John Farley, a reporter with WNET/Thirteen’s MetroFocus, was standing on the sidewalk interviewing two women who had been pepper sprayed during the Occupy Wall Street protest when it happened to him.

For Natasha Lennard, a freelancer for The New York Times’s City Blog, it happened as she live-tweeted events while walking alongside the crowd of protestors “taking” the Brooklyn Bridge.

And for Alternet freelancer Kristen Gwynne, who was among the bridge crowd, it happened while she was talking with protest participants.

Swept up by the NYPD along with Occupy Wall Street protesters, these journalists were kettled, cuffed, and bussed to a police station on where they were charged with disorderly conduct. Farley spent eight hours in jail on September 24; Lennard—who had Times editors working to free her—was in custody for five hours, and Gwynne for twice that long, on October 1.

It seems journalists themselves aren’t the only ones struggling to determine who, exactly, is a journalist. The three reporters are among the hundreds of individuals who have been arrested at the Occupy Wall Street protests in recent weeks. Each was there to cover the event, yet all three were treated in a manner that police tend to avoid with working journalists.

Why did this happen? Part of the answer is simply a byproduct of the everyone’s-a-journalist rhetoric that defines our media these days.

The more proximate answer, though, has to do with how the NYPD has decided to determine who is a journalist. Simply put, without a press credential issued by the NYPD’s Office of the Deputy Commissioner for Public Information (DCPI), you are not a journalist in the eyes of the police.

The press credential permits journalists to cross police and fire lines, although it doesn’t guarantee that the pass-holder can cross those lines—it’s ultimately up to the officers at the scene, but with a pass you have the best chance to do so. To get this credential, you must submit an application and six published clips that prove you have covered breaking or spot news in the past. Peter Bekker, the consulting director of the New York Press Club, says the credential is essentially worthless since it doesn’t guarantee reporters access to anything.

The cases of Farley, Lennard, and Gwynne seem to indicate otherwise.

When Farley was arrested on September 24, he showed the officer his WNET identification. He and his colleague, Sam Lewis, had been using this identification effectively to move about the protest grounds throughout the afternoon. Lewis, who was not caught behind the police net, was with a pack of credentialed journalists, all of whom told the officers that Farley was covering the protest and should be let go. Lewis also called DCPI to see if they could get Farley released. In each instance, Farley and Lewis say they were told by officers that, “We know he’s a journalist, but he doesn’t have a credential. There’s nothing we can do.”

Lennard, who was arrested last Saturday, tells a similar story:

I was on the bridge trapped without a press pass. I only had my New York Times identification and they were just doing a broad sweep. They weren’t particularly interested in the fact that I was with the media; they wanted to sweep the bridge.

When she made it clear to her arresting officer she was with the press and that her editor had already called the NYPD to get her free, the officer told her it would be sorted out when she got to the precinct. While Lennard’s processing was expedited once she was at the precinct, she still was charged with disorderly conduct for her presence on the bridge.

Gwynne, too, raised the issue with an officer on the scene who she says told her, if she was media, she should have been separate from the protesters, standing with other journalists who were in a group on the side of the bridge. Unlike Farley and Lennard, Gwynne says she was there to support the protesters as well as cover them, and felt it was fair that she faced the same consequences; she says she wanted to witness what happened to the protesters after arrest.

Chris Dunn, an attorney with New York Civil Liberties Union, says this pattern that is emerging at the protests, of making the NYPD-issued credential the only way to differentiate reporters from protesters, is problematic:

I’m aware there are circumstances in which the police will release from an arrest situation people that identify as reporters. Where the rub comes is when they are using the DCPI credential as the sole acceptable proof that you’re a reporter. The DCPI credential is hardly the only evidence that someone is a bona fide reporter.

Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.