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Don't Trust the News?

A new community of expert and amateur readers grades the news as it happens...
 
 
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How can you be sure that the news you see and hear is true? Are there any journals and journalists that you can really trust and rely on? If so, how can you find them amidst the clangor and the clutter?

After all, we live in an age of media scams and scandals -- from blowing it up on "Dateline" NBC to making it up in the New York Times (and the Daily News and USA Today and the Boston Globe and the New Republic and so on, ad nauseum and seemingly ad infinitum …) and from Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" to O.J. Simpson's "If I Did It" show… from Fox News to faux news all the way to even phonier video 'news' releases… and from government-and-corporate-sponsored "opinion" commentary to paid Pentagon propaganda posing as authentic journalism to Disney's undocumented 911 "docudrama" -- wherever and whenever you look, examples of media make-believe abound.

So what's a citizen to do? In recent years, a combination of factors -- including but not limited to the consolidation of mainstream media by huge multinational entertainment conglomerates, the concomitant spread of cable television's highly partisan and factually challenged opinions-as-news formats, the digital information revolution and its explosion of online media outlets, and the Defense Department's Rumsfeldian reliance on "Information Dominance" -- have combined to create a serious long-term problem for our democracy. To put it bluntly, many of us no longer feel we can trust the news media to deliver the information we need to function as fully informed democrats.

Enter NewsTrust, an online social news network aimed at helping people identify quality journalism -- or "news you can trust." This free, not-for-profit service offers the most trusted news of the day, as selected by community members using state-of-the-art media literacy tools. By filtering content available from online sources, establishing common metrics for evaluation, and accessing the "wisdom of the crowds" through social networking, the free, not-for-profit NewsTrust service offers one possible solution to the "News You Can Trust" conundrum. The website, where members rate the news online based on commonly accepted standards of journalistic quality, features news and analysis from hundreds of mainstream and independent news sources. This non-partisan community effort tracks news media worldwide and helps citizens make informed decisions about democracy across party lines.

At NewsTrust, anyone can submit stories and news sources for community consideration. Each is then researched and rated by panels of reviewers for balance, fairness and other basic journalistic principles. Some reviewers are paid practicing journalists, others students -- but most are simply "ordinary citizens" seeking trustworthy information. NewsTrust's voluminous research shows that "amateur'" citizen reviewers using the site's unique review tools are able to evaluate news as reliably as experienced professionals.

NewsTrust is the brainchild of former journalist and brilliant digital media pioneer Fabrice Florin. After cashing out of a company that delivered content to mobile devices, Florin had time and money on his hands. While seeking something "socially useful" to occupy his time, he soon determined that media and its discontents would be a good place to put his energy. In early 2005, Florin began his effort to jumpstart NewsTrust. One of his first calls was to this reporter.

A mutual friend had referred Florin, whom I did not know. He told me of his plan to create an online space devoted "simply to helping each other find good journalism online." He said that he has some early interest and a modicum of backing from MoveOn, the self-identified "progressive family of organizations" that claims 3.3 million members across America working together "to realize the progressive vision of our country's founders."

I told Florin that I liked his concept, but thought it would never work if it accepted funding and support solely from the likes of MoveOn. The key to NewsTrust's success, to my mind, was to ensure that the service was completely non-ideological and non-partisan -- both in fact and in perception. Aligning closely with any partisan group -- especially the controversial Moveon -- would doom the effort at its inception. Finally, I told Florin he would also have to reach out to conservatives and independents and make strenuous efforts to include them in the NewsTrust community.

In light of the fact that I had told him he would have to turn down tens of thousands of dollars in greatly needed funding to work with me, I assumed that would be the last time I ever heard from Florin. Instead, to my great surprise, he called back several weeks later and said he thought I was right, and agreed to accept my suggestion of soliciting support and involvement from beyond the "progressive" community. More surprisingly, he also said he had decided not to accept MoveOn's money -- despite the project's dire funding prospects -- because to do so would damage (if not kill) the entire project. (Full Disclosure: I decided on the spot to accept Florin's offer of becoming NewsTrust's first -- and unpaid -- Editorial Director, and immediately began volunteering my services to help make the project a reality.)

Of course, the lack of funding could also kill the project -- and almost did several times. Efforts to garner grants from foundations proved largely futile, as the recent collapse in support for the not-for-profit independent media sector continues unabated. The response from leading schools of journalism, where we believe NewsTrust could play a vital role, was tepid, as administrators grappled with a changing industry, changing curricula and their own constant funding crises. Discussions with industry giants such as Google and Yahoo yielded initial interest but ultimately a let's-wait-and-see-what-happens response. Meanwhile work on developing the project and the site continued -- and the related expenses continued to mount.

When the money first ran out, Florin and NewsTrust Director of Product Development David Fox, who manages all web and technical development aspects of the project, rolled up their sleeves and went to work, spending months literally hand-coding and personally programming the site. When the money ran out the second time, Florin reached into his personal account and donated the funds necessary to keep the project going. Although he's far from wealthy, he says it's all been worth it.

"I'm just an ordinary person who was concerned about what was happening in our society and starting looking for quality, trustworthy information," Florin says. "But it was extremely tough to do so."

So who you gonna trust? Now there's NewsTrust. "Our social news network features some of the best and worst news of the day, all based on ratings from people just like you and me," says Florin. "We review everything our members submit and rate it based on journalistic quality, rather than mere popularity (which many other sites rely on) or partisan ideology, which we frankly identify as part of the problem with the media today -- and certainly not part of any solution."

NewsTrust has been operating as a closed, private pilot site for months, but is opening its portal this week to the public-at-large. It is user-friendly, offering a range of tools and review possibilities - including a 'quick review' option for newbies and those pressed for time, and a longer, more detailed 'full review' for dedicated news fanatics who are poised to make significant contributions of time and energy. It already tracks ratings for hundreds of text-based news sources, from blogs to newspapers to wire services to magazines, and continually adds new sources based on member submissions. After going public, its utility and reach should grow exponentially, and if all goes well, NewsTrust is poised to scale and to expand its ratings eventually to include rich audio and video sources as well.

In its first year as a pilot project, NewsTrust has accomplished a lot, including:

  • developing a host of new online review tools;
  • recruiting an experienced management team;
  • adding an accomplished board of advisers;
  • conducting extensive research and assessing market demand through national online surveys;
  • testing educational applications of the service; and
  • exploring collaborations and partnerships with a range of stakeholders, including both established news providers and startups, as well as civic groups and academic institutions.

What happens next is up to you.

Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor writes the Media Is A Plural blog.

 
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