It was an impressive display of investigative journalism: An in-depth look at Amazon’s marketing of a controversial face-recognition software product to US law enforcement. It involved multiple record searches in multiple jurisdictions, along with the collection of other evidence about the campaign and its impact. But this journalistic tour-de-force didn’t come from a large media organization like The New York Times or the Washington Post—it came from the American Civil Liberties Union.
In many ways, the story was a perfect fit for the kinds of skills that an agency like the ACLU has: Matt Cagle, a lawyer who works for the ACLU’s Northern California office, noticed online marketing materials Amazon had put up for its facial-recognition software, which listed several law-enforcement organizations as users of the product. So Cagle and his team started doing a records search, got two other ACLU bureaus involved, and then the national editorial team pulled the project together.
In all, Cagle says, the project involved more than two dozen lawyer/advocates, as well as legal advisers at the national level, editors and the ACLU’s marketing/communications team, and it took several months to come to fruition—the kind of resources many media companies would find it hard to marshall for a single story.
As the media landscape continues to fragment and many existing outlets struggle financially, non-governmental organizations and advocacy groups like the ACLU and Human Rights Watch are increasingly taking on the role of journalistic or media entities, breaking stories and in some cases even helping to change policy. But is that a good thing?
“We can definitely bring some skills to bear on this kind of story, but that’s by no means a substitute for the amazing work that journalists do around the country right now, especially in this political climate,” says Cagle. “But I think if we can help supplement that work and also do our part to educate the public and advocate for civil liberties, then we are doing something good.”
On the plus side, there’s no question that work like that done by Human Rights Watch, Greenpeace and Amnesty International around issues like immigration, the environment and totalitarianism can help to fill gaps that exist in traditional media coverage—especially in foreign countries, where few media companies have the financial resources to invest in on-the-ground reporting.
At the same time, however, these groups are not fundamentally journalistic in nature. Although they may look and behave like modern media organizations, they are advocacy groups by definition, and therefore they have an agenda. That agenda may coincide with the news, and they may use journalistic techniques to advance it, but in most cases the goal of this work is advocacy, not information per se.
“Can some of the losses in international journalism be offset by advocacy groups, to the extent that they can provide coverage from areas not getting attention? Clearly the answer is yes,” said Matthew Powers, a professor of communications at the University of Washington and author of NGOs as Newsmakers: The Changing Landscape of International News. “But at same time it’s also easy to imagine a world where this causes problems, where journalism could become a platform for advocacy purposes.”
The line between advocacy groups and media organizations has been blurring for some time. As the Internet enabled the democratization of information production and distribution, and social platforms have given everyone the ability to reach an audience, smart NGOs realized they could use these tools to spread their own message, instead of having to use the traditional media.
Journalism professor Dan Gillmor wrote a decade ago about the work that the ACLU was doing around Guantanamo Bay, and the reporting Human Rights Watch did related to issues such as the civil rights of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. A number of academics were also writing at the time about the increasing overlap between NGOs and journalism, and the benefits and disadvantages.
“As traditional journalism companies are firing reporters and editors right and left, the almost-journalist organizations have both the deep pockets and staffing to fill in some of the gap,” Gillmor wrote, “if they can find a way to apply those old and new journalistic practices to their media.”
Powers says most NGOs didn’t get into the journalism business because they were interested in doing journalism or becoming media entities. They did it in order to improve their standing with governments.
“They started doing it primarily so they could look more legitimate to policy makers,” said Powers. “They weren’t taken seriously because they were seen as just a bunch of activists, so they went to war with the Reagan administration and started doing long reports filled with facts on the issues in Nicaragua and so on, and that made them very well positioned to take advantage of what’s happening now.”
Most well-established advocacy organizations still work with media partners to get their message out, as the ACLU did with its Rekognition story: The group reached out to several writers at prominent outlets such as The New York Times and gave them an embargoed version of the research, and then stories were published by them and the ACLU simultaneously. But many groups have also become standalone media outlets in their own right, with websites and social-media accounts that are widely followed.
The ACLU, for example, has a newsroom with editors and reporters who produce between 14 and 20 stories a week in much the same way any traditional media organization does. The group’s editorial director, Terry Tang—who worked as a senior editor at The New York Times for two decades before joining the agency last year—said she is hiring journalists and looking to expand the work the ACLU newsroom does into new areas, including a podcast and more video production.
“We have the legal expertise and policy expertise for a lot of these kinds of stories—people who have been plowing these fields for a long time and really know those issues,” Tang said. “So when something happens it’s not like they’re just reporting the news, they already understand the issues and so they are able to produce analysis as well. It’s not terribly different than having a very seasoned beat reporter.”
