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.

Against that backdrop, here are the notable findings:

  • Some categories applied for credentials more frequently than others: 56 percent of employees did so, 53 percent of freelancers, 32 percent of contributors, 41 percent of paid independents, and 22 percent of unpaid independents. The differing rates, according to the study, suggest there’s some self-selection occurring within the categories arising from varying senses of entitlement to a credential. That is to say, it’s plausible traditional journalists (e.g., employees) feel more entitled to a credential than non-traditional journalists (e.g., unpaid independents).
  • Denial was relatively rare for each type of credentialing organization. For most types, less than 10 percent of respondents who applied for a credential said they were denied, and no type had a denial rate of more than 20 percent. That the overall denial rate was 21 percent, as noted earlier, “reflects the fact that denials were not concentrated in the same individual respondents,” according to the study.
  • Employees were denied less often than others. Roughly 14 percent of employees said at least one of their applications was denied, compared with 32 percent of freelancers, 36 percent of contributors, 27 percent of paid independents, and 39 percent of unpaid independents.
  • Freelancers were denied more often than employees by certain types of credentialing organizations, among them the US Congress (20 percent of freelancers denied vs. 4 percent of employees), governor’s offices and state executive branches (25 percent of freelancers denied vs. 2 percent of employees), municipal governments (29 percent of freelancers denied vs. 4 percent of employees), and fire departments and other emergency services (45 percent of freelancers denied vs. zero employees).
  • A regression analysis explored whether demographic factors could predict variation in the likelihood of an applicant being denied a credential, and ultimately the analysis showed that three factors were predictive: an applicant’s status as a freelancer, more than twice as likely as an employee to be denied at least once; self-identification as a photographer, nearly twice as likely as others to be denied at least once; and self-identification as an activist, more than twice as likely as others to be denied at least once.

More than just housekeeping

As the study concludes, the results suggest that credentialing organizations give preference to formal employment relationships over other types of arrangements. That’s problematic because the last 10 years have seen major swings in media-consumption patterns, and innovations in technology have created new means for people to commit acts of journalism—all complicating efforts to define a journalist for credentialing, shield law, FOI fee waiver, and other purposes.

Indeed, as Edson Tandoc and I wrote last year for PBS MediaShift, “From contributors to CNN iReport, to editors at Circa, to reporters at The New York Times, all are capable of committing acts of journalism. Some do it better than others, some have more resources than others, and something is gained when reporting is done by stable organizations with money, logistics, and legal services—but all are capable.”

Focusing on formal employment, Tandoc and I wrote, can deliver “a fatal blow to the people engaging in many new forms of journalism.” And, in the credentialing context, that can mean a significant limitation on public access to information—a troubling possibility, according to the Harvard study, in light of the “apparent trend among institutional newsrooms to turn to freelance journalism to help meet economic challenges.”

Further, the bias against photojournalists and activists is problematic. It’s plausible that photographers encounter special difficulty because, say, credentialing organizations believe visual media pose unique privacy or safety concerns. But, as the study notes, it’s “disturbing to see particular challenges for photographers as a class” in their efforts to obtain and use a credential, because “visual access to events is often the only [or best] way the public can understand the reality of an important situation.”

Similarly, citizen and independent journalistic activity, including that which might be characterized as “activist,” is critical in the current news environment, in which the production and distribution of news is widely dispersed—and the traditional media are reinventing themselves to survive in the digital world. Non-traditional forms of journalistic activity are increasingly vital to public affairs reporting as the economic foundation of newspapers, the chief source of such reporting, continues to erode.

According to the Harvard study:

“Many … who undertake independent journalistic activity … are likely to be motivated by personal concerns over particular issues, whether social, political, environmental, or otherwise. But [that motivation] may raise questions about the objectivity of their reporting … Credentialing organizations might be concerned that these individuals would either report on events in a biased fashion or (less likely) use their access to restricted locations as an opportunity for protest … The practice of denying credentials based upon perceptions of bias can all too easily lead to viewpoint-based decisions made to protect the credentialing organization itself rather than the public.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the survey data did not reveal much of a relationship between “status as a blogger or social media user and the denial of press credentials.” The study said that was “surprising” because of concerns that some credentialing organizations have expressed regarding applications from people who “blog in [their] fuzzy slippers out of [their] bedroom[s].” The study speculated that the “ubiquitous” use of social media has “dulled the sensitivity of credentialing organizations” to an applicant’s status as a blogger. Or, alternatively, concerns about bloggers might really be concerns about the growing number of citizen and independent journalists, who do experience more denials compared with employees. 

At any rate, these are not small or “housekeeping” matters, to borrow a term Erik Ugland and Jennifer Henderson once used to describe credentialing culture. There is “often no recourse from the erroneous denial of a credential,” according to the Harvard study, and when a credential that should be granted is denied, the public’s access to information may be harmed. A journalist is unable to ask a key question at a news conference. A photographer is unable to capture a historic moment. An independent blogger is unable to cover an event the traditional media neglected. And our understanding of the world around us, and the role we can play in it, may suffer. 

Read the full study here.

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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.