“What’s Vox?” my high-school son asked. “It produces great video, but it seems kind of left wing.”
It’s not just kids who see news in social media feeds or search results and wonder how reliable the website is or who’s behind the it or what point of view it might have. The great thing about the internet is that anyone can be a publisher; the downside is that it’s hard to tell which among thousands of news sites generally to trust and which to take with extra grains of salt.
This is why we founded NewsGuard, which has a team of experienced journalists with varied backgrounds who applied nine basic journalistic criteria to all the news and information websites that account for 96 percent of engagement in the U.S. These criteria are applied equally to well-known newspaper websites and to brand-new blogs—and equally to liberal websites and conservative websites.
The idea of assessing all websites of all political stripes exactly the same way — with no bias against conservative sites — may be surprising. I learned when I wrote contrarian editorials and opinion columns for The Wall Street Journal starting in 1980 that journalism outside the mainstream could be alarming; a profile of my writing on legal issues that appeared in the most influential magazine for lawyers, The American Lawyer, was headlined, “Daily Diatribe of the American Right.” (As it happens, the founder and editor in chief of The American Lawyer, Steven Brill, is my co-founder of NewsGuard.)
Lawyer Harmeet Dhillon wrote an opinion column last week asserting that NewsGuard must somehow be inherently biased in favor of “left-leaning, establishment media outlets” and against right-leaning, anti-establishment media.
That’s not a surprising assumption, because that bias is often a reality. But it’s not true in this case. NewsGuard is apolitical by design. Our criteria reflect universal measures of standard journalistic practices: Does a website regularly publish false content? Does it disclose ownership on its website? Can a reader find out who is in charge? There’s not a liberal or conservative way to have a corrections policy.
Unlike the algorithms used by Silicon Valley companies secretly to suppress some news and promote other news, NewsGuard operates in full transparency. The social media and search platforms give news website a trustworthiness rating. But readers of, say, the Daily Caller have no idea how these powerful platforms rate the Daily Caller. Neither do the editors of the Daily Caller. All the ratings are secret, as is the process that produces them. This naturally leads to worries about bias.
Along with green or red ratings, NewsGuard analysts provide “Nutrition Label” write ups explaining each rating and giving news consumers detailed information about each website. As part of that process, NewsGuard contacts the editors of websites falling short on any of the nine criteria, before we publish. Maybe we’ve missed something. Write ups are fairer because we include their comments.
Silicon Valley algorithms don’t call for comment.
NewsGuard analysts went through this process of engagement with the Daily Caller. Its editors may not agree with every aspect of its overall green rating, but, unlike where they stand with the opaque platforms, they know their NewsGuard rating, were able to comment on it, and have an open invitation to re-engage.
Of the 2,300 websites NewsGuard analysts have rated, more than 500 have changed one or more of their journalistic practices after being contacted by a NewsGuard analyst. Well-established publishers such as Reuters, Fortune and London’s Mail Online added information to their websites about their staff and leadership, as did Glenn Beck’s The Blaze and the conservative Western Journal. EndTimesHeadlines.com, which is run by a pastor based in Indiana, went to green from red after removing questionable content and implementing a corrections policy.
Some websites will probably never earn a green rating. RT and Sputnik, for example, are Russian-government websites dedicated to supporting Kremlin policies and actively seeking to undermine values of free people, free markets and the rule of law. NewsGuard warns that their mission is Vladimir Putin’s propaganda, not journalism.
Websites earn the trust of readers when they uphold standards of credibility and transparency. When the conservative Heritage Foundation decided to create a news website, the Daily Signal, its founders went out of their way to embrace the highest standards of journalism. As a result, the Daily Signal earns a rare perfect score on all nine NewsGuard criteria.
Contrary to the assumptions of skeptics such as Ms. Dhillon, the NewsGuard approach of treating upstart and conservative websites exactly the same as long-established and liberal sites is the best way for anti-establishment conservative sites to earn reputations for reliable journalism.
Gordon Crovitz is co-CEO of NewsGuard. He is former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, where he wrote editorials and the “Rule of Law” and “Information Age” opinion columns.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.