The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is looking to create a searchable database of hundreds of thousands of news sources, journalists, bloggers and “media influencers” for the federal government, a move a DHS spokesman called “standard practice.”
In a job request posted last week to the Federal Business Opportunities website, the main contracting website used by the federal government, DHS wrote that it is seeking a contractor that is able to monitor up to 290,000 global news sources, track media coverage in up to 100 languages and can “track online, print, broadcast, cable, radio, trade and industry publications, local sources, national/international outlets, traditional news sources, and social media.”
The request also seeks the ability to build lists of journalists “based on beat, location, outlet type/size, and journalist role.”
Data to be collected would also include an analysis of each news source’s “sentiment,” as well as geographical spread, top posters, languages, momentum and circulation.
The database of “top media influencers” would include “present contact details and any other information that could be relevant, including publications this influencer writes for, and an overview of the previous coverage published by the media influencer.”
After the job posting sparked an outcry on social media, DHS press secretary Tyler Houlton tweeted Friday that “despite what some reporters may suggest, this is nothing more than the standard practice.”
“Any suggestion otherwise is fit for tin foil hat wearing, black helicopter conspiracy theorists,” he wrote.
The posting comes amid growing concerns about accuracy in media and the potential for foreign powers to influence U.S. elections and policy through so-called fake news. It also comes amid U.S. President Donald Trump’s frequently criticisms of the mainstream media as “fake news.”
Trump was lambasted in the latest report by watchdog organization Freedom House, which said that global media freedom reached its lowest level in 13 years in 2017.
“It is the far-reaching attacks on the news media and their place in a democratic society by Donald Trump, first as a candidate and now as president of the United States, that fuel predictions of further setbacks in the years to come,” the report said.
Despite these concerns, some said there is little to worry about with the DHS tender.
John Kirby, a former State Department spokesman who currently works as a CNN military and diplomatic analyst, told the network Friday that DHS is unlikely to be the only federal agency monitoring the media.
“Given this administration’s denigration of most media outlets, I understand why the timing of this bid might look suspicious,” Kirby said. “But from what I can tell, this is nothing more than an attempt at media analysis.
“It’s not at all different from what I have seen other agencies undertake to better understand the communication landscape. In fact, it would be PR malpractice not to put something like this together.”
Susan Hennessy, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, also attempted to tamp down concerns, calling such a database “normal and common.”
“I really honestly think this kind of media tracking is a normal and common thing that both private companies and federal agencies do, and it doesn’t alarm me. Sincerely,” Hennessy wrote Friday on Twitter.