Advocates are becoming journalists. Is that a good thing?

June 15, 2018

It was an impressive display of journalism: An in-depth look at Amazon’s marketing of a controversial facial recognition software product to US law enforcement. It involved record searches in multiple jurisdictions, along with the collection of other evidence about the campaign and its impact. But this tour-de-force didn’t come from a 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 an organization like the ACLU: Matt Cagle, a lawyer for the ACLU in Northern California, noticed online marketing materials posted by Amazon for its software, which listed several law-enforcement organizations as users. So Cagle and his team started a records search, got two other ACLU bureaus involved, and the group’s national editorial team pulled the project together.

In all, Cagle says, the project involved more than two dozen lawyers and advocates, as well as legal advisers at the national level, editors, and the ACLU’s communications team, and it took several months to come to fruition—the kind of resources many media companies would find hard to marshall for a single story.

ICYMI: 11 images that show how the Trump administration is failing at photography

As the media landscape continues to fragment and many outlets struggle to afford more ambitious reporting projects, non-governmental organizations and advocacy groups like the ACLU and Human Rights Watch are increasingly taking on the role of reporter—breaking stories and in some cases even helping to change policy. But even those leading the new NGO-as-muckraker efforts acknowledge that they’re no replacement for traditional news organizations.

“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,” 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.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

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 fill gaps in traditional media coverage—especially in foreign countries, where few media companies have the resources to invest in on-the-ground reporting.

But these groups are not fundamentally journalistic in nature. Although they may look and behave like modern media organizations, they are advocacy groups, and have an explicit agenda; they’re looking for impact. That agenda may coincide with the news, and they may use traditional journalistic techniques to advance it, but in most cases the larger goal of this work is in service of some kind of policy change or other action, and not information or the public record 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,” says 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 the same time it’s also easy to imagine a world where this causes problems, where journalism could become a platform for advocacy purposes and for fundraising.”

ICYMI: NY journalist handcuffed to railing over his head

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 long ago realized they could use these tools to spread their own message, instead of having to rely on partnerships with traditional media.

Journalism professor Dan Gillmor wrote a decade ago about the work the ACLU was doing around Guantanamo Bay, and the reporting Human Rights Watch did on issues such as domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. A number of academics have also written about the increasing overlap between NGOs and journalism.

“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 gaps,” Gillmor wrote. He also encouraged NGOs to concentrate on applying journalistic principles such as fact-checking and transparency.

Powers says that most NGOs didn’t get into reporting because they were interested in doing journalism or becoming media companies—they did it in order to improve their standing with governments and other policy groups so their lobbying would be taken seriously. “They started doing it primarily so they could look more legitimate to policy makers,” says Powers.

Most well-established advocacy organizations still work with media partners to get their message out, as the ACLU did with its face-recognition 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; 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’s newsroom of editors and reporters produce between 14 and 20 stories a week. The group’s editorial director, Terry Tang—who worked as a senior editor at the Times for two decades before joining the ACLU last year—tells CJR she is hiring journalists and looking to expand the ACLU newsroom 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 says. “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 always been media savvy 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 Times and the BBC to add to its existing in-house editorial operation, which is called Unearthed (formerly known as Energy Desk).

At the ACLU, Tang says the organization is thinking about how to balance the need for longterm research and coverage with the demand 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, she’s working her way through exactly the same kinds of considerations faced by traditional media outlets.

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, 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, the former editor-in-chief of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, who joined HRW in 2016. “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 blurred traditional journalistic lines. For example, Powers says, Greenpeace’s Unearthed site did a report on climate change in 2015 and used journalists who pretended to be executives from the oil and gas industry and found several academics who were willing to be paid for their pro-industry opinions without saying where the money came from. 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.”

Damian Kahya, a former BBC reporter who runs Greenpeace’s investigative unit, says the team are all professionally trained journalists and the agency only uses fake identities “where we have a suspicion of wrongdoing, clear public interest, and where we believe the information cannot reasonably be obtained by other means.” Kahya added that Greenpeace’s team is separate from the environmental advocacy part of the organization, and that it adheres to “the highest editing and reporting standards.”

Other incursions into journalism are less controversial, but still raise questions. In 2007, 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—it shows that they are doing their jobs, that the organization is necessary, and it helps with fundraising. If the problem of civil rights or AIDS or sex trafficking isn’t a big one, why donate to a group dedicated to addressing it?

Of course, traditional media organizations often get accused of distorting the news in similar ways—of selectively including certain facts or quoting certain individuals—because those facts or views fit a certain worldview. In some cases it’s done in order to generate traffic and advertising revenue, but there can also be ideological elements at work (Fox News, or at least the version of it that exists in primetime, springs to mind).

But the lines separating one kind of journalism from another are getting increasingly blurry. Some media 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—in a new book about NGOs and the news, Kate Wright from Edinburgh University looked at a week of news about Africa from UK sources, and found nearly half of those that used material produced by NGOs didn’t identify the source.

That’s not good for transparency, and it’s not good for readers who think they are getting an independent view. There’s also a risk that journalistic organizations that become intertwined with NGOs or advocacy groups won’t devote the same kind of scrutiny to those groups as they would otherwise.

In the end, the world of journalism and the world as a whole are probably better off now that there are activist organizations that are trying to use the tools of modern media to tell stories. 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.

ICYMI: DOJ seizes New York Times reporter’s phone and email records 

Correction: “An earlier version of this story suggested that a study by Kate Wright found half of all UK media reports about Africa used NGO content without crediting them. The study actually found that half of all reports about Africa that used NGO material did so without crediting them.”

Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.