Independent study of California news sources finds dozens of partisan websites posing as local newspapers
Most Californian news sources are highly trustworthy, adhering strongly to basic journalistic standards–but readers’ trust in those news outlets is under threat from dozens of highly partisan sites masquerading as traditional local news sites, according to a new report from NewsGuard, a non-partisan organization that employs journalists to rate the credibility of online news sources.
The report, funded by and produced in partnership with The Ward Creek Foundation and The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, sheds light on the state of news media credibility and partisan disinformation in California, an urgent threat to readers’ trust in local news in the Golden State. The report follows the publication of the Pennsylvania Media Trust Report, which found that 30% of the most popular news websites in Pennsylvania are untrustworthy, including local versions of national networks secretly funded by far right-wing and far left-wing groups masquerading as typical local news sites.
In the California News Integrity Report, NewsGuard’s team of journalists assessed 202 California-based news outlets against nine basic, apolitical journalistic criteria — such as whether the outlets repeatedly publish false content, gather information from credible sources, separate news from opinion, or disclose ownership and financing details to prevent conflicts of interest. Each source was assigned a trust score of 0-100 based on the criteria.
The report found that a high percentage — 38% — of the Californian news sites reviewed were designed to look and feel like local newspapers, but were actually partisan operations with undisclosed, politically motivated funding sources, serious conflicts of interest, and highly slanted coverage.
“These sites have names like The Santa Monica Observer, The Merced Times, The Santa Cruz Standard—and their websites are indistinguishable from typical local news sites,” the report said. “Research has found that readers disproportionately trust local news sources—a factor these sites simultaneously exploit and undermine.”
News outlets in this category included dozens of sites operated by Metric Media, a network of more than 1,000 websites nationwide that look like local news sources but actually publish highly partisan news sometimes on behalf of political campaigns or corporate clients, without disclosure. Other sources, such as the Stockton-based 209Times.com, were launched to promote or attack specific political candidates.
The report noted how a reader in the Fresno area might reasonably expect that websites with names like FresnoBee.com and The Fresno Leader would both provide legitimate local coverage of their local area. Their home pages look similar, with headlines about local news and links to different sections of content. “But when it comes to trust, there is a big difference between the two sites,” the report said. “FresnoBee.com is the website of the The Fresno Bee, a local newspaper that has been covering news in the area since 1922. It gets a 100-point trust score from NewsGuard … Fresno Leader, on the other hand, is part of Metric Media, a network of nearly 1,300 websites nationwide that present themselves as generic local news outlets—but which actually are run by a conservative political consultant.”
‘‘The rise in political propaganda masquerading as nonpartisan news in California is alarming and disturbing,’’ said Craig Forman, Chairman and Chief Executive of The Ward Creek Foundation, a Northern California philanthropy that with Philadelphia’s Lenfest Institute sponsored the NewsGuard research. ‘‘Shining this spotlight documents this growing trend,’’ said Forman, a Schuster technology fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government’s Shorenstein Center. ‘’And we hope the data will spur efforts to counter misinformation through increased investment in crucial, rigorously reported local news.’’
The report found that 62% of the California-based news outlets reviewed were highly credible, achieving an average trust score of 92.4 out of 100 points, indicating that the news sources adhere strongly to journalistic standards and best practices.
Despite the overall strong scores for these publications, the report noted that “even among the sites that are generally credible, the data shows some issues with transparency and disclosure practices that could undermine reader trust.” For example, nearly half of the publications reviewed lost points for not having a clear policy for posting corrections when they made errors or for failing to clearly disclose ownership and financing details to readers.
“Together, we must develop solutions that maintain trust in local journalism, starting by identifying and combatting the most egregious disinformation websites masquerading as legitimate, independent news providers” said Lenfest Institute Executive Director & CEO Jim Friedlich. “Continued bad-faith attempts to co-opt local journalism for political gain are deeply troubling. The Lenfest Institute was proud to originate NewsGuard’s critical research in Pennsylvania and now to help expand it to California.”
The report included a collection of resources for legitimate news publishers to use to increase reader trust and distinguish themselves more clearly from partisan sites masquerading as local news, such as examples of best-practice ownership disclosure pages, bylines, and corrections policies.
“The most striking thing about the findings of this report is that the journalistic standards we assessed are nothing new or surprising–they’re basic practices of credibility and transparency that have been common in most print newspapers and magazines for decades,” said Gordon Crovitz, Co-CEO of NewsGuard. “Given the threats to trust in local news highlighted in this report, every legitimate news outlet should make sure they have adopted these longstanding journalistic best practices in digital formats, too.”