VettNews Aims To Make Citizens More Savvy About News

How do citizens know if a news provider is a legitimate news source or a Macedonian hoax producer?

How can citizens know if a good news organization or a particular journalist is inflecting too much opinion into their news stories?

If a news journalist makes an error of fact, how can a reader let the news organization know that it needs to correct that fact?

These are some of the questions animating the team of journalists, journalism professors and technologists working on solutions for VettNews, the first vertical of Vett Inc.. Vett is a Swedish word that means “savvy.” We create tools to improve news trust and verification. We aim to make citizens more savvy about the news media they read online and news organizations more transparent with the public. Our team involves faculty, students and alumni of Columbia University, The King’s College, Stanford University and other institutions.

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The Problem

The problems of misinformation are well documented:  Hoax producers pumped fake stories during the 2016 presidential election. Facebook's credibility ruptured in the wake of its Cambridge Analytica scandal. Autocratic leaders around the world enjoy bullying the free press. All of this is having a damaging effect on the knowledge of everyday citizens and the notion of liberty in free societies. Citizens have lost respect for news media outlets and have lost faith in news.

The Pew Research Center study in 2016 analyzed 376 million Facebook users’ interactions with more than 900 news outlets and found that people tend to seek information that aligns with their own views. Pew also found that 64% of adults surveyed after the 2016 election believe false stories cause confusion and 23% said “they had shared fabricated political stories themselves - sometimes by mistake and sometimes intentionally.”

During November, 2017, hearings before the U.S. Congress, Facebook said the Internet Research Agency, a Russian company with close ties to the Kremlin, posted roughly 80,000 pieces of content shown to 29 million people over a two-year period between 2015 and 2017. We learned that Russian agents published more than 131,000 messages on Twitter, sent problematic Facebook posts that reached 126 million users and uploaded more than 1,000 videos on Google’s YouTube service designed to inflame political and social dynamics in the United States.

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.

The Viral Post & Initial Insight

A post our CEO Paul Glader wrote on in February of 2017 titled “10 Journalism Brands Where You Find Real Facts Rather Than Alternative Facts,” gained more than 1.6 million readers, going viral and continuing to rack up thousands of views every month. We received many notes of thanks, along with requests to expand the list and build a product to help citizens understand media outlets. That’s what led Glader and others to come up with the idea for VettNews, and to categorize news organizations into simple red, yellow and green light indicators in October of 2017 (before we heard of any other teams launching similar companies or products).

Our team began auditing the top 50 most trafficked news sites (from our database of 55,000 + new organizations) in 2018 based on a simple, binary methodology that measured whether news organizations have an ethics policy, a corrections practice and whether they separate news and opinion on their sites. We also tracked the political leaning / bias of news organizations and the ownership of news organizations. We surface the entire audited information and the resulting red, yellow or green ranking to citizens on our Chrome browser extension.

The Audit

By May of 2018, we audited the top 50 news sites on the Internet and flagged hundreds of clearly fake news sites. Our web-site also summarizes and provides data visualizations for key findings from our initial audit.

Only 28% of the 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.

Some popular sites Breitbart, India Times, and GlobalTimesCN —12 percent of the news sites we analyzed — 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.

Meanwhile, roughly half of the sites we survey, including some surprisingly good news organizations, ended up with a yellow light. Bloomberg News, CNBC, The New Yorker and The Atlantic all earned yellow. This means they can do better on at least one of our tests.

The Next Step Solution

This spring, NYC Media Lab’s Combine accelerator has helped us take our company further by pushing us to listen to customers and determine their needs. Our time learning from customers along with feedback from coaches, speakers and peer teams in the program have helped us see the nuanced needs of potential enterprise customers and citizens.

As a result of the Combine, we are currently building a new suite of tools to accompany our initial browser extension product. We believe the complete VettNews product and its features will dramatically improve the way news is produced and delivered. We believe the whole product will help the news industry better serve citizens.

VettNews creates trust and verification tools that make citizens more savvy about news and news providers more transparent with the public.

Universities: The King’s College in NYC (McCandlish Phillips Journalism Institute) and Stanford University.

Team Members: Paul Glader, Clemente Lisi, Peter Freeby, Neel Sesh Ramachandran, Brian Ourien, Princess Jones and Paul Glader