L. Gordon Crovitz recently wrote a ‘Commentary’ piece for the Wall Street Journal in which he simultaneously tackled the pervasive problem of fake news and announced the coming launch of his new company, NewsGuard.
The premise of the NewsGuard value proposition is interesting – Crovitz detailed the challenges caused by what has become a ‘news supply chain’. In many cases, we don’t get our news directly from the publisher, like we did in the olden days of newspapers. Instead we get news from another platform that is probably not dedicated to news: Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc. This obscures our awareness of the actual source and increases the risk of reading and sharing fake news.
NewsGuard, set to be released in advance of the Midterm elections this November, will charge platforms – not publishers – to rate the reliability of the news sources running content on their site. “Instead of black-box algorithms, NewsGuard will use human beings to rate news brands Green, Yellow or Red depending on whether they are trying to produce real journalism, fail to disclose their interests, or are intentional purveyors of fake news.” (WSJ, 3/4/2018). The largest investor in NewsGuard is Publicis Groupe, a France-based multi-national advertising and public relations agency. According to the Commentary piece, the ratings will be based on both NewsGuard’s experts and wisdom of the crowd.
We are all wise to be concerned about the fake news in our midst. Is this the right solution?
NewsGuard is entering a newly developed market that has materialized hopefully not too late in the game. Meeting the critical need of fixing the current day fake news and misinformation phenomenon, startups are offering innovative tools being driven by both human analysis and AI-enabled technology. A sampling of firms include:
The one element missing from the discussion of misinformation and startups is the glossing over of the critical thinking skills that are required by the reader. The startups have admirable goals of helping readers detect and verify information and are doing so by shining spotlights on content and producers. However, as Kelly and I note in our book, “at its core, successful research is about careful reading,” and careful reading is required to think critically about all aspects of information being consumed, especially its value as a trusted source.
My husband and I have a running joke: any time he shares an interesting news story with me he says “I read it in the paper.” The first time he told me that, I questioned him about it (since at the time we didn’t have a newspaper delivered), and he told me, “people don’t usually believe you if you say, ‘guess what some guy told me?’”
That’s the problem NewsGuard hopes to solve. We are all so bombarded with content that we have a tendency to allow what we read (especially the headline) to overshadow where it came from. If you’ve read anything that Jeanette and I have written, you know that understanding where something came from and why it was written are the keys to determining its validity.
On the positive side, the more attention we call to this problem the better. I appreciate that the voice of the crowd (whatever exactly that ends up meaning) will be reflected in the ratings. This not only distributes the responsibility for evaluating sources, it reinforces the fact that readers have a responsibility to pay attention to the news sources they come into contact with. Will this role be open to all readers or just select readers? Time will tell how NewsGuard handles the actual logistics.
On the other hand, I have some concerns based on the article itself. L. Gordon Crovitz is a former Wall Street Journal publisher, and while he does discuss the challenges of information veracity in an open Internet era, the piece is basically a thinly veiled promotion for his new company. How might I rate the piece if I were a NewsGuard rating reader?
In the article, Crovitz shares an anecdote involving his son: “’What’s Vox?’ my teenage son recently asked. ‘They have great videos explaining news, but aren’t they kind of left-wing?’ It’s a challenge for readers like him to get the context they need to be better informed about news brands – including Vox’s progressive viewpoint.”
In that one short paragraph, Crovitz invokes two adjectives for one news brand: left-wing v. progressive. Being a word person myself, I see both terms as ‘charged’ and reflecting the perspective of the reader. A liberal reader’s characterization of a brand as progressive would certainly clash with a conservative reader’s seeing that same brand as left-wing. I don’t profess to have the answers, but the problems themselves as very clear.
At the end of the day, NewsGuard or not, readers and researchers bear the ultimate responsibility for the information and sources they cite. It is one thing to get local views via Facebook and even form an opinion based upon it. It is another thing entirely to formulate a corporate strategy based on questionable market intelligence. And while the commitment of our time is never ‘free’, it is the best way to ensure that we consult a diverse group of information sources and validate facts before moving forward.