The independent news collective is teaching a new generation of journalists and citizens to spot the stories in plain sight.
On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) was shot down over eastern Ukraine. The attack occurred in an area controlled by pro-Russian separatists and seemed the result of a surface-to-air missile. Everyone on board was killed.
The event triggered public outrage and an international season of the blame game. Western Europe, led by the U.S. and Ukraine, pointed fingers at Russia, while Russia tried to pin the blame on Ukraine, going so far as to claim a Ukrainian military jet tailed the commercial aircraft immediately before the disaster.
Later that year, an investigative team put out a report linking the pro-Russian separatists to the Buk-M1 missile launcher likely responsible for the tragedy. The team compiled photos, satellite imagery, and video evidence to follow a missile transport from Donetsk to Snizhne immediately before the downing of the aircraft. They then confirmed the transport leaving the area later, sans one missile.
This report was not filed by an NGO or a legacy news organization like the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, nor did the team have access to insider or classified information. Its authors were a small, independent collective of researchers and citizen journalists called Bellingcat, and their information came from social media posts, Google Maps satellite imagery, and videos uploaded to YouTube. In other words, the facts were out in the open for anyone to see. Bellingcat simply knew where to look.
Following the data
Dutch Safety Board Chairman Tjibbe Joustra speaks in front of the MH17 wreckage to present its final report into the attack.
Bellingcat was founded by Eliot Higgins, a citizen journalist who gained online prominence investigating weapons smuggling during the Syrian war. The collective's report into the MH17 attack would serve as its breakthrough, and it would continue to improve our understanding of the tragic event and countering Russian disinformation.
Since then, Bellingcat has legally registered as a foundation in the Netherlands and has continued to unearth consequential details to some of the most important news stories of the last decade, including the Syrian War, the Christchurch mosque massacre, and the poisonings of Yulia Skripal and Alexei Navalny.
The foundation's model of journalism is known as "open-source investigation." According to Aric Toler, Bellingcat's director of research and training, it's less an overturning of investigative journalism than a "genre" within it. This type of investigation follows digital data trails that are freely available on the internet. The bread crumbs could be found in public records, media reports, photos on Twitter, or people silly enough to upload a video of themselves committing a crime on Parler.
"Bellingcat's rise reveals something new about our digitally mediated times: spying is no longer the preserve of nation states – anyone with an internet connection can do it. The balance between open and secret intelligence is shifting. The most useful stuff is often public," writes Luke Harding for the Guardian.
The vast amount of data available online allows Bellingcat's researchers to piece together timelines or connect seemingly disparate events to reveal their connective, underlying thread. In its investigation into the shooting of Ashli Babbitt, researchers created a timeline of radicalization through her social-media footprint; they also mapped her journey during the Capitol Riot by locating videos showing her in the crowd and comparing background details to publicly available floorplans of the U.S. Capitol Building.
Like a fussy math teacher, the foundation employs a "show-your-work approach" to maintain credibility, transparency, and back-of-the-book peeking. Each article or report meticulously presents its data points through links and images, building the trail of evidence crumb-by-crumb. By the end, readers have seen the same evidence as the researcher and can decide whether said evidence supports the researcher's conclusions.
Aware such evidence can sometimes vanish—either by the people who upload it or corporations fretting over public relations—Bellingcat has also gone to great lengths to archive and back up important data before they are lost.
Balancing clarity and caution
While today Bellingcat employs a small team of journalists and editors, it still relies on volunteers and citizen journalists willing to dedicate the time and effort to scrape the internet for leads.
This, Toler told us in our interview, is an advantage to Bellingcat's investigative methods. While traditional news outlets contend with shrinking budgets, less personnel, and more information to wrangle than ever, they simply lack the resources necessary to explore the deluge of data we call the internet. Conversely, Bellingcat can overcome these barriers by tapping into a pre-existing group of enthusiasts who thrive on a sense of devotion, interest, and personal satisfaction. And the more people who team up to solve a problem, the lighter the work becomes.
But there are challenges. "It's a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you have a clear gap in information. It's just not feasible for large outlets to cover this stuff to the degree it should be. But also, the people who do have time and do it, there's not as much responsibility on them, and who knows what they could do that causes harm," Toler said.
