Daniel Patrick Moynihan is credited as once saying “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” but we now live at a time when some people apparently feel they are entitled to making up facts. And that’s a major problem, because even though we have a right to disagree on how to interpret facts or what to do about them, our democracy and even our health depends on being able to determine what is and isn’t credible.
This is especially important in an election year and during the current global pandemic. Important decisions need to be made not just by policymakers but by all of us, whether it’s in how we vote or how often we wash our hands or gather together without keeping “social distance.”
Much of the misinformation that we are dealing with comes online, from social media and from both reputable and dubious websites. And it’s up to everyone to do all we can to try to distinguish truth from deception. Fortunately, there are tools that can help.
One tool is Newsguard, a New York company that employs experienced journalists and editors to review and rate news and information websites based on nine journalistic criteria that “assesses practices of credibility and transparency,” according to its website. Based on those criteria the site displays a red or green credibility rating if you’ve installed Newsguard’s browser extension. There is also an orange rating for satire and humor sites and a gray rating for platforms that host user generated content. Newsguard works with most desktop browsers and Microsoft Edge on Smartphones
Newsguard’s ratings are based on factors including whether the site repeatedly publishes false content, if it gathers and presents information responsibly, if it regularly corrects or clarifies errors, if it clearly distinguishes between news and opinion and if it avoids deceptive headlines. There are also transparency criteria including whether the site discloses ownership and financing, if it clearly labels advertising, and whether it provides names and background information for its contributors.
Listen to Larry’s interview with Newsguard co-CEOs Steven Brill and Gordon Crovitz
In December, I sat down with Newsguard’s co-CEOs Steven Brill and Gordon Crovitz. Brill founded The American Lawyer, Court TV, and the Yale Journalism Initiative and Crovitz was publisher of The Wall Street Journal. “I think the problem is that digital technologies made it so easy for people to pretend to be news publishers creating websites that look like legitimate news operations,” Crovitz said, adding that “they might be Russian disinformation, or they might be health care hoax sites, or they might be funded by a political action committee without disclosing any of that.”
Newsguard doesn’t give a site a bad mark simply because it has a bias, as long it does well on its criteria, including being transparent about its agenda and that it doesn’t “cherry pick” facts. Brill gave an example of some anti-immigrant European websites that constantly report about crimes committed by immigrants as if they “were the news of the day.” But, he added, if they say “we are a website that is against immigration, and here are examples,” that would be OK.
After using the service, I noted that there are both liberal and conservative learning sites that got green marks, including Breitbart News and Fox News on the right as well as the liberal leaning MSNBC and Mother Jones sites.
There are both free and paid versions of Newsguard. The free version gives you the color coded ratings, while the paid version also provides a “nutrition label” with details about ownership, financing, credibility, transparency and more plus how the site did on each of Newsguard’s nine criteria.
Site lists & warns of specific misinformation sources
In response to the current pandemic, Newsguard has created the Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Center, which lists sites that publish “materially false information about the virus.” There’s a link to it on Newguard’s home page (newsguardtech.com/)
Listen to Larry’s interview with Alan Miller, CEO of the News Literacy Project
Clear information about the sites is one part of the solution, but an important long-term component is better media and news literacy for everyone, including students, which is the role of the non-profit News Literacy Project (newslit.org). Its mission is to empower educators to “teach students the skills they need to become smart, active consumers of news and information and engaged, informed participants in our democracy.” One of its services, “checkology,” offers lessons to help educators provide students with tools to evaluate and interpret the news and to “learn how to decide what news and other information to trust, share and act on.” The project also offers a free smartphone game suitable for teens and adults, called Informable, which asks you to spot ads, distinguish news from opinion and determine whether statements are fact-based or opinions. Educators and parents might also be interested in the free Parent & Educator Guide to Media Literacy & Fake News (connectsafely.org/fakenews) that I co-wrote with Kerry Gallagher
In an interview, News Literacy Project’s founder and CEO Alan Miller, put the organization’s mission into a current content. “Anytime there’s a major breaking news story, we find it’s a fertile breeding ground for toxic misinformation. As journalists are scrambling to verify facts, bad actors tend to fill the void with conspiracy theories, hoaxes, and viral rumors.” He added that it’s very important “for people to pause and ask what it is that they’re seeing, reading or hearing, look for a variety of sources to follow a story over time, and to be responsible about what they’re consuming and what they’re sharing.”
I want to emphasize Miller’s last point. As I scan social media, I often see people sharing links, tweets and posts that contain false information. If I see something that I’m not sure about, I try to find another source or see if it’s been fact checked before sharing or acting on it. Or, as Miller phrased it, “friends, don’t let friends drive drunk, they shouldn’t let friends share misinformation either.”