Others have also been expanding in similar ways: Greenpeace, which has been media savvy for most of its life when it comes to getting coverage of its activities, launched an ambitious effort to do its own reporting in 2015, hiring experienced editors and reporters from The New York Times and the BBC to add to its existing in-house editorial operation called Energy Desk.
As it becomes more of a media entity, interested in reaching an audience and having an impact, ACLU’s ** says the organization is thinking about how to balance the need for longer-term research and coverage with the need to be on top of the news with something relevant to say, so that it will get picked up by social platforms. In other words, exactly the same kinds of considerations that traditional media orgs have.
Does the desire to promote a specific viewpoint on an issue or news story ever get in the way of producing this kind of journalistic content? Tang says it doesn’t, and that the editorial group makes a point of sticking to a very traditional journalistic, fact-based approach. In the end, she says, it’s a matter of trust—if the organization were to bend the rules, eventually people would stop trusting what it was saying.
“I came to work at Human Rights Watch because I was interested in figuring out what it looked like to have a different financial model and a different trust model for achieving the good that accountability journalism achieves,” says communications director Nic Dawes, former editor-in-chief of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian. “The whole model relies on the idea that our information is trustworthy, so we put a huge premium on accuracy. I would say in many ways it exceeds what’s done in most journalism organizations.”
Some advocacy groups have crossed this line, whether deliberately or accidentally. One example, Powers says, was when Greenpeace did a report on climate change and used journalists who disguised themselves and pretended to be academics working for the energy industry. While the organization argued that the outcome was worth it, the group did face some criticism that the tactic amounted to entrapment.
“In fairness to Greenpeace, their argument was they couldn’t have gotten the story any other way and that it was important to do it,” Powers says. “But there’s a definite risk that the advocacy element will outweigh the journalistic aspect. I think in the long run that could actually work to their detriment when it comes to trust.”
At the far end of this spectrum there are advocacy groups who have no compunction about crossing whatever lines they need to in order to make an ideological point. A group called Project Veritas makes itself out to be a journalistic organization whose goal is to expose wrongdoing, but its methods involve secret cameras and faked identities, and its reports on groups such as Planned Parenthood or “stings” aimed at media organizations like CNN are widely seen as inaccurate and sensationalized.
Other examples are less controversial, but still raise questions.In 2007, for example, an intergovernmental body known as UNAIDS acknowledged that the organization had systematically overstated the spread of AIDS. Critics said the organization misstated the numbers in an attempt to create a sense of urgency around the issue to help with fundraising. And in 2015, a number of NGOs and advocacy groups reported that as many as 75 percent of the women in Liberia had been raped during the civil war in that country, but independent surveys put the number closer to between 10 percent and 20 percent.
This kind of behavior can come into play not because NGOs are trying to deliberately mislead people, Powers says, but because they need to raise awareness of an issue for practical reasons—because it shows that they are doing their jobs, and that the organization is necessary, and that in turn helps with fundraising. If the problem of civil rights or AIDS or sex trafficking isn’t a big one, why bother donating to a group that is dedicated to it?
To be fair, traditional media organizations often get accused of distorting the news in similar ways, of selectively including certain facts or quoting certain individuals on a topic, because those facts or views fit a certain pre-determined bias. In some cases it’s done in order to generate traffic and advertising revenue, but there can also be ideological elements at work.
The symbiotic relationship between NGOs and the traditional media can cause problems for both sides, Powers says. On the media side, some organizations have become so dependent on advocacy groups for their reporting and coverage that they run their videos or other content without saying where it came from, something many NGOs say already happens a lot. That’s not good for transparency, and it’s not good for readers or viewers who think they are getting an independent view on the topic.
There’s also a risk that journalistic organizations who become intertwined with NGOs or advocacy groups won’t devote the same kind of scrutiny to those groups as they would otherwise.
“The NGOs that do this kind of thing are among the largest and sort of the elite edge of the sector,” says Powers. “And that matters because it’s still important to check up on these groups. Some of them have budgets that rival small nation states, and they need to be checked up on. ProPublica did it with the Red Cross after Haiti, when it showed that the agency raised all this money and then only built a handful of houses. We need that kind of reporting on some of these organizations.”
In the end, the world of journalism and world as a whole are probably better off that there are activist organizations that are trying to use the tools of modern media to tell stories and reveal facts on certain topics. The more sources of information there are, especially from remote or developing nations, the better. In some ways, that’s one of the biggest benefits of a democratized media environment—anyone anywhere can become a news source, and that’s fundamentally a good thing, even if some take advantage of it for their own purposes.
“I think it’s important to have a range of groups out there interested in fact-based reporting,” says Powers. “And ultimately it can be good both for journalism and for advocacy groups—to figure out without fear or favor what’s happening in the world and report that. But there are some inherent problems to it as well.”