Combat News disTrust

Dismay at what passes for “news” in the mainstream media is nothing new.

Only a few moments ago I was reading Beth‘s account of incompletely informed reporting (whether by omission or commission) of the recent exit of eight parishes in Virginia from the Episcopal Church.

One of the best deconstructions of a news story I’ve ever read is Koranteng Ofosu-Amaah‘s dissection – in The Game of the Rough Beasts – of two articles which appeared in the New York Times on the same day. Correction. It’s *the* best deconstruction I’ve ever read. I’ve been meaning to link to it ever since I first saw it and am delighted now to have the perfect opportunity. Go and read it! you won’t regret it.

Ahem.

Back to the point at hand. Which is the launch (in beta) of a non-profit project called NewsTrust – “your guide to good journalism” – which is a media monitoring project which uses a social recommendation model like that of Digg to identify stories online which members consider worth reading – or avoiding – as explained in the “About Us” page:

In recent years, the consolidation of mainstream media, combined with the rise of opinion news and the explosion of new media outlets, have created a serious problem for democracy: many people feel they can no longer trust the news media to deliver the information they need as citizens.

To address this critical issue, NewsTrust is developing an online news rating service to help people identify quality journalism – or “news you can trust.” Our members rate the news online, based on journalistic quality, not just popularity. Our beta website and news feed feature the best and the worst news of the day, picked from hundreds of alternative and mainstream news sources.

This non-profit community effort tracks news media nationwide and helps citizens make informed decisions about democracy. Submitted stories and news sources are carefully researched and rated for balance, fairness and originality by panels of citizen reviewers, students and journalists. Their collective ratings, reviews and tags are then featured in our news feed, for online distribution by our members and partners.

So far it’s got a good-looking selection of international stories but not a good-looking selection of international reviewers, as far as my untutored eye can tell from the member directory. Let’s hope that with greater publicity the latter will change.

The Top Rated Sources page makes interesting reading. I note that Global Voices (of which I am a co-managing editor) is in the top 50 overall (and third-highest rated blog source) and that according to our NewsTrust profile page our trust rating is highish but fairness and balance are somewhat lower.

This raises an interesting issue. If I go to the Reports FAQ for NewsTrust reviewers there are the following questions posed for consideration on balance and fairness:

Balance
Q. Does it present all key viewpoints?
This rating probes whether one or more important sides to the event or issue are missing or given less space than they deserve in stories from this source. In general, the more perspectives a story includes, the fuller the picture of reality it provides. Note that most news stories only have room for the core arguments each side makes, rather than their complete point of view.

Fairness
Q. Is this story fair?
Journalists are expected to present fairly all sides of a controversy. Note this doesn’t necessarily mean equal space for all sides. The space allotted to each side should be based on the evidence for its claims and its willingness to respond. Each relevant side, however, should be afforded the opportunity to make its core argument, or decline comment.

The authors writing for Global Voices are not journalists in the definition assumed above. It is not their task to “present fairly all sides of a controversy”. They are curating blog conversations, aiming to give an insight into the preoccupations of a particular blogosphere, and just as in many other areas of life bloggers are not a representative sample of average humanity, whatever that might be.

To take just one example, brought up by our Francophone Language Editor Alice Backer at our recent summit, the vast majority of blogs on or from the Democratic Republic of Congo are written by political opponents to the government. For those denied adequate freedom of political operation and/or access to the domestic mainstream media blogs are an easy tool for people with strong opinions otherwise denied an outlet to get their voices heard.

In other words the NewsTrust definition of “fairness”, which is congruent with most serious journalistic standards of good reporting, is a difficult one to apply to our work. What we should be held to account for is, to modify the phrase I quoted above, “presenting fairly all sides of a blogosphere” which would be a far more difficult task for reviewers to evaluate accurately.

And speaking of accuracy, it’s slightly disconcerting to see two names listed on the NewsTrust page as “Authors” for Global Voices that I have never heard of before. One appears to be a US counter-terrorism analyst for a consulting firm; the other might be a prominent media analyst on the right of the American political spectrum. Neither name comes up on a search of our site. From the same Reports FAQ quoted above:

Evidence
Q. Does it provide factual evidence?
This rating examines whether this source provides verifiable, factual evidence to support its assertions. We pay particular attention to whether the right sources are quoted (authoritative quotes, appropriate statistics, documents, etc.), especially in the headline and lead paragraphs (i.e., the principal generalizations each story makes). Documents and statistics often provide more compelling evidence for a generalization than statements by individuals. Multiple sources of evidence strengthen the support, as well as independent verification by the authors that this evidence is valid.

Cough.

Anyway, I hope very much that this project expands – the concept is exciting and the aim a good one.

3 Replies to “Combat News disTrust”

  1. That is a very civilised response; I would be tempted to a “dear pin-head” letter. The whole question of balance is very convoluted at the moment. In Australia, the ABC is being whacked by the government for not toeing the line as our own reactionaries read from a familiar international playlist of intimidation.

    Since I also run an on-line journal thingy involving money, I feel everyone’s proverbial pain. I generally reply to the scrunched-up faces of younger writers by suggesting the secret is in scepticism, and an ability to work out what is actually going on in the society. For which evidence is required.

    You will no doubt have case histories from political stories involving underdevelopment; mine are about the abuse of balance to undermine the science of climate change and evolution. These are good examples because there are right/wrong binaries under the debate which are far more stable than political interpretations of (say) Palestinian politics.

  2. Hi David, thanks for your point, which is a really interesting one. There was an appalling case in the last few years of extreme media irresponsibility covering a science story with the case of the MMR vaccine and the (utterly unproven) contention that it might be a “cause” of autism. Because “balance” seems to have become synonymous with “adversarial” or simplistic dualism science stories seem often to be the victim of sloppy practice.

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