Consider the open-sourced nature of the evidence. Bellingcat's show-your-work approach is necessary for clarity and transparency, but it also creates a set of instructions for those looking to duplicate the formula. While Bellingcat maintains the guidelines of a traditional newsroom, others may not and bad actors could locate information Bellingcat deemed sensitive enough to redact and use it to harm others by, say, doxing.
"There's really no good solution because you can't control what the mob does. If someone is angry, they can dig into this stuff because it is open source, and if you give the transparency of how you got your stuff, then you can't avoid the fact that it can then be reproduced and found," Toler said.
Because of this, Bellingcat hopes to serve as a type of intermediary. Like a traditional newsroom, it vets its sources, sets up fail-safes to catch misinformation, and writes its reports to protect bystanders and prevent libel. It hopes these practices will serve as an example for citizen journalists to emulate. On the obverse, it aims to show established news outlets the power and reach of open-sourced investigative techniques and these online communities.
Recently, Bellingcat has worked to investigate the Jan.6 Capitol Riots.
Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Looking to the larger media landscape, Bellingcat doesn't see itself in competition with traditional news media. It views its position as one of cooperation. The foundation has worked with several news partners to investigate stories and promote its work, such as sharing the findings of its Riley June Williams investigation with NBC.
It also offers training workshops to teach open-source investigation. These are not only attended by journalists wishing to hone their skills but professionals like lawyers and finance managers looking to add these techniques to their trades. Because the foundation sees its methods as an extension of investigative journalism, not a replacement for it, it isn't looking to corner a market. Rather, it aims to evolve a profession to meet the challenges of its new 21st-century environment.
As Toler told us: "Journalism doesn't work one way or the other. It should be both. Do some open-source sleuthing to compliment and boost your on-the-ground reporting.
"Our gospel of open source, we're trying to spread that as much as we can. We want to make this a very mainstream part of traditional news. If we're made obsolete, that's a good thing because we'd like for more traditional news outlets to be doing digital investigation and verification work."
The platform experiments with letting users decide what content needs flagging.
- Birdwatch is a new effort by Twitter to crowdsource content moderation.
- Still in testing, volunteers can comment on tweets they find problematic.
- Reactions to the new experiment are predictably colorful and bird-brained.
Twitter is experimenting with a new community-moderation system that puts users in the position of keeping other users honest. It's a system that's not completely different from the surprisingly successful manner in which Wikipedia vets posted content, and it functions similarly to Reddit's rating system as well.
Like everything else on Twitter, the response to the announcement of what the platform calls "Birdwatch" (get it?) has been over-the-top and riddled with untruths and conspiratorial paranoia. Also, some people think it's an idea worth exploring. Sounds about right.
For now, Birdwatch is being tested from its own site — it's not something Twitter users can currently see unless they volunteer to contribute to it. When someone signs up to test Birdwatch, a new option appears among the actions available for responding to a tweet on Twitter proper. Eventually, if it works out, Birdwatch labels and comments would appear publicly affixed to tweets.
Here's how Birdwatch works once you sign up:
- When you click on the three-dot menu to the right of a questionable tweet, a new option appears at the bottom of the actions presented: "Contribute to Birdwatch."
- If you choose this option, you're brought to a list of reasons you might have for feeling the tweet should be tagged as iffy — you check the box that reflects your opinion.
- Next, you tell Twitter the damage the tweet could potentially cause if it's left unflagged.
- You're asked for a comment about your objection to the tweet.
- Finally, you're asked to assess the current Birdwatch consensus regarding the tweet.
Twitter intends to develop an algorithmic approach to collating Birdwatch responses, and is also planning review sessions with subject-matter experts, since, as one Twitter user posted, "The plural of anecdote is not fact."
So far, the Twitter community's response to Birdwatch covers the whole spectrum, with some people hopeful and many more, this being the internet, skeptical. (We'll talk about politicians' response to Birdwatch below.)
How Donald Trump gave Twitter its wings
Birdwatch, um, flies in the face of what has made Twitter so central to the U.S. politics since around 2015. Prior to the entry of Donald Trump into the 2016 presidential race, Twitter seemed to many to be on its way out, yet another discarded novelty of the internet age.
Candidate Trump changed all that and continued to use his Twitter account as his primary platform throughout his presidency. In terms of the day-to-day drama that accompanied his time in office, the president's expulsion from Twitter felt more like the end of his term than did the official transfer of power on January 20.
