A government proposal to build a media database was cancelled last year amid backlash. Was the alarm justified?
By Rebecca Heilweil
In April of 2018, an online database of government requests for proposals called FedBizOpps posted a solicitation from the Department of Homeland Security. DHS was looking for a media analytics company that could monitor 290,000 news sources in more than 100 languages, and provide a database of “top media influencers,” a category that included journalists, editors, bloggers, and prominent voices on social media. The winning service would be used to “identify any and all media coverage” related to DHS or events of interest.
The idea that a national security agency sought to monitor and access a database of journalists spurred concern among reporters, such as Forbes’ Michelle Kaminsky, and press freedom advocates. DHS defended itself with the argument that the government, as well as private companies, use similar services all the time. The Department tweeted that the practice was standard, and “[a]ny suggestion otherwise is fit for tin foil hat wearing, black helicopter conspiracy theorists.” (DHS did not respond to multiple requests for comment about this statement of work).
But DHS’ testy response did not satisfy its critics. Sophisticated media monitoring services go well beyond Google alerts, and involve the deep and quantitative mining of all types of content — services strong enough to inspire questions as to whether, and how, they should be used by the government.
At its core, media monitoring and evaluation is the mining, sourcing, and identification of content — usually print, online, and broadcast media — for subjects relevant to a given institution. For instance, a brand might want to know how frequently it’s mentioned compared to a competitor. Measurements of a company’s presence in the media before and after launching a PR campaign could indicate the effectiveness of a new communications strategy. Often, these results are displayed in a Chartbeats-like dashboard.
“Any PR or communications professional worth their salt should be doing a monitoring and evaluation program. Otherwise, it’s like driving a car with a blindfold on,” explains Richard Bagnall, the Americas CEO of the media analytics company Carma, and the chairman of the International Association for Measurement and Analysis Of Communication. “It’s all about tying appropriate metrics against an organization’s objectives.”
Media monitoring tools have their roots in early newspaper clipping services. These services were hired to read through publications and manually “clip” articles that mentioned their clients, often famous individuals or large companies. It was the pre-Internet equivalent of Googling oneself, explains Johan Jarlbrink, a professor at Sweden’s Umeå University who has studied media monitoring. The digitization of content makes it easier to automate the process. Monitoring services have merged with evaluation services, incorporating analysis and recommendations as to how companies can improve their public image. Today, social media provides yet another trove of content for these companies to monitor and evaluate on behalf of their clients.
The volume of data analyzed is massive. Cision Communications Cloud, a media analytics service sold by Cision, for instance, says its service reads through more than 2 million news stories every day. Accessing this content is expensive, and often requires navigating complicated licensing requirements in markets around the world. For enhanced mining, these companies can use artificial intelligence to help clients get a sense of whether coverage has been positive or negative. Bagnall cautions that AI, while helpful for reading through large loads of content, still struggles to understand double negatives, context, subtlety, and sarcasm, and thus remains reliant on the human element. Indeed, Bagnall and Jarlbrink both note that one of the most valuable services these companies can provide is human-insight into the data they collect.
“[Media monitoring] is a way to locate who is talking about you and what they are saying, so you can narrow down the potential influencers or journalists to contact,” Jarlbrink explains. “When you send new information out, you can target these specific Youtubers, journalists, or tweeters.”
For instance, PublicRelay, a Virginia-based media analytics firm, says on its website that “measuring authors and outlets” helped identify “a certain Associated Press author who rote about the pharmaceutical industry much more than the team realized.” PublicRelay says that information successfully guided their client to change its strategy with the AP, increasing its “positive coverage.”
Jarlbrink notes that the media database DHS sought access to appears standard for the industry. Similarly, the New Jersey-based firm Burrelles offers a media outreach service that includes “an immense database of 860,000+ print, online, and broadcast journalists, influencers, bloggers and analysts.” Cision Communications Cloud advertises a database of 1.6 million “media contacts” and 300,000 “digital influencers.”
Like brands, federal agencies have found value in these services. Bulletin Intelligence, a executives-focused media analytics firm owned by Cision, has made more than $45 million through federal government contracts, and on its website advertises that its “clients include the White House, two-thirds of the Cabinet-level departments and agencies, and federal and state agencies across the country.” Other media analytics companies the federal government has worked with include Exovera, Meltwater, Critical Mention, and the broadcast-television focused firm TVEyes.
