A new report shows how partisan websites are eroding trust in legitimate local news sites in Pennsylvania. This is how we can restore faith in local journalism

Today, The Lenfest Institute for Journalism published The Pennsylvania Media Trust Report, an independent study of the veracity, independence, and journalistic practices of several hundred websites operating within Pennsylvania or targeting Pennsylvanians. Conducted by NewsGuard, a non-partisan, independent news media watchdog organization, the study tracks the degree to which misinformation and disinformation has targeted and penetrated the Keystone State.

You can read the full study here.

The Lenfest Institute commissioned this research because we are deeply concerned about disinformation and misinformation targeting Americans, and we felt a special responsibility to look closely at how these efforts impacted Pennsylvania. We have long been aware of bad actors publishing disinformation and false news targeting Pennsylvanians, but did not know the scope or severity of the problem. The study reveals that the assault on legitimate local news sources is comprehensive, well-funded, organized, and insidious.

The NewsGuard study assessed the trustworthiness of 160 websites that purport to serve Pennsylvania. NewsGuard employs an array of objective criteria to rate the trustworthiness of news and information providers. Criteria include the degree to which news sites disclose their true ownership, whether they publish corrections, whether they blend news and opinion without disclosing this practice, and whether they knowingly publish false news for political or commercial purposes, among other factors.

The good news is that the vast majority of legitimate local news sites received high trust rankings.  The bad news is that we have now established that a shockingly high 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.

The study also found that national and out-of-state “news” websites play a disproportionate role in publishing misinformation about Pennsylvania. A total of 13.7% of the sites covering the state were rated as generally untrustworthy. However, these sites in turn produce approximately 25% of all social media engagement about the state. These sites are literally twice as good at grabbing attention and creating viral content than legitimate news sites, often publishing knowingly false and polarizing content. As Winston Churchill said, “A lie gets half way around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

The Lehigh Valley is a microcosm of the challenge to legitimate local news. Take for example the case of LehighTimes.com versus LehighValleyLive.com, each of which present themselves as independent and trustworthy local news sites. Here’s how the report describes it:

LehighValleyLive.com is the website of the The Express-Times, a newspaper in Easton, PA that has been covering local news since 1855. LehighTimes.com is part of Metric Media, a nationwide network of nearly 1,300 websites nationwide that present themselves as generic local news outlets—but which actually are run by a conservative political operative and publish ‘coverage that is ordered up by Republican groups and corporate PR firms,’ according to The New York Times.

The question of course is what to do about these troubling trends.

There is a vital need to recognize that the forces of disinformation are well-organized, well-funded, and have no desire to stick to facts. Beyond the political forces behind it, disinformation thrives because of the social media platforms on which it spreads and because of the advertisers who help fund it.

The major social media companies have each stated publicly their support for legitimate news and their opposition to disinformation, and yet their platforms remain the principle engine for the distribution of false news. The platform companies clearly must invest more effectively in the detection and eradication of misinformation and disinformation. There are opportunities for improved curation and editorial oversight as well as software tools available and both legislative and regulatory opportunities to better address the problem.

Major advertisers are also significant contributors to false news often unknowingly. Digital advertising is increasingly automated, with algorithms rather than humans buying online ad space. Absent safeguards and protective policies, major advertisers often support false news sites unknowingly and unwittingly. The insurance company Geico, controlled by Warren Buffet, for example, found last year that its ads were a major supporter of RT, the Russian propaganda TV and digital powerhouse. Major advertisers need to police themselves and their agencies, both to protect the news industry and to safeguard their own brands.

Ultimately though, the best defense is a good offense. Disinformation fills voids where there is a lack of quality, independent news and information. We must continue to support local journalists and news organizations, who are working tirelessly to provide their communities with accurate, reliable information.

Misinformation and disinformation affect us all, and job one is for all of us — communities, foundations, local advertisers and individual readers — to continue to fund real, independent, fact-based journalism.

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