That expulsion itself was apparently the end result of considerable turmoil and discord internally within Twitter. That's because Donald Trump's artful deployment of Twitter has been the primary driver behind its resurgence and the reason it continues to play a significant role in U.S. politics.
What @realDonaldTrump understood was that a deliberately outrageous tweet is an easy way to immediately grab the public's attention, either for sheer publicity value or as a means of distraction. Truth and accuracy matter far less than what social media calls "engagement." Post-Trump, other publicity-hungry politicians continue to follow the ex-president's playbook. Some of them are even doing so as they attack Birdwatch.
And herein lies Twitter's dilemma. When provocative content draws attention to a tweet poster, it also draws attention to Twitter, and that benefits the platform by increasing the size of the audience it can sell to advertisers. At the same time, there's growing political pressure on the company to control the dissemination of content that's harmful to the public and American political process.
Birdwatch may let Twitter off the hook: Truth would be crowdsourced and enforced without Twitter, or its advertisers, having to get its hands dirty with endless controversies.
The tweet that probably did it.
Politics and politicians
The pressure to do better largely comes in the form of threats to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This is the regulation that absolves a social media platform from legal liability for content its users post. Though the rule's purpose is to promote the use of unfettered expression on social media, there's an inherent problem — this kind of content tends to go viral and that increases audience size, which increases a platform's advertising sales and that means more profit.
Some of the loudest voices, ironically, are politicians who themselves use Twitter for spreading this very type of content. The former president, in fact, vetoed a defense bill because it didn't contain a repeal of Section 230 — it doesn't seem to have occurred to him that his own inflammatory tweets and posts wouldn't be published if platforms were concerned about being held responsible.
Note: If you're outraged at some politician's disingenuous behavior and tweet or retweet about their hypocrisy, that's perfectly fine with them since you'd only be helping them get more attention.
It may not surprise you that some politicians who want social media to step up are up in arms over Birdwatch, accusing Silicon Valley of making a power grab that will place Truth under their control and of violating their own First Amendment right to free speech. This last charge is a Constitutional canard, even though some of these folks have a law degree — legal experts agree that Free Speech is about public speech and not about the ability to say whatever you want through a private company's platform.
No one knows if Birdwatch will work in the end, but if it does, let's hope that unscrupulous politicians find it more difficult to post outrageous tweets that draw them eyeballs and campaign contributions, the country's well-being be damned. Truth is always a slippery worm. Let's hope Birdwatch bites down.
Journalists, doctors, and others you should know.
- While social media is often a source of disinformation, some thought leaders are using their platforms as a force for good.
- Social networks offer an opportunity for readers to learn science-backed advice from top professionals in their fields.
- From journalists covering disinformation to a doctor giving the best physical therapy advice around, these influential voices deserve wide audiences.
In her 2017 book, "What Patients Say, What Doctors Hear," NYU associate professor of medicine Danielle Offri offers startling data on communication problems between doctors and patients. For example, the total amount of time that patients get to discuss their problems? Ninety-two seconds. Patients often get interrupted within seconds of speaking, which results in non-compliance rates of up to 75 percent. Doctors shake their head in disbelief that their patients don't follow directions, yet patients rarely feel heard—an essential component of healing, as Offri writes.
One positive trend over recent years—especially since the pandemic began—is the increasing number of medical professionals using social media as an educational tool. Some take time to regularly reply to questions; others offer videos, livestreams, and studies. While nothing beats in-person conversations, watching fruitful interactions with doctors and researchers during a time when so much negativity has been pushed forward on social networks has proven valuable.
The list below is not entirely comprised of health professionals, though every person listed uses their platform as a force for good, be it by calling out abuses of power or offering science-backed tips on remaining healthy during lockdowns. The Internet isn't always the right place to source information, yet that also depends on who's providing it. These eight individuals are doing their best to make social media a place for growth, both for individuals and as a society. While platforms can often feel like a one-way bullhorn, they invite you to join a bigger conversation.
When the Washington Post recently revealed that over $850,000 in PPP loans were doled out to anti-vax groups by the Trump Administration, the paper had the U.K.'s Center for Countering Digital Hate to thank. The organization's founder, Imran Ahmed, was appointed to the Steering Committee of the U.K. Government's Commission on Countering Extremism Pilot Task Force in 2020. Early last summer, Ahmed released a report that found social media platforms earned nearly $1 billion from anti-vax groups in a year's time—and he thinks they were lowballing that sum, as he told Big Think. In an era of disinformation gone wild, Ahmed believes the most powerful tool we currently have at our disposal is deplatforming. His organization is working hard at exposing players worthy of such attention.
