimum expected.

It has worked out well for the public’s understanding of the president’s health but full disclosure has not always been easy for presidents.

When he took his annual physical in 1976, President Ford ordered White House physician Rear Adm. William Lukash to release all the findings. He did not expect the doctor to take him quite so literally. In Lukash’s summary, he described Ford’s feces and reported the president had “normal sized testicles.” An embarrassed Ford later joked, “I told Bill to put everything out. And he sure did.”

Watch the WHCA-Reagan Foundation discussion of how the press and presidency have changed from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump. Featuring Lou Cannon, who covered Reagan for the Washington Post; Margaret Talev, White House Correspondent for Bloomberg News and president of the WHCA; Jonathan Karl, White House Correspondent for ABC News and a member of the WHCA board; and John Woolley, presidential historian from UC-Santa Barbara. Live at 9 pm EDT, Thursday May 17.


By Taka Abe, Washington Deputy Bureau Chief, Nippon Television and Mineko Tokito Abe, Washington Reporter, Yomiuri Shimbun

When President Biden met Japanese Prime Minister Kishida in January, the President said the meeting was a remarkable moment for the U.S.-Japan alliance.

It turned out to be a remarkable moment for us as well, as we found ourselves pooling consecutive events at both the Vice President’s residence and later at the White House, in our respective capacities as White House foreign pool.

Steven Thomma, WHCA Executive Director, said that it was possibly the first time he’d seen a married couple tag-team pooling a foreign dignitaries’ visit to Washington DC on the same day. Although we’re not sure if we made history, or if the record stands to be corrected, it’s nice to know our foreign pool reports will be archived together for a future presidential historian to lightly make note of.

What is pool, you ask? It certainly does not mean we go diving into serene waters at the White House, although the Press Briefing Room sits on top of what was once President Roosevelt’s indoor swimming pool. To borrow the words of past WHCA president Steven Portnoy, pool points to the small team of writers, photographers, and technicians covering a specific event on behalf of the broader press corps due to limited access.

There are various pool formats, in-house, in-town, travel, supplemental, POTUS, FLOTUS, VPOTUS, SGOTUS, print, radio, still, TV, and foreign pool at the White House. Foreign pool is inherently unique, in that we have a global perspective, focusing on the words and actions of the foreign dignitary or dignitaries that the US President is interacting with at home or abroad. Comprised of a coterie of select members of foreign media, foreign pool has linguistic and cultural knowhow that can help supplement and broaden the understanding of domestic press.

As Japanese journalists who cover the White House for Nippon Television (Taka) and The Yomiuri Shimbun Japanese Newspaper (Mineko) and as members of the WH Foreign Press Group, we take our responsibility and commitment to participate in foreign pool seriously.

The preparation began weeks before Prime Minister Kishida’s visit. As soon as we had a rough idea of when the visit would happen, we began compiling and refining data that would form the basis of our first foreign pool report; background information that is meant to aid fellow White House press corps colleagues in their understanding of who the Prime Minister is, such as his previous interactions with President Biden and Vice President Harris, his schedule while in Washington DC, agenda items the two leaders are likely to discuss, and what the Prime Minister hopes to achieve during his working breakfast with the Vice President and his bilateral meeting with the President.

Since both of us are native Japanese speakers, we also included English translations of visit-relevant mentions by the Japanese government, such as prior remarks by the Prime Minister or MOFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) statements that illuminated the significance of the Prime Minister’s trip to DC at this juncture.

Of course, we tried to include light-hearted anecdotes in our prepared pool report as well, such as the fact that Prime Minister Kishida is a fan of Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, in its manga form. Alternatively, some things that ended up on the cutting room floor on the day of included Taka’s out of breath schlep to gather on time at the Vice President’s residence after a ride-hailing service took him to the wrong entrance and Mineko’s sudden flashback of being on a jam-packed train in Tokyo rush hour while being slowly crushed by boom-mic wielding elbows and tv cameras inside the Oval Office during the pool spray.

While journalism is far from the epitome of glitz and glamor, we both were grateful to have the opportunity to cover a historic day for our country and for our marriage. We hope our foreign pool reports were helpful to all who covered the visit, and that they met the high standards we strive to uphold ourselves to.

As Gene Policinski, Freedom Forum Senior Fellow for the First Amendment once said in his capacity as COO of the Newseum Institute, “Journalism is known as a ‘first draft of history,’ (these pool reports are) literally the first drafts of such first drafts.'” It was an honor for both of us to be able to contribute to the long line of “first drafts of such first drafts.”