Finding common ground in rating media
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Amid the debate now raging in Washington over whether online news is biased or fake, consider this: What do NationalReview.com, the website of the magazine founded by conservative icon William F. Buckley, and the Nation.com, the Internet arm of the liberal magazine founded by abolitionists in 1865, have in common? They both get “GREEN” ratings from NewsGuard, the company that we founded earlier this year. NewsGuard rates and provides “Nutrition Labels” for the thousands of websites responsible for 98 percent of the news and information consumed and shared online in the United States based on whether these websites adhere to most or all of the nine criteria that are the core ingredients of presenting news and information responsibly, transparently and accountably.

What do the Dailykos.com, the website run by Democratic activists, and Infowars have in common? You guessed it. They both got REDS, meaning that readers should proceed with caution.

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In a country that is so bitterly divided along partisan and tribal lines, the meeting that NewsGuard’s two dozen website analysts have every morning to review draft ratings and Nutrition Labels is an exhilarating reminder of what is possible when people of varying backgrounds (we have conservatives and liberals, hard-bitten veteran editors and idealistic millennials) unite around and focus on core values. In this case, the core values are the core values of journalism. We don’t talk politics. We focus on our nine criteria. The website may be highly opinionated and be on a mission to promote a liberal or conservative agenda, but does it come clean on that mission so that readers know where they’re coming from, or does it claim to be reporting “news” when it’s actually advancing an agenda? Does it egregiously cherry pick facts to make its argument?

The site may be the Internet arm of a local television station or newspaper that purports to report the news straight up, or a website that purports to dispense health care advice, but does it fail to make corrections when it gets something wrong, pollute its work with deceptive headlines, or fail to label advertising in a way that distinguishes it from news and information?

That’s what we debate – not whether people who are anti-abortion or opposed Judge Kavanaugh's nomination are evil or shouldn’t be heard. We check our ideological and political beliefs at the door, because what we care most about is the responsible use of the First Amendment. That’s our common ground. We apply the nine criteria equally to every website, whether left wing, right wing or seeking to be down the middle, or whether covering gossip, local news or national defense. We do not believe there is a Republican or Democratic way to have a corrections policy that meets basic standards of accountability. We don’t believe there is a liberal or conservative way to gather and present information responsibly by using credible sources, to reveal who is financing the website and who’s in charge of the content, to not repeatedly publish false information or traffic in absurd conspiracy theories, or to separate news and information reporting from opinion or advertising.

We are in many ways emblematic of that common ground. Crovitz was a member of the conservative Federalist Society at Yale Law School before he became an editorial writer, columnist and publisher at the Wall Street Journal. Although Brill does not consider the journalism he has done on issues ranging from the legal system to homeland security to health care to education reform to be partisan, many disagree. And when he was at the same law school before he became a journalist, he had a job on the side writing speeches advocating gun control and busing to support school integration for John Lindsay, the liberal New York City mayor who ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1972. We each do the final edit and sign-off on all of the NewsGuard ratings and Nutrition Labels. We rarely disagree -- because our only focus is on the nine criteria.

We and our colleagues share another core belief – that when it comes to combatting false news, misinformation, or disinformation, human intelligence is better than artificial intelligence. That’s why we deploy journalists, not machines; they read and review every website exhaustively and contact those who run the websites for clarification or comment before publishing a Nutrition Label. (Algorithms don’t call for comment.) The goal of fake news is to look and read like real news – to fool the algorithms. And, as the headlines repeatedly demonstrate, the algorithms keep getting fooled. We may make mistakes, but when we do, we’ll correct them transparently.

Our alternative to algorithms is now gaining traction in the tech community. We are in intensive discussions with many of the search and social media platforms who could license our ratings and Nutrition Labels and offer them to their users in the United States and, beginning next year, other countries around the world.

We believe this apolitical, human intelligence approach of unflinchingly applying our nine criteria for reliability, transparency, and accountability to news and information sites ranging from GAO.gov, to the Heritage Foundation’s Dailysignal.org, to Al.com (the site of the Birmingham, Ala. newspaper), to thehill.com (all rated GREEN) is far better than the two awful ideas being talked about in Washington. The first is government regulation of some kind, which is the antithesis of what our country stands for and has limitless potential for abuse. The second is allowing the technology platforms to continue to make the same inconsistent, non-transparent decisions quietly to suppress the frequency with which “bad” content is seen or to ban it altogether. This status quo clearly isn’t working. Our approach is the American approach: Allow free speech but arm readers with the information they might want about who’s feeding them the news and what their standards are. That’s what librarians have been doing since the invention of libraries: banning nothing but giving readers guidance about what they’re reading. And that’s why librarians across the country have joined NewsGuard in a News Literacy Partnership and are installing NewsGuard’s data through a browser extension on the computers that patrons access at libraries. This allows readers to see the NewsGuard ratings and Nutrition Labels whenever they do a Google or Bing search or see a Facebook or Twitter news feed.

We understand that to be a trusted source of information about news websites we must treat all of them alike and be wholly transparent about our criteria and processes. We know that if we make too many mistakes or veer from our common ground of focusing only on core standards of journalism we will lose credibility. But if that happens, the alternative shouldn’t be that the government should step in, or that this work should be left to non-accountable algorithms, but, rather, that the free market will produce a competitor that will replace us. That, too, is another core American value.

Steven Brill and Gordon Crovitz are the co-founders and co-CEO’s of NewsGuard.