Six days after Brooklyn-based Vice News released a five-part documentary on the group known as the Islamic State in the Levant, the militant group executed U.S. journalist James Foley.
That was just one dramatic example of the dangerous terrain Vice was treading when it sent freelance reporter Medyan Dairieh to embed with ISIL in its de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria. Dairieh not only wasn’t harmed, but also pulled off a major coup, getting unparalleled access to a group now known more for videotaping beheadings of international reporters than cooperating with them. To date, the full-length documentary has been viewed more than 2.9 million times on YouTube.
Yet like many of Vice’s achievements, this one was accompanied by controversy. The film featured small children proclaiming their desire for jihad and showed decapitated bodies and a crucified man. Vice’s unprecedented access to ISIL led to accusations that it had become too cozy with a murderous terrorist organization and that it was unwittingly spreading the group’s propaganda.
Vice did not make anyone available despite repeated requests from Global Journalist. But at a recent panel discussion at New York University’s Journalism Institute, Vice News editor-in-chief Jason Mojica denied the company had allowed itself to be used by ISIL. “I can certainly say that there was no collusion between Vice News and the Islamic State as much as there is a bit of sparring and each of us probably trying to get something different out of that,” Mojica said.
The ISIL documentary was hardly the first time Vice News has produced provocative and eye-catching reporting. Its journalists have documented bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, blood sacrifice in Indonesia, the largest illegal gun market in Pakistan and black magic in Ghana.
Perhaps most famously, its reporters accompanied former NBA star Dennis Rodman on a trip that included a meal with Kim Jong Un and a nationally televised basketball game between North Korea’s national team and the Harlem Globetrotters.
Vice’s documentaries, which are often first-person accounts of what the reporter is thinking and feeling, are a departure from traditional broadcast news, says Michael Calderone, a senior media reporter at the Huffington Post.
“It’s very much, ‘we’ve got this unique vantage point and we’re showing you what’s on the ground,’” he says.
Founded as an underground punk magazine in Montreal in 1994, Vice Media Inc. is now a Brooklyn-based media empire that produces news, advertisements, documentaries, music records and a television series for HBO. It’s following the path of many digital media startups by integrating vertically, controlling not only its distribution channels but also its content. That strategy was highlighted when it was valued at $2.5 billion after A+E Networks and Technology Crossover Ventures each invested $250 million for a 10 percent stake in the company Sept. 4.
The company’s rapid growth comes at a time when many traditional news organizations are continuing to struggle with lower circulation and advertising revenues—and continue to cut reporters and close foreign bureaus.
Vice’s news coverage is informative, edgy and highly visual. Photographs with headlines in sans serif script take up most of the real estate on its home page—a stark contrast to the text-heavy approach of the New York Times or the New Yorker.The text it does use is concise, and often, provocative. “Hospital regulations are forcing women to steal their own placentas,” read the top story on Vice’s homepage Sept. 24.
Indeed Vice is often dismissed as a lightweight player in the media world because many of its news stories focus on sexual themes, innuendo and taboo topics such as cannibalism. Vice’s homepage includes links not only to its news, sports and fashion coverage but also to a NSFW (Not Safe for Work) section that includes pornographic material.
It’s reporting is “raw and tasteless sometimes,” says Rick Edmonds, a media and business analyst at the Poynter Institute, a journalism education group. On topics where traditional news media look to provide balance, Vice often offers journalism akin to personal essays, he says.
Other critics of Vice says its journalistic standards do not measure up—its work more akin to entertainment than hard-hitting news.
Robert Nolan, an editor of the New York-based Foreign Policy Association, called Vice’s North Korea reporting “more ‘Jackass’ than journalism,” in a 2013 opinion piece for U.S. News and World Report.
Still some of Vice’s foreign correspondents are serious about hard news. Vice reporter Simon Ostrovsky has covered the unfolding conflict in Ukraine for months, and his accounts of the fighting there are sobering. His Twitter page shows photos of burning towns and wounded soldiers. He continued to report on the conflict even after he was kidnaped by pro-Russian militiamen and held for three days.
Vice’s brand image marketing as an edgy, hip outlet have helped drive its popularity with young people, says media critic Charles Johnson.
“Mainstream media is not trusted by a lot of people, and rightly so, so they [Vice] step in and fill in,” he says. “People see a sense of fun behind it. Jon Stewart is very popular, but he’s an entertainer. Vice is something similar.”
Lara Prendergast, deputy online editor at the U.K. newspaper The Spectator, argues that Vice’s strength is getting younger audiences to join conversations about important international topics in a way traditional media have not.
“It’s videos may fail every rule in the BBC impartiality book,” she says. “But they are brilliantly edited and, often, utterly compelling. Vice News has found young, fearless foreign correspondents to serve a youthful audience who are bored stiff by traditional outlets but are quite prepared to watch videos on their mobile phones.”
By most definitions, that’s good journalism.
Interactive timeline was produced by Bea Ciordia.