One out of every five journalists who applied for media credentials from federal, state, local, and private organizations has been denied at least once, according to a new report.

The study presented by the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the Journalist’s Resource project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy “surveys the experience of journalists throughout the country in their efforts to obtain media credentials from different types of credentialing organizations from 2008 to 2013.”

Using data from more than 1,300 responses, the survey highlights the confusion over what journalism is and what it means to be a journalist. Because many journalists have left traditional news organizations for new digital ventures, some organizations have altered or ceased their credentialing practices altogether. The Sheriff’s Department of Orange County, California, for example, decided to stop issuing credentials in December 2012. “With the advancements in digital media and the proliferation of bloggers, podcasters and freelancers, it has become challenging to determine who should receive a press pass,” said the department.

Nation Institute fellow Nick Turse says the issues raised in the study are relevant to his experiences of being repeatedly denied by various entities within the US military. The survey indicates that 10 percent of freelancers seeking credentials from US military branches have been denied compared to 3 percent of employed journalists.

“My requests for ’embeds’ [traveling with the US military to cover armed conflicts] have been thwarted in all sorts of ways, from the military stringing out the process and then claiming they didn’t have enough time to ‘support’ my request, to their insistence that a facility was too secure for a visit by a reporter when I knew full well another reporter had been in the facility just months before,” Turse says.

Certain categories of journalists are more likely than others to be denied: photographers more than non-photographers and those who identified as activists more than those who did not. And freelancers are denied twice as often as paid employees.

Data in the survey indicate that the top three credentialing organizations denying freelancers are fire departments/other emergency services (45 percent), municipal governments (29 percent), and governor’s offices/state executive branches (25 percent). Turse believes “there are a lot of lingering biases against those without a seal of approval from a ‘mainstream’ media outlet” and that “it’s easier for public affairs people and media relations types to say no because freelancers often have little recourse.”

Turse says one key to improving the process for retrieving media credentials relies on solidarity.

“Despite the competitive nature of journalism, I think that journalists could and should show solidarity for the greater good,” Turse says. “There are mainstream journalists who have little difficulty with credentials and tend to write more conventional stories — but they read and rely on the work of others outside of the mainstream who ruffle more feathers and have difficulties securing credentials/embeds. Those journalists with access could put pressure on a public affairs office to open up a press pool further or extend credentials to reporters who have been locked out of reporting opportunities. Not only is it collegial, it would likely benefit mainstream reporters in the long run.”

Media organizations can also help, says Turse.

“Media organizations, including those who helped to put together this report, could work to shine further light on this issue, name and shame offices/agencies that repeatedly deny requests for credentials, and work to get other reporters to cover this story,” he says.