The ambiguous problem of the DHS media database

Using spun and biased reporting, the media can portray something as a problem without directly addressing what qualifies it as such. That’s what The Knife found when the media reported this week on the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) bid for a contractor to compile a database of media “influencers” from around the world. The project may indeed be problematic or have negative effects, but none of the articles in this analysis provided data to substantiate it.

The media’s distortion

Bloomberg Law broke the story, and its reporting was the most objective of the four sources The Knife analyzed, receiving an integrity rating of 84 percent. Compare its headline to CNN’s, which was the lowest scoring outlet with 40 percent integrity.

Homeland Security to Compile Database of Journalists, Bloggers (Bloomberg Law)
DHS: Fears over journalist database ‘fit for tin foil hat wearing ... conspiracy theorists’ (CNN)

CNN’s headline prioritized distortion over facts. It focused on “fears” some people may have had over the news, and the DHS quote, which is dramatic and based on opinion. In this case, both are examples of spin (marked above), which is sensational or subjective language that often promotes a specific slant.

Slant is when one perspective is favored over others, often at the expense of providing data and alternative viewpoints. In these articles, the main slant was that the DHS’ plan is a problem in that it threatens free speech and freedom of the press. Here’s an example from HuffPost, which earned a 63 percent integrity rating.

With President Donald Trump’s aggressive rhetoric against the mainstream news ― he once labeled journalists as the “enemy of the people” ― many in the media industry saw the database as yet another attack on the free press.

The implication here and in other news articles is that the list will be used to regulate or target journalists in some way. This is certainly possible, and if there’s evidence of this, it would be important to report. But this isn’t necessarily the government’s intent. The problem with the coverage is it implies bad intent without giving data to substantiate this implication. Doing so may incite more fear among journalists in the general public.

To their credit, the outlets did include some balancing perspectives, such as pointing out that these databases already exist in other government agencies and in private PR companies. This could suggest that the DHS plan isn’t out of the ordinary and may not be problematic. Here are three examples The Knife found and what each company says about its database.

  • Agility PR Solutions: “Save time connecting with your brand's most relevant influencers with an easy-to-use journalist database.”
  • Cision: “Build targeted media lists with Cision's top-tier publication and influencer media database.”
  • Trendkite: “Uncover new journalists and press contacts that weren’t previously on your radar with Pinpoint Contacts’ personalized media contact discovery engine. Discover the most powerful people writing about your competitors, industry, and relevant key trends.”

Media outlets also mentioned DHS’ stated reasons for the database, which include supporting the agency’s capacity to identify and address “fake news” and foreign influence in U.S. elections.

The missing data

Given none of the outlets in this analysis broke down how the future database might be used in an “attack on the free press,” The Knife’s research team compiled some data and perspectives that may help fill in the blanks.

Is it lawful for the DHS to have such a list?

Although not exhaustive, The Knife’s research didn’t uncover legislation that would prohibit the collection of such data, or any media reports that state DHS would be violating laws by having the database. However, if a federal database of individuals exists, it must be protected under the Privacy Act of 1974, which states:

The Privacy Act prohibits the disclosure of a record about an individual from a system of records absent the written consent of the individual, unless the disclosure is pursuant to one of twelve statutory exceptions. The Act also provides individuals with a means by which to seek access to and amendment of their records, and sets forth various agency record-keeping requirements.

So, there doesn’t seem to be an expressed legal conflict for the DHS database. The agency is also subject to additional regulations as to how it handles and protects data it acquires. This is from the DHS’ Statement of Work (SOW) for the media monitoring services it has planned, which the agency plans to outsource to a private company.

Information furnished by the contractor under this contract may be subject to disclosure under the freedom of information act (FOIA). Therefore, all items that are confidential to business, or contain trade secrets, proprietary, or personally-identifiable information must be clearly marked. Any information made available to the contractor by the government must be used only for the purpose of carrying out the requirements of this contract and must not be divulged or made known in any manner to any person except as may be necessary in the performance of the Contract.

These points may counter the notion that the DHS would use the information it collected indiscriminately or without regulation.

Where might some of the current concerns be rooted?

Although The Knife wasn’t able to ascertain the precise concerns regarding possible “attacks” to press freedom, it did find examples of actions or alleged actions the FBI has taken in regard to journalists. Here’s a sample.

  • The Intercept reported that the FBI had “special rules” it used to spy on journalists to access confidential sources. The outlet added: “Media advocates said the documents show that the FBI imposes few constraints on itself when it bypasses the requirement to go to court and obtain subpoenas or search warrants before accessing journalists’ information.”
  • According to the ACLU, after 9/11, the FBI “obtained records from 21 telephone lines used by over 100 Associated Press journalists, including the AP’s main number in the U.S. House of Representatives’ press gallery. And an FBI search warrant affidavit claimed Fox News reporter James Rosen aided, abetted, or co-conspired in criminal activity because of his news gathering activities, in an apparent attempt to circumvent legal restrictions designed to protect journalists.”
  • In 2015, AP sued the FBI for FOIA info on an alleged sting operation in which the FBI created a fake story and posed as AP journalists.
  • During the Cold War, the FBI had a domestic intelligence and counterintelligence program called COINTELPRO. The ACLU alleges that the FBI used the information it collected from COINTELPRO investigations “not for law enforcement purposes, but to ‘break up marriages, disrupt meetings, ostracize persons from their professions and provoke target groups into rivalries that might result in deaths.” In the same report, the ACLU also documented other ways in which the FBI gathered the private information of citizens via the Patriot Act.

While these examples may not directly relate to the concerns voiced over the DHS’ planned database, they create a framework from which to evaluate potential problems. Again, there may be legitimate issues with the DHS initiative. The media could present data that substantiates the concerns, rather than present concerns and opinions in a type of information vacuum.


Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media