Several months ago a colleague asked a group of legal information professionals if they had come up with a way to eliminate “bad” sources from news alerts. I have seen RT News – a notorious source for Russian propaganda show up in  alerts on artificial intelligence. Many law firm competitive intelligence operations rely on news aggregation platforms to curate alerts on companies, industries and issues. Platforms such as Vable, Ozmosys, Manzama and LexisNexis Newsdesk scan an ocean of daily news stories, social media and press releases in order to curate and surface stories relevant to a specific issue. To date, no aggregation platform has offered a tool for flagging or eliminating stories from “unreliable” sources. Human curation may flag bad sources but automated alerts may deliver news from a questionable source unless an alert is limited to a few reliable sources. Help may be on the way in the form of a product called NewsGuard.

NewsGuard will not rate individual stories but will evaluate the overall reliability of the news source. According to the company’s press release, NewsGuard will begin offering “reliability ratings” and news “nutrition labels”. The reliability ratings will follow the familiar red, green and yellow flags which lawyers have come to rely on in online caselaw citators such as Shepards and Keycite. If you are wondering if a lawyer came up with this model – you would be right. And he is a rather famous or infamous lawyer depending on how you got to know him: Steven Brill. His Newsguard co-founder is Gordon Crovitz, former publisher of the Wall Street Journal.

The Founders of NewsGuard

I have written about Steven Brill in an earlier post American Lawyer Sold: What Does this Mean for the Journalism of Law and Personality? which traced the history and evolution of American Lawyer Media. I have also read his excellent book “America’s Bitter Pill,” a deep analysis of the American health care system and the history of Obamacare. NewsGuard is not Brill’s first attempt to analyze the ontological issues of the news media. I remember an earlier stab he took at analyzing the news industry– a magazine called “Content.” I guess the theory was if you can turn law firm management gossip to read like “a ripping yarn,” newsroom gossip would never disappoint. Content closed after 3 years. American Lawyer lives on.

Brill is a serious journalist who has big ideas and I hope this big idea, to flag information quality issues, gets some traction. Brill is quoted in the press release: “Our goal is to help solve this problem now by using human beings-trained, experienced journalists-who will operate under a transparent, accountable process to apply basic common sense to a growing scourge that clearly cannot be solved by algorithms.”

Crovitz highlighted the diminished strength of news brands in a digital world. In addition to alerting people to fake news,” Crovitz said, “one of our key goals is to help consumers, including young people, know when to take news from certain sites with a grain of salt. Brands convey important information about sources of news, but unlike in the days of newsstands, brands don’t stand out in social media feeds or search results.”

Money and Idealism?

There are 18 investors in NewsGuard and the lead investor is an ad agency Publicis Groupe. So we have to think about what this means for advertisers. This is about making money and helping legitimate news sources enhance their share of a tight market for advertising dollars.

How will it Work?

NewsGuard will hire dozens of journalists to analyze and review the 7,500 news and information websites which are most accessed and shared in the United States. The goal is to have this accomplished before the mid-term elections in November. Accodring to the press release those 7,500 sites are responsible for 98% of the news articles read and shared in the US.

The reliability ratings will be licensed to social media platforms and online research companies. A free browser plug in will be available to schools, universities and individuals. It is not clear what this means for “for-profit” organizations such as law firms.

Sample NewsGuard Nutrition Label:

The Evaluation Process and The Swat Team

Here is the process described in the press release:

Two NewsGuard analysts will independently review and rate each site or online publication. One will then draft the Nutrition Label, which the other will edit. These write-ups can then be accessed to allow readers to learn more about why publishers received the Green, Yellow or Red rating.

The labels will explain the history of the site, what it attempts to cover, who owns it, who edits it, and make transparent other relevant factors, such as financing, notable awards or missteps, whether the publisher participates in programs such as the Trust Project , which holds publishers to transparency standards, or has repeatedly been found at fault by one of the established programs that check individual articles. (Links are available at the end of this release to an explanation of the ratings system and to a sample of Nutrition Labels.)

Any disagreements between the two analysts reviewing each site will be resolved by NewsGuard’s senior editorial officers, who will include co-founders Brill and Crovitz, as well as James Warren and Eric Effron.

In addition to rating the 7,500 most read and shared sites, a separate “SWAT Team” will be on call on a 24/7 basis to receive and act on alerts about sites that are suddenly trending, but that have not yet been rated, including because the site was just launched to promote a fictitious, sensational story. The NewsGuard analysts will rate these sites in real time.

Not Censorship

Here’s what I like about NewsGuard.  NewsGuard is NOT censoring the news. It is simply alerting readers that a source has been rated as unreliable. The reader can review the reasons for the rating and make their own decision. The NewsGuard press release describes a process of ongoing evaluation so the rating of a site can be “appealed” and go through a review process and change if the quality of the content changes or other disclosure problems are resolved.

What are Aggregators Doing?

I reached out to executives at several news aggregation platforms to determine how they protect their customers from “fake news” and to gauge their interest in licensing the NewsGuard tool. I will report those responses in a future blog post.