There's a wave of doctors using social media to both educate the public and demystify the scientific process. Cardiologist Danielle Belardo is one of the best, using her popular Instagram feed to present science-based evidence for nutrition, vaccines, and more. The director of cardiology and co-director of research and education at IOPBM in Newport Beach, Belardo's social media presence focuses both on combating pseudoscience as well as providing excellent nutrition advice, recipes, and tips for good heart health—and, on occasion, epic California sunsets.
Dr. Aaron Horschig's runs one of Instagram's best fitness handles, Squat University. A former Olympic athlete and coach, Horschig discusses technique, form, and recovery in the wide world of weightlifting, from novice to elite levels. Though you might catch a strongman squatting 600+ pounds on his feed, one of the most refreshing aspects of Horschig's messages is the simplicity of his advice: work on form, not personal records; don't fall for marketing hype, but stick to the basics: hydration, sleep, and good nutrition; and you're never too young or old to lift weights. His new book, "Rebuilding Milo," further cements his role as one of the nation's top physical therapists and performance coaches. Bonus: his excellent blog offers deeper insights and science-backed research, such as why the popular RICE protocol should be abandoned.
Anna MerlanVice senior staff reporter Anna Merlan has been covering the conspiracy theory beat for years, culminating in some of the best QAnon-related coverage around. Her 2019 book, "Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power," tracked the proliferation of conspiracy theories during the Trump era well before QAnon became the juggernaut that it is. She's deftly exposed contradictions in thought processes by the ex-president's most loyal devotees. Given the continued doubling down by key players, media pundits, and a handful of congresspeople since Biden's inauguration, Merlan is going to have plenty of stories to cover for the foreseeable future.
Heather Cox Richardson
Boston College's history professor Heather Cox Richardson's daily Substack posts are one of the best additions to your inbox imaginable. The author of a number of books, most recently "How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America," Richardson gives you a rundown of the top stories in the news alongside insights into the historical processes that created the conditions for our current predicament. If you want to grapple with our present moment in a holistic fashion, subscribe to "Letters from an American." You won't be disappointed.
One of the most enlightening Twitter feeds of 2020 was Facebook's Top 10, which tracks the 10 highest-performing links on the social network. Spearhead by NY Times tech columnist Kevin Roose, the feed makes you reconsider the term "mainstream media." If information is judged by eyeballs—and many eyeballs continue to source news on Facebook—then Ben Shapiro, Dan Bongino, and various Trump groups are the most mainstream outlets around, as they regularly outperform the NY Times, NPR, CNN, and MSNBC. Roose's work covering QAnon and disinformation has also been invaluable, offering a framework for understanding the dangers of cult indoctrination.
Conspirituality 17: Interview with Jared Yates Sexton
Jared Yates Sexton
Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" offered an honest look at America's shameful historical record. It took 40 years for another book to penetrate a nation's conscience. When political analyst and associate professor Jared Yates Sexton published "American Rule: How a Nation Conquered the World but Failed Its People," we finally had another opportunity to reflect—and, hopefully, progress. Sexton wants to dismantle the romanticized myth of American exceptionalism and replace it with something more valuable, as he told Big Think last year: "Once we disabuse ourselves of the myth of American exceptionalism, and we start looking at American history and say it's really problematic and inspirational at other times, it allows us to build something new."
Dan WilsonMolecular biologist Dan Wilson makes visiting YouTube a necessity. His channel, Debunk the Funk with Dr. Wilson, takes on quack medicine and conspiracy theorists, breaking down disinformation in digestible segments while providing you with plenty of ammunition to combat the COVID denialists in your life. While his area of expertise is how cells build ribosomes, Wilson recently offered a three-part takedown of hydroxychloroquine peddler Simone Gold, an insightful look into Christiane Northrup's COVID vaccine misinformation, and Joe Rogan's failure to fact check Alex Jones.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
Alexandre Dumas' famous anecdote about Fake News in the 1800s has a surprising twist.
- Unfazed by his first defeat, Napoleon swept back into power in 1815, going from exile to emperor within a single month.
