Just as we have learned to wear face masks, use hand sanitiser and line up for vaccinations, so too should we consider taking measures to stay healthy when consuming news. The Online Harms Bill going through Parliament promises to make the UK “the safest place in the world to be online”, but there are tools available which are the news equivalents of “hands, face, space”.
One is NewsGuard, a ranking system of the 6,000 newspaper publishers, broadcasters and digital media outlets that produce 95 per cent of the news content consumed online. Each one is given a green shield with a tick (trustworthy) or a red one with an exclamation mark and a warning (“Proceed with caution: This website severely violates basic journalistic standards”). Once you have downloaded NewsGuard as a browser extension (cost £2.95 a month), the shields show up alongside articles in Google searches and social feeds.
“You’ve got to be really bad to get a red one,” says Gordon Crovitz, who co-founded NewsGuard three years ago with Steven Brill. Crovitz is a former publisher and columnist with The Wall Street Journal and Brill founded the Yale Journalism Initiative and the American television network Court TV.
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Every outlet receives a trust rating out of 100, based on nine criteria which Crovitz describes as “basic, apolitical, core practices of journalism”. These include such standards as “does not repeatedly publish false content”, “avoids deceptive headlines”, “regularly corrects or clarifies errors” and “website discloses ownership and financing”.
Every site has a “nutrition label”, providing detailed information on the site’s ownership, history, credibility and transparency. A green shield requires a minimum score of 60. Some red-shield sites score pathetically, such as the Kremlin-backed RT (32.5), the lurid gossip magazine National Enquirer (20) and Iran’s Press TV (17.5). But many mainstream UK titles receive well below a perfect score.
The Sun is rated 75 and accused of a lack of separation of news and opinion, failures to label its advertising and not providing sufficient names of content creators. The Daily Mail’s nutrition label cites numerous erroneous stories and scores the site 77. ITV News gets 77.5 for its website and is marked down for failures to correct errors and not giving enough information about its authors.
The Mirror, which scores 87.5, is also criticised for a lack of distinction between news and comment. The Telegraph, scalded for lack of transparency over its ownership, gets the same rating. The BBC, Channel 4 and Sky News each score a flawed 95. They are deemed to provide consumers with a lack of detail on the authors of their material. Happily, i‘s website is rated 100 (as are the Financial Times, The Independent, The Guardian and The Times).
“We have no political bias,” insists Brill. “There are very conservative news organisations that get very high ratings and very liberal organisations that get high ratings.”
Some might see such a system as a form of censorship, using subjective views to inhibit diversity of voice. Brill refutes this, saying: “We are not trying to block anything. What we do is provide basic information about the process, legitimacy and transparency of those who purport to bring you the news.”
NewsGuard employs around 40 analysts and fact-checkers, including a UK-based team that includes editorial adviser Richard Sambrook, a former head of BBC News. Publishers are called for comment and 900 have taken remedial action to improve their scores.
NewsGuard is supported by Microsoft – which embeds it for free in its Edge browser – but not by most tech giants. It launched as an antidote to the misinformation and hoax sites on Facebook and other social platforms. “Social media algorithms are geared to maximise engagement and advertising and are not geared to distribute trustworthy news,” says Crovitz.
Misinformation sites, usually motivated by taking a share of the online programmatic advertising market (worth $80bn – £58bn – annually in the US), generate traffic by promoting conspiracy theories, health scams and political propaganda. Global ad companies are partnering with NewsGuard to help brands put their money with trusted news providers, not conspiracy theorists.
Brill points out that Cancer.news (which NewsGuard scores 5 out of 100 for credibility) generates a lot more engagement than Cancer.org, the website of the American Cancer Society. Copycat sites are everywhere. One Indian-based disinformation publisher hijacked the title Liverpool Courier, a Victorian-era Merseyside paper, to lure traffic. A NewsGuard survey found that 4,000 blue-chip companies were inadvertently advertising on healthcare hoax sites.
With Matt Hancock undermining public trust in government health messaging, misinformation sites are feeding a different kind of virus: an “infodemic”. The stories we read and share have potentially serious consequences, both for our own mental state and for wider society.