Poynter: Our blacklist of "unreliable" news sites turned out to be ... unreliable

This isn’t Poynter Institute’s finest hour. Not only did their attempt to identify “fake news” sites turn out to be inaccurate, it now appears much of it wasn’t even their own work. The organization pulled down their list just days after posting it, and then furiously editing it when the complaints rolled in.

Poynter managing editor Barbara Allen posted her regrets yesterday:

On Tuesday, April 30, Poynter posted a list of 515 “unreliable” news websites, built from pre-existing databases compiled by journalists, fact-checkers and researchers around the country. Our aim was to provide a useful tool for readers to gauge the legitimacy of the information they were consuming.

Soon after we published, we received complaints from those on the list and readers who objected to the inclusion of certain sites, and the exclusion of others. We began an audit to test the accuracy and veracity of the list, and while we feel that many of the sites did have a track record of publishing unreliable information, our review found weaknesses in the methodology. We detected inconsistencies between the findings of the original databases that were the sources for the list and our own rendering of the final report.

The Washington Free Beacon, which found itself on Poynter’s list, called into question whether this was Poynter’s work at all. Allen acknowledged using “pre-existing databases,” but Joe Schoffstall reports that an employee of the Southern Poverty Law Center created the list for Poynter and relied heavily on the SPLC’s political biases to compile it:

A journalism institute released a “blacklist” of media outlets they deemed as “unreliable” that was created by an employee of the left-wing Southern Poverty Law Center and overwhelmingly contains conservative new media outlets. …

Barrett Golding, an employee at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a far-left nonprofit embroiled in controversy over accusations of internal racism from its top management that led to its co-founder, Morris Dees, and president, Richard Cohen, being ousted from the group, created the list for Poynter.

Golding appears to have followed the SPLC “list” model in its creation of “unreliable” news sites, as many of the mainstream conservative sites on the list are thrown in with actual sites that push conspiracy theories. This mirrors the SPLC’s “hate group” list, which contains mainstream conservative organizations alongside racist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. 

If that’s true, then that raises some serious questions about Allen’s credibility. Whatever anyone else thinks about the SPLC, it’s not an organization oriented toward journalism. Its other partners like Factcheck.org and PolitiFact are primarily oriented toward journalism. But why did Poynter need partners at all? After all, journalism is Poynter’s own beat. If Poynter wanted to develop its own list of fake-news sites, they should have done it themselves — which would have saved their faces from egg-dripping later.

Philip Klein notes too that it wasn’t just a warning list for readers. At the Washington Examiner, another site that originally appeared on Poynter’s list before Allen took it off, Klein points out that the express purpose for the list was to induce advertisers to boycott the sites:

Poynter raised eyebrows this week when it posted an ” index” of what it identified as “unreliable” news sites. The index came from merging various lists identifying websites purportedly spreading misinformation.

The list was compiled by the group’s International Fact-Checking Network, and initially included the Washington Examiner. After we took issue with our inclusion, Poynter recognized that it was done in error, writing that after review, we had not “met the criteria for inclusion.”

What was especially alarming to many critics of the list, in addition to questioning the decision to include certain websites, was that language in the accompanying story called for advertisers to use the index to “blacklist” sites in the hopes of driving them out of business.

That was a curious decision by an institute supposedly devoted to advancing journalism. News outlets already have trouble getting advertisers to bite, thanks to constantly expanding boycotts over anything that even comes close to point-of-view journalism, regardless of reliability. Having Poynter join the pitchfork-and-torch brigade won’t advance journalism by starving the nuttier sites — it will starve everyone by making advertisers even more reluctant to support any journalism. And that means there will be a lot less money to advance journalism in the future.

On top of this, it’s pointless anyway. Does Poynter really live under the delusion that “fake news” is new, or news? People have been buying the grocery-checkout tabloids for decades despite their lack of reliability and in some cases sheer lunacy. Most of the legitimately screwy sites on their list could be easily diagnosed by most readers and advertisers within minutes of their first arrival. In fact, it’s a fair bet that anyone who pays attention to Poynter (myself included) probably never heard of most of the sites on their list, which makes it more of a referral than a warning.

The entire project was nothing more than an opportunity for academic tongue-clucking and fanning the flames of social panic. Only this time, the academics bit their own tongues by not doing their own work. It will take a very long time for Poynter to live this down … and it should.

Full disclosure: Hot Air was not included on Poynter’s list, but a couple of our sister sites ludicrously were.