Among the dozens of start-ups in the trust space, NewsGuard’s initiative to combat fake news, founded by Steve Brill and Gordon Grovitz with $6 million in venture capital, showed the most promise
It was easy to deploy: Just download the app on iTunes go into your browser preferences and select the NewsGuard icon.
The next time you Google a story, the nutritional labels appear:
So how did the company slide into irelevance during the heights of the contested 2020 election and an avalanche of of pandemic misinformation?
The question is especially irksome, since it seemed to start out on the right track.
In the growing ecosystem of trust initiatives, there two main branches, lets call them the police - organizations aimed to catch bad actors - and the saints - organizations aimed at elevating credible newsrooms.
Newsguard fell somewhere in between, accomplishing both roles. They originally used the same indicators as the Trust Project, which relies media who agree to standards, and in return, if The Trust Project approves them, put TrustMark on their stories.
But the Trust Project's label only shows trust "indicators" rather than a quantifiable numerical standard, and is only used by newspapers on a voluntary basis.
Newsguard goes one step further, by hiring a team of journalist/analytis to rate thousands of media outlets whether they like it or not. The Trust Project looks wishy-washy in comparison.
The team had reviewed about 96% of online news and information sites by 2020, and at last count had reviewed the top 6000 news sites in the world. According to Steven Brill, the team selected the "95% most engaged sites..."
There are a lot of things to like in this model: Human analysts apply the transparent ratings system objectively across the board. The criteria are posted on the NewsGuard site, and those who disagree with their rating and post a challenge.
Meanwhile, the good actors get the green "nutrition label," while the bad actors show a red flag.
Another icon marks sites which publish other people's content such as Youtube or Wikipedia.
News geeks will even like the criteria: NewsGuard's nine sets are rating are divided into two groups: accuracy and transparency. Standards for accuracy include whether the site repeats false information, reports responsibly, avoids misleading headlines, has an adequate corrections/remedy policy, and separates news from opinion.
Criteria for transparency include revealing ownership and conflicts of interest, clearly labeling what is advertising, and providing information about the content creators.
Any publisher can challenge their ratings and post the challenge publicly on the site, as did the palmerreport.com and waynedupree.com. One on the left, one on the right, creating a lively debate with the editorial team at Newsguard.
Another great choice was to exclude bias from the rating criteria - bias is still revealed when you click the label, but Newsguard implicitly acknowledges all media have bias, although if you substitute "values" for "bias" the idea is easier to swallow.
The concept of objectivity is deeply embedded in the journalistic culture and there is a growing public demand for more apparent objectivity, on both sides of the political spectrum. The Ethical Journalism Network, has identified 400 ethical codes for journalism worldwide, and boils them down to five basic codes, including "impartiality" and "humanity."
However, by eliminating these last two ethical standards, Newsguard's nine criteria provided a more useable set. The problem, in other words, is not bias, but misinformation.
The bots and fake news sites foreign and domestic habitually trolling a country divided into right and left, in part by media bias, could be weeded out .
There is also evidence of a growing appetite for understanding what information is "real" and where it came from.
Under a recent Facebook post showing a picture of Trump failing to raise his right hand over his chest at the Bush funeral, a comment from someone acknowledging an anti-Trump bias also warned that an unsourced image can easily be photoshopped. It was. Newsguard’s scoring system brings facts back into the conversation at scale by leaving bias out of the equation.
The other welcome innovation of the Newsguard criteria is the weight, four of nine points, given to disclosure - or lack thereof - of ownership, of conflict on interest, of the background of content contributors. People want to know if a piece of information on Facebook came from a journalist, a Russian troll or a fake new site sponsored by a corporation with an interest in the issue. A red and green shield on each piece of information is comforting whether you are planning to share or to quote another publisher.
So what went wrong? Or at least, why didn't this toehold on truth become a foothold on reality in the time of Q?
Unlike the Trust Project, which is a non-profit, the business model called for licensing the platform to Facebook and Google. While deal with Microsoft was promoted as "already in place "and talks with the other major players were " underway," but none of these materialized and Newsguard moved to a subscription model.
Then the scoring system also broke down under the acid test of the modern media conundrum: The echochamber between a President who told thousands of lies, and a major cable network that both encouraged and repeated this false information.
One problem was overly broad red or green label, tended to hide ciritical differences.
CNN, MSNBC, and FOX, for example, are all tagged green for safe. Only if you clicked on the tiny green shield do you see that FOX had three of nine criteria marked red.
MSNBC had two of these three issues, and CNN has a perfect score, but all are green.
