Serial media entrepreneur Steven Brill and former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz launched a startup on March 4 called NewsGuard, which they hope will create a ranking system for the credibility of news. The startup is hiring human journalists and editors to evaluate 7,500 news sites that account for 98 percent of engagement with news online in the US.
Websites will receive green, yellow, or red ratings based on how credible they are according to a range of factors, and there will also be what the company is calling “nutrition labels,” with more detailed information about each site. Crovitz says the idea is to let readers know whether “they need to take particular brands they see online with a grain of salt—or with an entire shaker.” The company plans to try and license its ranking system to Google, Facebook and Twitter.
The idea of ranking sites on credibility seems like a good idea at first, but it is likely to be fraught with problems. For example, the criteria that NewsGuard uses to judge who is credible and who isn’t will be a big factor, since critics will inevitably try to poke holes in the methodology (Brill and Crovitz say the process will be open and transparent). Even fact-checking sites like Snopes and Politifact have been criticized by the alt-right for allegedly being biased towards liberal causes and topics. Credibility is an even slipperier thing to get a handle on. And we all know that having nutrition labels doesn’t prevent millions of people from eating things they shouldn’t.