- Parisian newspapers scrambled to adapt: at the start of that month, Napoleon was a 'cannibal'; at the end, 'His Majesty'.
- For the first time ever, this map illustrates the spatial dimension of that shift – but the anecdote, made famous by Dumas, has a twist.
1 March 1815: Napoleon lands at Golfe-Juan. Detail from 'Débarquement de Napoléon' by François Georgin.
In French history, the period from March 1 to March 20, 1815 is known as Le Vol de l'Aigle: the Flight of the Eagle. The Eagle, of course, is Napoleon – the diminutive Corsican whose political and military genius had propelled him to become Emperor of France, and conqueror of much of Europe.
But at the start of 1815, Napoleon's glory days were behind him. Defeated by a coalition of European powers, he had been exiled to Elba, a small island off the Italian coast. In France, the monarchy had been restored. On the throne sat a brother of the king who had been executed in 1789. It was almost as if the French Revolution – and the Napoleonic Wars – had never happened.
That state of affairs proved insufferable to Napoleon, who could not content himself with ruling over Elba. On February 26, with a small band of loyal soldiers, he set sail for France in L'Inconstant, a brig disguised as a British ship. Just after noon on March 1, Napoleon landed at Golfe-Juan.
Choosing a route north that avoided the Provence's most royalist regions, Napoleon and his army reached Grenoble in a mere six days. Having made it this far, Napoleon grew more confident of his gamble: "Before Grenoble, I was an adventurer. After Grenoble, I was a prince." Known today as the Route Napoléon, the once and future Emperor's fabled mountain road from the coast to Grenoble is fringed with gilded eagle statues.
As its quick advance proceeded north, the ranks of Napoleon's army swelled with defectors from the very same royalist forces sent to arrest him – often, these were veterans of Napoleon's battles across Europe, and their fierce loyalty to their old commander trumped their present duties in service of the king. In Lyon and many other towns, the streets were lined with crowds equally nostalgic for the heydays of Empire.
Riding a wave of popularity and speeding like lightning, Napoleon swept all before him. Without a single shot being fired, he reached Paris on March 20. The king had fled the country. Napoleon was Emperor again… for just about 100 days. On June 18, he suffered his final defeat at Waterloo. Four days later, he abdicated. On July 8, Louis XVIII regained his throne.
Following his failed comeback, recorded in Napoleonic lore as Les Cent-Jours, Napoleon was sent into exile again. This time to a much more isolated island: St Helena, in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, where he would die in 1821.
"The ultimate monument to journalism"
In Une année à Florence (1841), Alexandre Dumas (pictured by Nadar in 1855) took a critical look at the attitudes of the Parisian press to Napoleon's return.
Image: Public Domain
In 1841, Alexandre Dumas père published a travelogue called "Une année à Florence" ('A year in Florence'). It contained a reflection on the believability of newspaper headlines, based on the reports on Napoleon's return to power in the Paris-based newspaper Moniteur Universel in March 1815.
As the official journal of the French government, that paper was hostile to Napoleon, at least when he started his campaign. Dumas notes that the attitude shifted as the deposed Emperor approached the seat of power:
"If you want to follow his victory march to Paris, you only have to consult the Moniteur. To guide our readers in this historical research, we will provide a rather curious sample. Step by step, it represents Napoleon's march towards Paris and shows the change his advance produces in the attitude of the newspaper."
Dumas then lists ten headlines which prove his point. Below are the original French headlines, plotted on the map are the English translations. For the first time ever, this map provides a spatial dimension to the shifting attitudes of the Moniteur.
- L'anthropophage est sorti de son repaire.
- L'ogre de Corse vient de débarquer au golfe Juan.
- Le tigre est arrivé à Gap.
- Le monstre a couché à Grenoble.
- Le tyran a traversé Lyon.
- L'usurpateur a été vu à soixante lieues de la capitale.
- Bonaparte s'avance à grands pas, mais il n'entrera jamais dans Paris.
- Napoléon sera demain sous nos remparts.
- L'empereur est arrivé à Fontainebleau.
- Sa Majesté Impériale et Royale a fait hier son entrée en son château des Tuileries au milieu de ses fidèles sujets.
When legend becomes fact
For the first time, a map that shows Napoleon's lightning march to retake power in Paris, and the headlines that accompanied him there.
