Column: A way for citizens to “Vett” the news

Macedonian hoax producers pumping fake stories during the 2016 presidential election. Facebook’s credibility rupture in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Autocratic leaders bullying the free press.

These are some of the problems citizens face while trying to obtain accurate news and information online. Here’s a solution.

In a quest to make ethics visible, I formed a new company called Vett Inc. and will be launching its first product called “VettNews,” a unique ratings agency for news organizations.

The results of our first 50 audits are surprising in that some decent news organizations didn’t receive a green light, our top rating. In this post, I explain why.

Vett is a Swedish word that means “savvy” and our aim is to make citizens more savvy about news media organizations they read online.

We also want to make news organizations more transparent to citizens about ethics policies, corrections policies and how they present news and opinion.

We provide overviews of the news organizations that explain why the outlet gets a particular rating and includes information on its ownership structure and political leaning.

So far we audited the top 50 news sites on the Internet and flagged hundreds of clearly fake news sites.

We are soon launching a browser extension that alerts citizens to the rankings, helping them navigate to ethical news outlets. We welcome you to help us expand the audits of news organizations by donating at VettNews.com.

As you noodle around the internet with our browser extension (when it launches), you will see that we use a red flag to identify problematic journalism organizations and known fake news sites that don’t pass our audit tests.

We flag organizations that pass at least one of our three main tests with a yellow light. News organizations that pass all three of our primary tests receive a green light.

Organizations like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Reuters received a glowing green light for their transparency with readers.

Reuters, in particular, gets a glowing green for the elegant way they make their standards and ethics visible to readers at the bottom of every single story they publish.

Meanwhile, popular sites Breitbart, India Times, and GlobalTimesCN landed a red light because they lack a visible ethics and standards statement, don’t appear willing to correct errors and fail to clearly label the difference between news and opinion stories.
Some surprisingly good news organizations end up with a yellow light.

Bloomberg News, CNBC, The New Yorker and The Atlantic all earned yellow. This means they can do better on our tests.

In the case of Bloomberg News, we note that the organization does clearly label its opinion sections. It does correct its mistakes but its website does not have a robust page to guide readers on how to file a complaint or to request a correction or clarification. It merely offers an email address for those who have feedback or questions about coverage. Also, we didn’t see a code of ethics or standards on Bloomberg’s website. So we wrote to the company asking to confirm they don’t post such standards online.

Company spokeswoman Augusta Mellon wrote back to say the book called “The Bloomberg Way” written by former editor in chief Matthew Winkler “is the current code of ethics.”

I wrote back asking if “The Bloomberg Way” is posted on the website anywhere so citizens can read it or if the book is posted on the Bloomberg terminal, where traders and other clients can see it.

She said the book is available on the terminal but other citizens have to buy the book (proceeds are donated to the Committee to Protect Journalists).

We created this product because we believe news organizations need to be as transparent as possible with their audience in this new age where most readers view journalistic content via social media rather than subscriptions to a news outlet.

And we believe citizens should have good information about news organizations as they decide where to spend their precious subscription dollars. It’s clear to us that citizens are more confused about news than many media organizations may realize.

The Pew Research Center study found that 64 percent of adults surveyed after the 2016 election believe false stories cause confusion and 23 percent said “they had shared fabricated political stories themselves – sometimes by mistake and sometimes intentionally.”

While big tech companies warble about “making the world a better place,” they have also irresponsibly served up problematic content to citizens.

The problem has created information pollution and what some think tanks term a “national security issue.”

While fake Internet stories are already here, fake audio and video stories will likely be emerging.

We plan to complete audits of more than 50,000 news outlets in coming months.

We plan to raise funds and hire data scientists to help make the product more robust. We ask citizens to use the product when it launches and to spread the word about media literacy.

Paul Glader, a Great Neck resident, is a founder of VettNews and is an associate professor of journalism, media and entrepreneurship at The King’s College in New York City. A version of this column initially appeared on Forbes.com.

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