Blacklists are wrong way to distinguish ‘fake’ news sites from real ones

Recently, I’ve seen far too many attempts to distinguish “good” news sources from “fake” and biased ones through the use of blacklists, usually long lists of news sources identified as suspect with no explanation or evidence provided, and often in a suspiciously even mix of left-wing and right-wing sites (i.e., “both-siderism” clearly at work).

This is altogether the wrong way to help people determine which news reports are most reliable. For one, as seen with Twitter trolls, identifying one by name might lead to that account being suspended, but the same person can quickly and easily set up another new account with a completely different name and start dishing out the same bile again with little interruption. Distinguishing good from bad with static lists is, to mix metaphors, a Sisyphean task of whack-a-mole.

Another problem: “good” news sources can — and have — disseminated “bad” and “fake” news: See, for example, the rush to drum up the case for the 2003 U.S./coalition invasion of Iraq. Many so-called mainstream and respectable news outlets — most of them, actually — swallowed the Bush administration’s arguments hook, line and sinker… and repeated them with few questions. Their reporters and editors kept their jobs. On the other hand, TV host Phil Donahue, who expressed his opposition to and doubts about the case for war, was fired from MSNBC. Jingoistic and unskeptical reporting back then are to blame for the many who still today believe Iraq really had weapons of mass destruction before the invasion… It didn’t.

No, what’s needed instead of lists is a method for helping readers (and media members themselves) better judge the quality of the information they find on any site. In other words, we need an evidence-supported means of establishing provenance for each purported fact reported in an article, wherever it is. Call it the scientific method for journalism.

What would that look like? That’s something I intend to explore on these pages in days and weeks to come. Stay tuned.

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