Branches of DHS say they use these services to help measure the impact of their messaging. The federal emergency management agency, for instance, has utilized these services. When asked about its use of media monitoring, the agency told News-to-Table that “[w]orking with the media, both traditional and social, helps us determine the best ways to get these life-saving messages to the public.” The public affairs office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ told News-to-Table that such media analytics and briefing services improve its staff’s “situational awareness” and help the agency’s “effectiveness when communicating laws, regulations, policies, processes” to its employees and immigration petitioners. Bagnall points to the United Kingdom, where communications services analyze the government’s communications strategy, such as its efforts to recruit more prison officers.
In an era where the president calls the media “the enemy of the people,” many found it alarming that a federal agency spokesperson would call journalists concerned with press freedoms “tin-foil hat” conspiracy theorists. Those worriers included the USA Today editorial board, which then characterized the proposal as “media monitoring on steroids — and in Bengali, Sunda, Sindhi, Tagalog and Zulu.” Lawyers at both the ACLU and the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed Freedom-of-Information Act requests to learn how the proposal for a journalist database had come to be. Representative Bennie Thompson, then the ranking member on the Committee of Homeland Security, wrote to the agency demanding more information, including the extent of all DHS’ existing media monitoring contracts. They never heard back, a spokesperson for the committee confirmed to News-to-Table.
“[W]hile it is certainly true that the public and private sector routinely use large media relations databases to track coverage and identify press opportunities, if used for other purposes or integrated into law enforcement or intelligence databases, this may be in the realm of Orwell,” noted Jenn Topper, the communications director at the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press. She pointed out the statement of work had not been from DHS’s press office, but from the National Protection and Programs Directorate, a DHS cybersecurity effort which later in 2018 was re-established in the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
Responding to the criticism, DHS spokesman Tyler Q. Houlton wrote in a short op-ed for USA Today that the department’s proposal was “unequivocally standard” for “most every Fortune 500 business, government agency and newsroom,” and said that the requested journalist database was “basically a digital Rolodex of reporters” that policy makers could use to contact them. According to emails procured by EPIC, Houlton called USA Today “the coloring book of newspapers” and said that it couldn’t handle more “in-depth operational arguments”).
So where was the disconnect? Were press advocates correct to find the proposal frightening, or was DHS right in saying such services were routinely used for benign purposes only, and thus nothing to fear?
Neither Jarlbrink nor Bagnall had heard about the DHS case before being contacted for this story. Both saw DHS’ proposed statement-of-work as somewhat typical for an automation-only (non-human evaluation) service.
Bagnall wrote in an email that he didn’t find these services “sinister at all,” emphasizing that it’s normal for government departments to use media monitoring and evaluation services to measure the efficacy of their communications (and on rare occasions, to identify extremism or risks of terrorism). A year after the statement of work first stoked concerns, a search on FedBizOpps shows that agencies still solicit these sorts of services.
But lawyers at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) were eventually able to shut down DHS’ plan. They filed a complaint against the department for failing to file a privacy impact assessment, citing the E-Government Act of 2002, which mandates that DHS conduct an evaluation of a proposal’s impact on privacy before “developing or procuring IT systems or projects that collect, maintain or disseminate information in identifiable form from or about members of the public.”
For the EPIC, it wasn’t the media monitoring services per se that were unacceptable, but rather how they could be used by the Department of Homeland Security. “This is a media monitoring program in the possession of a federal agency with an enormous amount of law enforcement power,” EPIC attorney John Davisson, told News-to-Table. “You could imagine all sorts of abuses that could flow from having a database or tens of thousands of journalists.”
A year after the statement of work was published, DHS agreed that it would suspend its plans. Should it again seek a media monitoring service, the department has promised to complete the “the proper privacy compliance documentation.” But there’s no indication DHS has such plans. So for now, this press freedoms scandal — or DHS public relations kerfuffle, depending on your view — mostly lives on a sparse Wikipedia page, a reminder that if data exists, the government will inevitably want it, sooner or later.
Rebecca Heilweil is a journalist and researcher based in New York. She has written for Wired, Slate, and the Wall Street Journal. Find her on Twitter @rebeccaheilweil
Production DetailsV. 1.0.1
Last edited: November 4, 2019
Author: Rebecca Heilweil
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Artwork: DHS / News-to-Table