Image: Frank Jacobs & Carrie Osgood
The Moniteur Universel was known as le journal de la pensée officielle, i.e. the record of 'official thought'. Perhaps not so different to the 'mainstream media' of today. In fact, some have drawn parallels between the Moniteur's initial dismissiveness of Napoleon's return, and the U.S. media's inability to comprehend Trump's march to victory in 2016. For that reason, and to illustrate the larger point that truth and journalism should not be mistaken for each other, the Dumas anecdote is regularly dusted off.
However, the story has another layer – and a two other important lessons about journalism.
Lesson number one: Check your sources. The entire run of the Moniteur Universel can be consulted online via the French National Library, including the relevant daily editions from March 1-20, 1815. They do not contain the titles that Dumas uses. In fact, as the journal of record, the Moniteur mainly published decrees, statutes and ordinances – nothing quite as lurid as the headlines quoted by Dumas.
In Les Cent-Jours: Légende et réalité (1983), French historian George Blond after extensive research is forced to conclude that "although the Emperor was insulted and dismissed as an adventurer or evildoer in some newspaper commentaries, this legendary series of newspaper headlines never did exist."
Of course, that won't stop the Dumas anecdote from resurfacing. And that second lesson is perhaps the ultimate one this anecdote can teach us about journalism: that the media – mainstream or otherwise – can't resist a good story. In the words of newspaperman Maxwell Scott in the John Ford western "The Man who Shot Liberty Vallance: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
Many thanks to Carrie Osgood, who produced the map to complement Alexandre Dumas' anecdote. The map is available for purchase on her online store in two versions, the basic map (as shown above) and the map with the story (as shown below).
Strange Maps #1050
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
UPDATE: For more on the press landscape in France at the time, check out this episode of The Siècle, an excellent and erudite podcast about France's stormy century from 1814 to 1914. The episode includes the fascinating story of Le Nain Jaune ('The Yellow Dwarf'), the satirical magazine that published a joke about Napoleon's changing nomenclature, which eventually grew into the fake headlines as presented by Dumas.
Ad Fontes Media wants to educate readers on where to find reliable sources of news and lessen the heat from the political flame wars.
- Polarized, unreliable news can be dangerous during turbulent times, such as the coronavirus pandemic.
- The Ad Fontes' Media Bias Chart maps out the biases and reliability of legacy and alternative news organizations.
- Political bias is one of many we must be wary of when judging the quality of the news we consume.
The New York Times was a failing newspaper before changing its business model to muckraking on Trump. Fox News had to drop its "Fair and Balanced" motto because that's false advertising. CNN should be renamed the "Know-Nothing Network." Info Wars' listeners are freakin' certifiable.
If you've spent any time on social media, or in the inescapable presence of extended family, you've heard someone slagging on the news sources they disagree with. Their main grievance is, of course, how biased and unfair those news sources are when compared to their reliable, fact-based preferences.
While a mere annoyance in that moment, such mindsets have become a widespread social ill. We as a society require a consensus of truth to make sound social decisions, and the news is one of the gatekeepers to the facts required to build those truths.
When news content begins to prioritize opinions and tribalistic tendencies over journalistic integrity, it clouds the entire media landscape with suspicion, deepens political polarization, and allows readers to sidestep unwelcome evidence with alternative narratives.
Such a state is pernicious at the best of times, but in dire times, such as the coronavirus pandemic, the spread of unreliable information can be of fatal concern.
How do we reach a consensus on which sources prioritize facts and which are designed as filter bubbles of confirmation bias and self-righteousness?
Ad Fontes Media's answer: research, analysis, and one interactive chart.
Creating the Media Bias Chart
The extreme bias and partisanship of the 2016 election led Vanessa Otero to create the first Media Bias Chart.
In 2016, amid chants of "lock her up!" and reprimands of that "basket of deplorables," patent attorney Vanessa Otero decided there was a real problem with how we consume news.
"[W]e have a big problem in our news media landscape: too much junk news. Junk news is like junk food, and just like junk food has caused massive health epidemics in our country, junk news is causing a massive polarization epidemic," Otero writes.
Otero analyzed news sources for bias and reliability, and then charted her results. Her side project became the first version of the Media Bias Chart. In 2018, she founded Ad Fontes Media as a public benefit corporation—naming the company after the Latin phrase meaning, "back to the source." After a successful crowdfunding campaign, Otero gathered additional analysts to perform deeper dives into news content.
