Last year, a former student asked me how her news outlet, an online startup that relies on freelancers to cover criminal justice issues, could obtain a press credential from a local police department. Last month, a former student asked me how his news outlet, a nonprofit that employs multimedia journalists to cover regional politics, could obtain a press credential from a state legislature. And this week, a former student asked me how her news outlet, the organ for a university’s investigative reporting center, could obtain a press credential from a city council.

I have these talks often with clients and former students, and the reason is simple: Nationwide, credentialing practices are incoherent. Journalists sometimes need greater access to news sources than the First Amendment provides, and credentials are supposed to fill that gap—to allow certain people to engage in newsgathering where the general public can’t. But the disjointed way in which credentials are issued, by government officials or journalists acting in their stead, can create actual or apparent barriers to entry for news outlets, and—insofar as the incoherence causes delays or denials of access—it can deprive a journalist or photographer of the chance to witness and document a major event.

That’s what I’ve been telling clients and former students, at least, based on my own experience and impressions—and my research on the legal privileges of being a journalist. But now I can cite a Harvard study to support at least some of those observations: “Who Gets a Press Pass? Media Credentialing Practices in the United States,” released today by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

The first of its kind to perform a quantitative analysis of credentialing in the US, the study captures the experience of journalists nationwide in their efforts, from 2008 to 2013, to obtain credentials from various organizations. It also highlights the need to reform credentialing systems so they reflect the reality of the current news ecosystem—and protect the ability of all journalists to bring news to the public.

Approximating the field

Credentialing criteria vary widely by organization, and rather than focus on the criteria themselves, the study used a survey to ask journalists about their experiences in the field. The overarching goal, according to the study, was to identify patterns in credentialing practices that would lead to “better structure and predictability in the credentialing process,” recognizing that the US journalism industry is “more diverse than ever before, with a wide array of independent newsgatherers complementing the work of institutional news organizations.”

Conducted online in fall 2013, the survey received 1,339 responses from a diverse group of people who engage in journalistic activities. Their geographic distribution is consistent with existing data on employed journalists per state, and their mean years of experience and age correspond with those of the industry. The respondents said they publish in different ways and through multiple channels, with more than 54 percent saying some of their work is published outside of traditional employment or freelance arrangements. The majority said they’re paid solely as employees or freelancers, or both, but a significant minority said they’re not compensated for at least some of their work.

In other words, as the study notes, there’s reason to believe the respondent group approximates the field of working journalists.

Denied: One out of every five

The survey asked the respondents about their efforts to obtain credentials from 17 types of federal, state, local, and private organizations, including state legislatures, municipal governments, and county law enforcement agencies. Out of the 676 respondents who said they had applied for a credential from one or more organizations, a full 21 percent—one out of every five—said they were denied at least once.

To make sense of that figure, among others, the study used mode of publication and form of income to sort the respondents into categories. First, they were sorted into two groups based on mode of publication: Group A, which included respondents who said some of their work is published by third parties; and Group B, which included respondents who said none of their work is published by third parties. Then, those groups were subdivided into five categories based on form of income:

Employees, which included respondents in Group A who said they’re compensated for their work as employees of a media organization; freelancers, which included respondents in Group A who said they’re compensated for their work as independent contractors; contributors, which included respondents in Group A who fell into neither the employee nor freelancer category; paid independents, which included respondents in Group B who said they receive some form of compensation for their work; and unpaid independents, which included respondents in Group B who said they receive no compensation for their work.

Jonathan Peters is CJR's press freedom correspondent. An attorney, he is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, where he teaches and researches media law and policy, with an affiliate research position exploring big data and Internet governance in the KU Information & Telecommunication Technology Center. Peters has blogged on free expression for the Harvard Law & Policy Review, and he has written on legal issues for The Atlantic, Slate, The Nation, Wired, and PBS. Follow him on Twitter @jonathanwpeters.