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LCN Analysis: Fake news watchdog more likely to flag conservative sites

by Maxim Lott

NewsGuard, a company whose purpose is to help readers distinguish real news from fake news, is itself under scrutiny by media outlets that say it has different standards for judging conservative and liberal sites. An analysis conducted by LaCorte News suggests conservative sites are twice as likely to be rated unreliable.

NewsGuard, which was created by two veteran journalists, Steven Brill, an investigative reporter and founder of Court TV, and Gordon Crovitz, a former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, uses green check marks to indicate a news source is trustworthy, and a red shield to warn readers to proceed with caution on sites it deems unreliable. NewsGuard’s rating system has been adopted by Microsoft’s new mobile browser.

Their mission: “NewsGuard uses journalism to fight false news, misinformation, and disinformation,” the site announces. More than 30 journalists work for NewsGuard, rating news sites based on whether they follow certain standards such as issuing corrections, not running misleading headlines, and disclosing funding sources.

NewsGuard has slapped warnings on some sites widely considered conservative-leaning, including Drudge Report, Breitbart, The Blaze, and PJ Media – as well as on some left-wing sites, such as the Daily Kos and Shareblue.

The objection: Some conservatives say they’re being held to a different standard than organizations with liberal points of view.

“NewsGuard clearly has a double standard when it comes to its rating of sites,” Paula Bolyard, Supervising Editor at PJ Media told LaCorte News.

PJ Media’s headlines like “Elizabeth Warren Finally Packs Up Her Wigwam” – a reference to Warren’s apology to the Cherokee Nation for taking a DNA test to prove her Cherokee ancestry – were part of the reason it was red-flagged by NewsGuard.

Meanwhile, other sites receiving green checks routinely publish outright false or unproved headlines. For instance, The Root, which was given a green check for avoiding deceptive headlines, recently ran a news-section story titled "Sarah Huckabee Sanders Bravely Emerges from her Crypt” and in the story calls her “the one who functions as the devil’s mouthpiece”. The Root was given an overall green rating.

Green-rated news site Wonkette recently ran a news-section headline titled "President Gross-Mouth Gonna Tell You Some Racist Bullshit..." with the sub-headline "F*********k You".

Wonkette was given plus-points because it “gathers and presents information responsibly”. It lost points for having deceptive headlines and not differentiating between news and opinion, but overall it scored a green rating.

The creators of some conservative sites say it’s a double-standard that they get reds while those sites get greens.

“Their scoring seems utterly arbitrary, and their green checkmark scoring system is completely unbalanced,” Chicks on the Right co-founder Miriam Weaver told LaCorte News.

Weaver said she was particularly maddened that her site got a red-flag warning for failing in the category “handles the difference between news and opinion responsibly.”

“The very name of our website makes it clear that we are not a news site,” she said.

The analysis: A few anecdotes of different treatment are not conclusive, so to more fully examine the claim that NewsGuard holds conservative sites to a higher standard, LaCorte News analyzed the full lists of left- and right- leaning sites on bias-rating site mediabiasfactcheck.com, and then checked all of the sites' NewsGuard's ratings.

Among all sites marked left-biased by mediabiasfactcheck.com, NewsGuard rated 70 as green and 15 as red.

Overall, 17% of left-leaning sites NewsGuard rated were given red ratings.

Among all sites considered leaning right, NewsGuard rated 31 as green and 21 as red, meaning 40% were given red ratings.

Overall, NewsGuard was more than twice as likely to red-flag the right-biased sites it reviewed.

The red-flags also impacted almost twice as much web traffic on conservative sites, according to data from SimilarWeb.com. The red-flagged conservative sites had 90.1 million monthly page views, while the 15 red-flagged left-wing sites had 46.7 million.

Green-flag ratings applied to much more left-wing site traffic, accounting for 1.4 billion monthly views on left-wing sites and 513 million on right-wing sites.

The response: NewsGuard executives stand by their ratings.

“We disagree with your findings, probably because we don't agree with mediabiasfactcheck's methodology,” Steven Brill, co-CEO of NewsGuard, told LaCorte News. Mediabiasfactcheck is run by Dave Van Zandt and, according to their website, a team of five volunteers. Their methodology page features a dot showing the degree of bias, along with notes that explain the rating. Readers are also able to vote on the bias of the source, which doesn’t affect its overall placement.

