Wanted: Consumer Reports-style Ratings for Journalism

With the pioneers of fake news – Fox News and conservative talk radio hosts – working hard to brand legitimate news organizations as “fake news,” the world is getting more confusing to citizens who are sincerely trying to engage in critical thinking.

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They need help. America desperately needs an independent nonprofit organization to develop something like a Consumer Reports-style rating system for journalism.

The ratings would measure which news organizations are using journalism best practices. For example, which organizations are and aren’t requiring multiple sources? Who is and isn’t publishing unscientific online polls? Who is and isn’t labeling demonstrably false assertions as false? Who is and isn’t keeping editorials and reporting separate and well-labeled? Who is and isn’t using a rigorous fact-checking system? There are many best practices that could be considered for inclusion, and that would be a really important debate, but those are a few examples.

cursor_and_four_star_rated_-_google_searchThese ratings would need to be very simple, so readers, viewers and listeners people could get a quick, at-a-glance verdict, with more details readily available for the relatively few who want them. For example, a news organization that is found to be using all journalistic best practices might be labeled something like “Four Star Journalism, Most Trustworthy,” while an organization using almost no best practices might be labeled “One Star Journalism, Least Trustworthy.” An organization that is not using any journalistic standards might be labeled something like “Zero Stars, Not Trustworthy Journalism.”

I realize designing and operating a rating system like this would be much easier said than done. For example, who would choose the best practices and what would be chosen? What would the rating organization do when best practices use by an organization is inconsistent? What would it do when best practice claims don’t match actual performance? What would it do under pressure from powerful interests who are upset with the ratings? Who would fund such an endeavor, and would the funders’ reputations destroy the credibility of the ratings?

There are big challenges, but we find ways to rate all sorts of products and services, so I’m confident someone could develop a reasonable system for rating journalism. Moreover, even though the ratings inevitably would be imperfect, even imperfect ratings would be superior to what we have now—virtually no at-a-glance way to judge the relative quality of an information source.

Such a ratings organization would serve at least two important needs. First, it would inform citizens’ critical thinking.   At a time when many powerful interests are trying to make critical thinking difficult-to-impossible, our ailing democracy needs this.

Second, journalism ratings would serve as an incentive for news organizations to maintain and improve their journalism standards, an incentive that largely doesn’t exist today. If news aggregators like Apple News, Google News, News 360, Pulse, Fark, Feedly and Real Clear Politics started putting the star ratings next to news sources, that incentive could become quite powerful.  Maybe news organizations would start adopting best practices for ignoble reasons — fear of losing clicks, brand equity, staff and profits — but they would be adopting best practices nonetheless.

Consumer Reports-style ratings for news organizations would hardly be a panacea. Probably the biggest limitation they would face would be the confirmation bias that we all embrace when challenged. But ratings would make things a little better, and maybe even a lot better.  So why the hell not?

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