Today, her Media Bias Chart has reached version 5.1. Each score is now backed by an analysis of multiple articles, a weighted average of those raw article scores, and multiple analyst rankings from people across the political spectrum. (The Ad Fontes website hosts an in-depth look at its rubric and methodology here.)
"I want to make news consumers smarter and the news media itself better, and those things are both really lofty, but I think it's doable," Otero told Newsy during an interview. "There are folks who, if they had this information, would make better choices as consumers of media first and then citizens."
Triangulating the news landscape
Click on the image to zoom in and get a better view. The Media Bias Chart, version 5.1, charts reliability and bias in about 90 popular news sources.(Photo: Ad Fontes Media)
The chart splays a cavalcade of news media logos across its grid to form a giant triangle. At the top-middle stands the news sources that are balanced and highly reliable. As we slide down the left and right sides, we fall deeper into the realm of partisanship and mudslinging.
The chart's y-axis measures reliability on a scale of 0–64. According to the Ad Fontes website, a reliability score of 24 or higher is considered acceptable, while a score of 32 or higher represents good reliability.
The chart's x-axis measures from -42 to 42. Scores closer to zero equate to neutral, balanced views. The more a news organization shows a conservative bent, the more their score pushes right of zero, maxing out at 42. The more a news organization shows a progressive bent, the more their score pushes left of zero, maxing out at -42.
For those fuming that progressive news is measured by "negative" numbers while the right is seen as "positive," chill! That's just how x-axes work.
Who is the fairest (and most balanced) of them all?
John Daniszewski, vice president and editor at large for standards of the Associated Press, and Kirill Kleymenov interview Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2013.
According to the Media Bias Chart, the most balanced news sources are Associated Press and Reuters. The Associated Press earned a reliability score of 51.98 and a bias score of -1.06; Reuters earned a reliability score of 51.64 and a bias score of -0.95.
As the website notes, these scores don't mean that every article is a piece of investigative journalism. But on average, these two sources produce quality, fact-based journalism.
The least reliable sources of news are the National Enquirer and World Truth.TV, the latter of which proudly proclaims itself alternative news based on the "sacred knowledge." They sport a reliability score of 9.65 and 7.41 respectively, though neither is particularly biased.
The most biased conservative sources were found to be the Gateway Pundit and InfoWars, scoring 28.55 and 31.05 respectively. Conversely, the most biased progressive sources were the Palmer Report and Wonkette, scoring -29.37 and -31.15.
Here's a quick rundown of a few noteworthy news sources. Bias scores are on the left, reliability on the right:
- The New York Times – (-4.01, 47.5)
- The Wall Street Journal – (1.89, 48.33)
- The Washington Post – (-4.18, 43.73)
- CNN – (-5.69, 42.22)
- Fox News Channel – (24.56, 23.16)
- Vox – (-8.75, 41.97)
- NPR – (-2.73, 49.9)
- Mother Jones – (-13.92, 37.31)
- The Daily Wire – (16.35, 24.39)
You can check out more scores at the interactive Media Bias Chart here. Expect scores to shift in future versions as more content is analyzed and more analysts can weigh in.
Making better news choices
The Media Bias Chart provides an easy way to digest an otherwise complex media landscape. The website also rates weekly articles, so readers can examine how different news sources spin the major story of the day.
However, it is only one tool that looks toward a particular bias spectrum in our media. There are more. New York Times columnist David Leonhardt identifies six forms of media bias. In addition to the right and left political biases, he showcases the centrist bias (both sides must always be equal in blame regardless of the circumstances), the affluent bias (national journalist tend to be more affluent than the average), the newness bias (events that are new seem more important), and social biases (sexism, racism, ageism, and so on).
To detect bias and skewed information, the media watch group FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) recommends asking following questions of news content and the sources containing them:
- Who are the sources?
- Is there a lack of diversity?
- From whose point of view is the news reported?
- Are there double standards?
- Do stereotypes skew coverage?
- What are the unchallenged assumptions?
- Is the language loaded?
- Is there a lack of context?
- Do the headlines and stories match?
- Are stories on important issues featured prominently?
We can't afford to digest news with passive acceptance. Like Otero, we need to develop personal methodologies for analyzing a source's reliability and distrust for biases, especially those that make us feel that twinge of personal satisfaction.