Companies That Sift Through False News Online Are Creating A New 'Trust Industry'

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A person browses through media websites on a computer in Singapore on May 30, 2013. (Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images)
A person browses through media websites on a computer in Singapore. (Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images)

Widespread false and misleading information online has given rise to a host of companies and nonprofits offering to sort through the noise. Slate has dubbed it the "trust industry."

Gordon Crovitz, former Wall Street Journal publisher, and Steven Brill, former journalist and attorney, grew up in the world of journalism and noticed it was becoming increasingly difficult for people to tell what news was reliable. So, they co-founded NewsGuard, a for-profit company that rates news websites’ credibility and transparency.

“We thought we would try to apply a journalistic solution to that problem,” Crovitz (@crovitz), co-CEO of the company, tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson.

Instead of using algorithms to determine how trustworthy a news site is, though, NewsGuard employs a team of about 30 analysts, who are trained as journalists. Using nine specific criteria — ranging from “regularly corrects or clarifies errors” to “clearly labels advertising” — they assess all news sites that account for 96 percent of engagement in the United States. An unreliable site gets a red label; a reliable site gets a green one.

“There is what we call a nutrition label,” he says, “which is a write-up about each website.

“The idea is that people will see the green and red rating in their social media feed or in their search result or maybe through their browser, and they'll instantly have a sense of, 'Should I take news from this particular website with an extra grain of salt, or is it generally reliable?' ”

Interview Highlights

On how NewsGuard analysts use the criteria

“If a website looks like it's going to fail on any one of our criterion, the analyst reaches out to them, speaks to the people behind the website. Sometimes, they change their practices. In more than 500 cases, about a quarter of all of the news websites in the U.S. that we have rated have actually improved their journalistic practice on one or more of those nine criteria in the time since we reached out to them.

“Some of the criteria have to do with credibility: Does the website repeatedly publish false information? Does it report the news in an irresponsible way? Or, it may have to do with transparency: Does it indicate the ownership of the website? Does it tell you something about who's in charge? Does it have a corrections policy?”

On the criticism of Fox News and why NewsGuard gave them a green rating

“If you look at the website of Fox News itself, it's much more a straight news website than ... some of the more opinion-oriented programming on Fox as a TV news operation. We separately rate some of the websites from some of the hosts, in the case of Fox and in the case of liberal voices as well.”

On liberal news sites  that have gotten red ratings

“The Daily Kos, for example, does not have a green rating, because of its failure in some of the more basic journalistic practices. It has an unusual publishing approach that includes a lot of content that's not vetted, that's not reviewed by a journalist — it's just published — and that, based on our criteria and I think based on basic journalistic practice, raises questions.”

On the conservative news site Breitbart’s red rating and the site's claim NewsGuard was blacklisting alternative media

“First, we're not blacklisting anybody. Even sites that get a red — what our nutrition label says is 'proceed with caution' — we would never discourage people from reading something. We're simply saying, 'This is from a site that does not follow basic journalistic criteria, so be extra careful.' ”

"Every news organization makes mistakes. The question is are those mistakes frequent enough to be regular? In many cases among our red-rated sites, they're in the business of misinformation or ... propaganda."

Gordon Crovitz

On why NewsGuard changed the U.K. news site The Daily Mail’s rating from red to green

“What happens in cases of publishers who look like they're going to get a negative mark on any of our criteria, before we publish that nutritional label, we reach out to them. We try to speak to them about where they've fallen short. Sometimes, in those discussions, they give us information that we didn't have. Very often, they actually make changes to their practices, especially around transparency, which are entirely in their control. In the case of The Daily Mail ... they did not engage with us before we published the write-up of them, which we did back in August. More recently, The Guardian — which has a bit of a competitive relationship with The Daily Mail I guess I would say — it published a story about The Daily Mail's rating. After that, The Daily Mail did engage with us, did change some of its practices, and we looked at some of the criteria that we used based on information that The Daily Mail provided to us and changed some of the criteria, and they have ended up green.”

On whether he thinks there’s money to be made in the so-called “trust industry”

“For us to build a sustainable business — the kind of business that the big platforms, the social media companies, the search companies, companies like Microsoft that is already providing NewsGuard through some of its products — for them to rely on a company, it has to be around and has to be sustainable, and we thought doing it as a for-profit would be the best way to ensure that.”

On why people should trust NewsGuard’s ratings

“As we set up the company, of course, that was one of the first questions we asked ourselves, and the way we're trying to address that issue is by operating with radical transparency ourself. So, we post the nine different criteria, we post the detailed definition for each of the criteria, we post on the website who did the review. If one of our analysts disagrees with what we've published, we actually publish that as well. All the research that we've seen and the feedback we've gotten says that the more transparent and the more disclosure that you can have, the better the odds of of being trusted.”

On what happens to a news site’s rating if it reports false news

“In order to fail our criterion of 'repeatedly publishes false information,' it would have to happen with some regularity. Every news organization makes mistakes. The question is, are those mistakes frequent enough to be regular? In many cases among our red-rated sites, they're in the business of misinformation or disinformation or propaganda. But for people who go to the office every day trying to do journalism, we understand that every news brand is going to make the occasional mistake. The real test is, is it regular and commonplace, or is it very much the exception?”

On what news organizations are doing a good job at operating credibly and transparently

“I think the most established news publishers — and here, I'm thinking both of legacy newspapers and broadcasters, but also some of the more mature digital-only publishers — I think in almost every case, they could do a better job of being transparent about how they do their work. It's become so easy for someone to start a website whose goal is to confuse people or to peddle false information that for journalistic enterprises that are doing legitimate journalism, spending a little bit more time and effort in being transparent and disclosing how they operate, I think would really help separate them from the people who are in the business in order to generate programmatic advertising revenues or to serve the propaganda wishes of their funder in the case of some of the biggest disinformation sites.”

Jill Ryan produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Jackson Cote adapted it for web.

This segment aired on February 15, 2019.


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Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.



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