Toledo Lucas County Installs News Literacy Browser Extension

As part of its broader information literacy efforts, Toledo Lucas County Public Library recently installed NewsGuard, a free web extension, in the Firefox, Chrome, and Edge browsers on all of the library’s 750+ public and staff computers.

Newsguard logo with branding:As part of its broader information literacy efforts, Toledo Lucas County Public Library (TLCPL) recently installed NewsGuard, a free web extension, in the Firefox, Chrome, and Edge browsers on all of the library’s 750+ public and staff computers.

“It doesn’t block you from going to any website,” Andy Lechlak, digital strategist for TLCPL, told LJ—it just tells patrons more about the sites they visit. “It’s really there so that we can help ensure that the information people are finding is from a vetted source, and that we’re not sharing fake news.”

Sarah Brandt, VP of news literacy outreach for NewsGuard, said that “our goals are really aligned with librarians, because we’re an alternative to censorship. Rather than taking articles or websites off of platforms or [using algorithms] to push content down in search results…we advocate for giving people more context, guiding them through understanding their sources of information.”

NewsGuard employs a team of professional journalists and editors who assess the credibility and transparency of news and information sites using a set of nine criteria scored with a weighted point system. According to NewsGuard, these are:

  1. Not repeatedly publishing articles that are readily proven to be false (22 points)
  2. Gathering and presenting information responsibly, reflected in practices such as regularly referencing multiple sources with firsthand knowledge or information about subjects or events (18 points)
  3. Correcting or clarifying errors, and making it clear how to report errors or complaints (12.5 points)
  4. Clearly distinguishing between news and opinion (12.5 points)
  5. Avoiding deceptive headlines that sensationalize or misrepresent the content of the story (10 points)
  6. Disclosing ownership and financing, including notable ideological positions held by people with a significant financial stake in the site. (7.5 points)
  7. Clearly labeling advertising or sponsored content (7.5 points)
  8. Disclosing information about who is in charge editorially (5 points)
  9. Providing bylines and information about reporters and content creators (5 points)

News sites receiving scores of 60 points or higher receive a green rating, while sites with scores lower than 60 receive a red rating, according to NewsGuard. Separately, sites that exclusively publish satire, such as theonion.com, are highlighted as satire, while online forums such as reddit.com are flagged as platforms that publish unvetted content from users, some of which may be unreliable.

 

GIVING READERS PAUSE

With the extension installed, any links to news sites will display the NewsGuard shield icon in green with a checkmark or red with an exclamation point (or yellow with a smile for satire sites) in browser search results, on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and on platforms such as Reddit. Clicking on the NewsGuard icon opens up a “nutrition label” dropdown with more information about which criteria are or are not adhered to by the site, based on assessment by NewsGuard’s editors. From the dropdown, users can also opt to see the “full nutrition label,” a very detailed description of the site's ownership and financing, publication history, and staffing, NewsGuard’s rationale for its rating of the site, and other information.

“It’s very easy to share fake news on social media sites,” Lechlak said. “And on Facebook or Twitter, seeing that [red] shield might just give you enough of a pause that you won’t share [an article]. Or you’ll think twice before you share an article. Because…when you do share that, you’re putting your own credibility on the line.”

According to two Gallup studies commissioned by the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation to examine NewsGuard’s process, this appears to work as intended. Ninety-one percent of study participants “found the nutrition labels helpful, 89 percent said they wanted social media sites and search engine results to integrate NewsGuard’s ratings, and 63 percent said they would be less likely to share news from a red-rated site,” Brandt said.

Library users may need to see it in action to understand it. Lechlak noted that “it wasn’t from our community—it was from the Internet—but there was some backlash at first” when the library first installed the browser extension last November. “I think there was some confusion about what NewsGuard is. And people were worrying about the censoring of their Internet searches. That drastically calmed down after the first week or so.” Lechlak also said that the extension can be turned off by users during a public PC session if they do not want to see NewsGuard’s ratings or other information.