The following is Brill’s statement about the analysis, emailed to LaCorte News :

“We did a review a while back, maybe three months ago, and found that we could categorize a different number of sites as left and right and then found that we gave about the same proportion of such sites greens and reds.

“But that's not a current estimate, and it avoids the more important fact that a large proportion of reds are neither left nor right but are purveyors of non-political healthcare pseudo-information or just plain hoaxes looking for clicks.

“Also, if you find my numbers above less than specific it's because we have deliberately avoided looking at sites through that kind of lens. (We simply stopped one day to take an informal look just because we were curious and wanted to be sure we were doing what we thought we were doing -- applying our nine criteria unflinchingly.) I think we used left-right data published by NewsWhip. But again this is not something that we keep any kind of tally of because that's not our focus.”

Crovitz added, "We looked a few months ago at the websites we had rated. There were many times more sites we had rated that were conservative in their orientation than liberal in their orientation, which is consistent with work by researchers that shows there are many more conservative websites than liberal websites. When we looked to see what percent of conservative sites and liberal sites were red, we found that a larger percent of the liberal sites were rated red. As Steve noted, this is not a current estimate, but it reassured us that we were being unflinchingly even handed when applying the nine criteria. By the way, be wary of efforts to characterize the political orientation of websites: We have run across a number of websites that pretend to be conservative in their orientation but in fact, as our labels indicate, are run by people who are liberals and trying to fool conservatives."

Brill also noted that his company changes its ratings as sites become more responsible in NewsGuard’s eyes. The Daily Mail was recently upgraded from a red to a green rating. Brill urges sites that feel they have been unfairly rated to contact NewsGuard.

LaCorte News was given 8 out of a possible 9 green check marks. The one red concerned LaCorte News’s failure to list the names of each of its contributors.

"In many cases, when we have those discussions, the sites point us to factors that we had not considered and should have (that's why we always seek comment), or they change one or more of their practices in order to boost their scores -- which we think is great. We want people to game our system that way!" Brill said.

The reaction: Paula Bolyard of PJ Media remains unconvinced and says that the ratings are unfair.

“NewsGuard reached out to PJ Media before they issued our red-flag rating, asking us to comment on stories they found problematic... The articles they flagged and scrutinized line-by-line — some of them several years old — were articles their investigators seemed to have a problem with ideologically,” she said.

“For example, they took issue with the fact that an article I wrote claimed that NBC is a left-wing news outlet. They approach their ratings with the presupposition that mainstream media sites are de facto unbiased, which is a serious flaw in their methodology,” Bolyard added.

Bolyard also critiqued NewsGuard’s other ratings criteria. PJ Media was docked points because it “does not disclose its ideological leanings,” according to NewsGuard.

About that, Bolyard notes: “The New York Times and the Washington Post don't disclose their ideological leanings either, but no serious person would argue that they do not have left-leaning biases.”

Bolyard says she is concerned that, if NewsGuard’s ratings pick up steam, it could cement establishment media in place while crushing alternative journalism outlets.

“The larger concern is that they could cause advertisers to refuse to work with us,” she said, noting that conservative sites were already under attack from successful pressure campaigns aimed at advertisers.

“If advertisers, social media platforms, and search engines start taking these NewsGuard ratings as the gospel truth... then they can effectively shut down sites with which they disagree ideologically,” she added.

The recourse: NewsGuard’s founders maintain that their criteria are valid and urge sites to comply and get in touch.

“We do hope that all sites, conservative or otherwise, will engage with our analysts who contact them to discuss any criteria where the sites may have issues,” Gordon Crovitz told LaCorte News.

It’s already improved journalism, he added.

“More than 500 websites have made changes to their journalistic practices after engaging with NewsGuard,” Crovitz said.

Maxim Lott is Executive Producer of Stossel TV. Lott has done investigative reporting for more than a decade, which has been featured on Fox News, ABC News, and the Drudge Report. He also created ElectionBettingOdds.com, a site that predicts election outcomes based on people's' bets, and TaxPlanCalculator.com, which shows users if they saved or lost money from President Trump's tax reform law. Lott can be reached on Twitter at @MaximLott or on Facebook.

Edited on 2/6/19 to add the paragraph from Gordon Crovitz's response to LaCorte News.

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