- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2014

The FBI is hiring a contractor to grade news stories about the agency as “positive” “neutral” or “negative,” but the agency won’t say why officials need the information or what they plan to do with it.

FBI officials wouldn’t even reveal how they will go about assigning the grades, which were laid out in a recent contract solicitation. The contract tells potential bidders to “use their judgment” in scoring news coverage as part of a new “daily news briefing” service the agency is seeking as part of a contract that could last up to five years.

The move is reminiscent of a similar effort the Obama administration made to grade media coverage of its response to the BP oil spill. A separate defense contract rating reporters’ work was scrapped in 2009.

In a statement of work, the agency says its public affairs office needs a contractor to help monitor “breaking news, editorials, long-form journalism projects and the larger public conversation about law enforcement.”

But the lack of clear public methods and goals raises “troubling questions,” said Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University.

“You would certainly worry this could affect access,” he said. “It might affect the way they’re going to approach your questions, whether they’re going to be extra careful not to make news if you’re on the ‘bad list.’”

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Mr. Kennedy also pointed out that journalism can be nuanced and complicated, raising questions about what sort of guidance the agency provides to contractors to fit stories into positive, neutral or negative boxes.

“If you’re rigorously fair about it and you’re getting the FBI’s point of view out there, they would probably write that as a negative story, but it strikes me as neutral,” he said.

David Williams, president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, said the FBI, like many agencies, may want to know what people are saying and writing about them. And media-clipping services, while often done in-house, aren’t an unusual use of resources, he said.

But he questioned how rating journalists fits with the agency’s core mission of enforcing federal laws.

“It just seems like you’re creating a whole other layer of work,” he said.

The contractor must “characterize the coverage such that FBI officials can quickly get a sense of how widely various story elements were run and also for the general tonality of the coverage,” FBI officials said in the contract’s statement of work.

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It’s not the first time the Obama administration has sought outside help in deciphering media coverage.

In 2011, The Associated Press reported on an $18,000 contract that called, in part, for a vendor to assess the “tone” of news stories about the administration’s response to the BP oil spill.

Past contracts have created problems too, the AP noted, referring to a 2009 defense contract grading journalists’ work before they embedded with troops.

Ultimately, the Pentagon scrapped that contract, which graded reporters’ work as “positive,” “negative” or “neutral,” according to Stars and Stripes.

The decision to scrap the contract came after the newspaper reported that military officials were using the contractor-created profiles to help decide whether to grant or deny “embed” requests.

Under the FBI contract proposal, the vendor would deliver a daily news briefing through a website using “extremely fresh” content each day, including links to media coverage, by 7 a.m. Monday through Friday.

“This service shall allow personnel to have better situational awareness as well as support both proactive and reactive public communications strategies,” officials stated in the statement of work.

The briefing materials would include date of coverage, tonality, story focus, type of media outlet and “overall impact” of news coverage in chart and graph form, records show. The FBI also would have the right to archive the daily briefings indefinitely.

• Jim McElhatton can be reached at jmcelhatton@washingtontimes.com.

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