Brandt emphasized that the rating system is designed to be impartial, and not to assess a publication’s political leaning—only its adherence to the criteria, which includes disclosure of the owners’ leanings. Mainstream news sites including reason.com, theamericanconservative.com, wsj.com, nytimes.com, and washingtonpost.com each receive a perfect rating for adhering to all nine, for example.

“We don’t incorporate into our ratings…whether a site comes from a left-wing perspective or a right-wing perspective,” Brandt said, adding that this information is often included in the more detailed site descriptions. What matters to NewsGuard’s editors, she explained, is how that perspective impacts a site’s news coverage. “Is their news coverage overly cherry-picked? If they have an agenda that is influencing the way that they cover things, are they disclosing that agenda to you? Do they clearly indicate to the reader, ‘this is an opinion piece?’”

Generally speaking, however, alternative media sites with explicit political agendas appear not to fare as well with these criteria when compared with major news outlets. Sites on the opposite ends of the political spectrum, such as dailykos.com and drudgereport.com, for example, both receive red “proceed with caution” ratings from NewsGuard.

The label for dailykos.com contends that while the site avoids deceptive headlines and does not regularly publish false content, it is docked for issues such as blurring news and opinion. The detailed label also explains that the site publishes a great deal of content written by contributors who may be anonymous and may not publish corrections, which gets the site docked for gathering and presenting information irresponsibly.

Drudgereport.com is docked for blending news and opinion, sensationalizing headlines, never running corrections, gathering and presenting information irresponsibly (occasionally pairing photos and articles in a misleading manner, and linking to unreliable sources), and failing to clearly identify ownership and potential conflicts of interest.

Other sites that receive NewsGuard’s green check mark nonetheless have critiques highlighted on their labels. For example, Gizmodo Media Group’s topical sites, which include gizmodo.com, jezebel.com, and theroot.com, are given a green check mark for maintaining basic standards of credibility and transparency, but the NewsGuard’s label warns that these sites tend to blend news and opinion, often using loaded language in headlines and coverage.

“We really encourage users, particularly people using NewsGuard for educational purposes, to read the full nutritional label,” Brandt said. “You’ll get additional context and understand some of the nuances between sites, and how they’re approaching their reporting.”

 

LAUNCH AND SUSTAINABILITY

NewsGuard was launched in March 2018 by former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz and author and publishing entrepreneur Steven Brill, with investments—in descending order by equity held—from Brill and Crovitz, in addition to Nicholas Penniman IV, Nicholas Penniman V, Publicis Groupe, Eijk van Otterloo, Jules Kroll, Cox Investment Holdings, the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation, the Blue Haven Initiative, Eugene Garrett Bewkes III, John McCarter, Fitz Gate Ventures, Leslie Hill, Charlotte Hill, Thomas Glocer, Michael Hill, and John Levy.

Last August, Microsoft announced a partnership with NewsGuard as part of the software company’s Defending Democracy Program, initially launching an official NewsGuard extension for Microsoft’s Edge browser. Tom Burt, Microsoft’s corporate VP for customer security and trust, posted on the company’s official blog that the objective of the partnership “is not to preclude access to any news content—an approach that would conflict with our nation’s free speech principles—but rather to empower readers with additional information on the source and reliability of that content as they consume and/or share it.”

Microsoft has since integrated NewsGuard into its Edge mobile browser, making it a default feature. NewsGuard’s path to sustained funding would involve additional partnerships, licensing arrangements, and integrations with platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

And NewsGuard is hoping that more libraries will install the free browser extension and incorporate the site evaluations into news literacy programs.

“We see librarians and educators as our natural partners in this,” Brandt said. “We’ve created these reviews, which we think can be powerful tools for increasing news literacy skills and critical reading abilities, but we need people to help us be the messengers.”

Author Image
Matt Enis

Matt Enis (menis@mediasourceinc.com, @MatthewEnis on Twitter, matthewenis.com) is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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