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Jan. 31, 2019, 12:15 p.m.
Reporting & Production

What do the websites of the Daily Mail, RT, and Sputnik no longer have in common? A red (bad) rating from NewsGuard, the startup aiming to filter the internet with trustworthy rankings through a browser extension.

Now The Daily Mail’s rating will show as green on a shield when you visit the website with the NewsGuard extension installed — “this website generally maintains basic standards of accuracy and accountability” — just like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and Fox News.

NewsGuard, the Steve Brill/Gordon Crovitz startup, launched under a year ago with a stoplight system as bumpers for what news sites users should trust and how news sites could be more transparent/media-literacy-friendly. But the 35-member team now says it was wrong about Mail Online, the Daily Mail’s website, the most read news site in the U.K., according to PressGazette:

In its new “green” label for the website, NewsGuard has rowed back on its previous claims about deceptive headlines, publishing false content and the failure to reveal who is in charge along with conflicts of interest.

It still regards Mail Online as failing to gather and present information responsibility, handle the difference between news and opinion responsibly and provide the names of content creators with contact information.

In its editor’s note on the updated “nutrition label” for Mail Online, NewsGuard said: “This label now has the benefit of the dailymail.co.uk’s input and our view is that in some important respects their objections are right and we were wrong, which we think demonstrates the value of the transparency and accountability that imbues what we do.”

(Back in 2017, Wikipedia editors voted to declare the Daily Mail an “unreliable source” that should not be used to back factual claims made in Wikipedia entries, though they did say “The Daily Mail is actually reliable for some subjects,” citing entertainment and sports. Here’s how NewsGuard describes its two primary colors: “Our Green-Red ratings signal if a website is trying to get it right or instead has a hidden agenda or knowingly publishes falsehoods or propaganda.”)

NewsGuard published its red rating back in August, but it says it didn’t hear from the newspaper until earlier this month, when the service got a spate of publicity around being available in Microsoft’s Edge mobile browser. (Presumably the Guardian headline “Don’t trust Daily Mail website, Microsoft browser warns users” motivated some executive to get in touch.) A Daily Mail spokesperson at the time called NewsGuard’s rating “this egregiously erroneous classification.”

NewsGuard’s “nutrition label” for the Daily Mail is now just short of 4,000 words (with the editor’s note starting about 2,500 in). Here are a few elements from the full editor’s note (which is currently here, but fair warning, NewsGuard changes these URLs frequently; you can download the NewsGuard browser extension to see it in full). All emphases ours:

NewsGuard has made changes to the dailymail.co.uk Nutrition Label shown above, which reflect the discussions we have had with a senior Daily Mail news executive who insisted that we not use his name…

The senior Daily Mail news executive wrote NewsGuard a long, point by point letter summarising the complaints and the views that he expressed in the discussions we had with him. However, he declined to allow us to publish the letter, which is what we would have preferred. Thus, what follows is a review of the points he made in our discussions and in the letter, followed by our reaction to them…

The senior Daily Mail news executive complained that we had overstated and relied too heavily on the number of complaints against the Daily Mail, MailOnline, and Mail on Sunday that had been verified by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), and, in fact, that the newsrooms’ voluntary participation in IPSO’s process was evidence of its dedication to high standards. After reflecting on his comments — and following discussions with some of the U.K.-based journalists whom we are consulting as we prepare to launch in the United Kingdom — we agree. We have changed this rating to green…

the senior Daily Mail news executive also stated that dailymail.co.uk published 144,000 articles over the last year. While we do not believe measuring a set percentage of “false” articles is appropriate, some consideration of volume is appropriate when considering whether a website repeatedly publishes content that is clearly and significantly false. Because the content on a website is also cumulative — it does not disappear daily — consideration should also be given to whether the website corrects and/or takes down content discovered to be false. In other words, because NewsGuard is attempting to inform online users of the overall reliability of a website, the best measure of “repeatedly” should include how likely is it that on any given day a reader will see false content. Therefore, NewsGuard has now determined that dailymail.co.uk does not repeatedly publish content that is clearly and significantly false

The senior Daily Mail news executive maintained that the website’s headlines are not deceptive — and that they accurately reflect what is in the ensuing story. After undertaking a new review of the website and considering also the argument that a few arguably deceptive headlines (or at least headlines that overstate the importance of the story) need to be considered against the volume of stories published on dailymail.co.uk, we agree. We made a mistake and have changed the rating.

Brill and Crovitz say that more than 500 news sites have “improved their journalism practices based on NewsGuard’s nine journalistic criteria,” a.k.a. tweaked their online presence with some extra info to potentially boost their green-red ratings.

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