Journalism Watchdog Removes Blacklist of ‘Unreliable’ Websites, Admits It Relied on Unreliable Information

By Zachary Stieber

A journalism watchdog that touted a blacklist of hundreds of “unreliable” news websites unpublished the list after admitting it relied on unreliable information.

The left-leaning Poynter website, which describes itself as specializing in reporting, fact-checking, and developing leaders in journalism, published the list of 515 “unreliable” websites on April 30.

The list was “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,” wrote Poynter’s managing editor Barbara Allen in a letter to readers.

However, soon after publishing the list, the complaints came flooding in, noting that a number of right-leaning and openly conservative websites were targeted for allegedly being unreliable, while a number of left-leaning and openly liberal websites that have promoted conspiracy theories, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin controlling President Donald Trump, were not labeled as unreliable.

The Washington Examiner, a right-leaning news outlet, was among those initially listed. Before scrapping the list entirely, Poynter removed the outlet from the list. The Daily Caller, the Washington Free Beacon, and Breitbart were among the other outlets deemed unreliable. Judicial Watch, a nonprofit government watchdog, was also listed, as was ClickHole, a satirical website. Drudge Report, an aggregator which lists headlines from a host of media outlets, was also listed.

“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,” Allen wrote.

While the list has been removed, there are plans to republish it, she added before apologizing.

“The list was intended to be a starting place for readers and journalists to learn more about the veracity of websites that purported to offer news; it was not intended to be definitive or all-encompassing. We regret that we failed to ensure that the data was rigorous before publication, and apologize for the confusion and agitation caused by its publication. We pledge to continue to hold ourselves to the highest standards.”

The link where the list was published shows a “404” error but does not direct people to the apologetic letter.

President of Judicial Watch Tom Fitton speaks at the High School Leadership Summit, a Turning Point USA event, at George Washington University in Washington on July 26, 2018. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

An archived version of the page shows it featured an explanation from researcher Barrett Golding, a producer with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which said the list was created by combining databases from five fact-checking websites, at least two of which—Snopes and PolitiFact—are considered at least slightly left-leaning by most readers, according to Media Bias/Fact Check.

The other three were, a project at the University of Pennsylvania, the Fake News Codex, which was described as being “widely quoted by Snopes,” and OpenSources, run by Merrimack University media studies professor Melissa Zimdars, a self-described expert on “fake news.”

Golding said that the list was meant to inform consumers, but it was also created with the hope that people would stop supporting the companies on the list.

“Fake news is a business. Much of that business is ad-supported. Advertisers don’t want to support publishers that might tar their brand with hate speech, falsehoods or some kinds of political messaging—but too often, they have little choice in the matter,” he said.

“Most ad-tech dashboards make it hard for businesses to prevent their ads from appearing on (and funding) disreputable sites. Marketers can create blacklists, but many of those lists have been out-of-date or incomplete. Aside from journalists, researchers and news consumers, we hope that the index will be useful for advertisers that want to stop funding misinformation.”

Washington Examiner writer Becket Adams was among the critics of the list, noting that the removal of his website and FirstPost before the removal of the entire list was shrouded in mystery.

“The fact that these were included in the first place suggests extreme incompetence, malleable or inconsistent standards, or both. What, exactly, prompted the Washington Examiner’s inclusion on the list, and did it suddenly vanish when somebody called to complain?” he wrote. “The underlying problem is that ‘fake news’ databases more often than not ensnare sites that do not deserve the tag.”

Golding called the list “my project” in a Twitter post. He replied to criticism from an Examiner writer in two posts, writing: “I compiled Poynter’s list from existing lists. We’ll update with input from publishers/readers. A key factor is whether the news site fails fact-checks (pol-leaning is NOT a factor). The WA Examiner passed more than failed, so we removed it. Thx for contacting us.”

“And if anyone knows a site not in our index, biased left or right, that regularly fails fact checks by IFCN @factchecknet verified fact-checkers, use our form to let us know,” he added.

Golding did not respond to the list being removed from Poynter’s website.