So NewsGuard was helpful in weeding out rogue media sites like Breitbart, then distinguishing between the largest media.
When Tucker Carlson or Laura Ingram asks, "How do we really know this is a virus?" or purports that vaccines are dangerous and killing people, or more recently, that the FBI was behind the December 6 insurrection, a good chunk of the country believes it.
When asked if adding a "yellow" light would make differences more obvious, Brill said via a 2019 email interview that the company "may end up releasing the exact point scores for everyone a few months down the road."
If you click, on the label, you can, indeed, see the points awarded. But there are some other murky areas in the scoring; what exactly does it mean for a publisher to "gather and present information responsibly"?
According to the NewsGuard website, this criterion is defined as having information providers who "generally seek to be accurate and fair in gathering, reporting, and interpreting information, even if they approach their work from a strong point of view. They do this by referencing multiple sources, preferably those that present direct, firsthand information on a subject or event."
Fox, with its history of spreading the birtherism rumor, gets a little green check on this criterion. It also gets a green check for not repeating false information, although its commentators still refer to CNN as "Fake news CNN" multiple times a day. CNN has a perfect rating for its reporting, meeting all 9 criteria in NewsGuard's own standards. We haven't even gotten to misinformation about the pandemic and the 2020 election results.
Another problem is that commentators/op-ed folks seem to get a hall pass on responsible reporting where journalists do not. A quick scan of FOX reveals Lou Dobbs repeating the "immigrants voting in the millions,' rated a liar/liar pants on fire by PolitiFact," along with the news that a California regulation will only let children drink "milk or water at restaurants." Tucker Carlson makes up the news on a nightly basis. The latest - NSA has been spying on him - was not covered by the "news" part of FoxNews but does the audience even understand.
This is not to say that Newsguard gets it all wrong: If you tune-in to a variety of sites whose values you oppose and whose news gathering skills you assume areinherently flawed, you may besurprised to find the amount of responsibly reported content and angles your "go to" media leaves out, and decide to read more broadly across the political spectrum as a result.
But then... for example FOXNews online hosted a commentator who wondered along with his guest, a GOP senator, how Democrats could not support a wall on the southern border when ten terrorists a day are stopped at the border crossing.
Even a five-second fact check would reveal that seven people a day on the no-fly list have some kind of interaction with DHS, but that 85% of those are at airports not the border. Of the last 15%, some arrived by sea and the rest are split between the borders of Mexico and Canada.
So how many exaggerations of epic proportions does it take to remove a green check from a criterion? The answer seems to be, too many to take the ratings seriously.
Compounding the scoring issue is a blind spot where video is concerned. Newsguard only rates websites, not live television.
So when a news publisher's commentator's video is distributed outside the website on YouTube, for example, and picked up by Google or shared on Facebook, it is not marked as opinion.
In adiition, the video is FOXNews, not Fox opinion. FOX is still green-checked on the separation issue. Should it change its name?
The news side of FOX also quotes the opinions of its own commentators as "news." Hmmm...
Finally, on video the background of content contributors is also much harder to find. And then there was Trump, a uniquely modern president who lied p thousands of times, according to the New York Times, which has a perfect score on all 9 criteria. Exactly when does repeating the president's allegations without any attempt at verification become irresponsible?
One can only imagine the discussions between the editors, analysts and co-founders on which media do a "responsible" job.
Brill said the team "applies the criteria unflinchingly. We don't get the luxury of liking or disliking the result."
But the attacks on Democracy and the press as "enemies of the people" only progressed, unchallenged.
The consequences are grave. While by 2017, the United States had fallen to the status of a flawed democracy, tied with Uruguay, in the Democracy Index and elected governments in Mexico and the Philippines, had turned social media bots on their own people in an attempt to influence the vote, those alarm bells began to look quaint by 2020.
In 2021, the Big Lie and efforts to overturn the election were seeping into the local water supply. Local media charged with holding the line of reality as Arizona "audited" the votes, is still trusted by more than 50% of the poputaion, but not by Republicans.
Newsguard an upper-middle-class Republican in Colorado, asking him if he would engage in a debate about what journalism should be.. Our conversation on FB messenger that started out somewhat reasoned, but quickly became punctuated by eruptions of rage, we are not all too familiar with: "The media are all liars. Ever heard of the Bill of Rights."
I, too, lost it at some point and called him the dupe of a cynical power grab, and told hime to grow up. The last thing he wrote to me, " f** C****"
Newsguard was slept at the wheel while disinformation drove the Republican party off the highway at top speed.
The company with a brilliant future and the best ideas in the trust movement, needs an overall, but it may already be too late.