A Rash Of News Sites Impersonate Local Papers Across Michigan
Recently a rash of political news outlets have cropped up around Michigan claiming to be unbiased, local news outlets. There are nearly 40 of them branded to look like they’re based in Michigan towns and cities with names like the Lansing Sun and the Ann Arbor Times. WKAR’s Morning Edition host and producer Mary Ellen Pitney spoke with Carol Thompson of the Lansing State Journal, who originally broke the story, about these websites. Below are highlights of their conversation.
Thriving On Social Media
“It's not clear to me who's viewing them. I think whoever might scroll past one on Facebook would see a headline, maybe click on it, maybe share it, maybe read it before they share it, maybe not.”
Articles from these websites have found a foothold on social media, said Thompson. They were originally found by Matt Grossmann, a researcher from Michigan State University, who first called attention to the sites. Like many articles with a political bent, these articles have grabby headlines making them well suited for social media sharing. This week Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced Twitter would no longer be running politcal advertisements. However, the new policy makes no mention of news with a political bent.
Political Bias Versus Advocacy Journalism
“Their mission statement is really clear. And you know what you're getting and you know where they're coming from. It comes from a point of view. But the problem is when news comes from a point of view, but you don't know it as the reader. And that's what is dangerous.”
Advocacy journalism is nothing new, but there is a difference between journalism with an undisclosed political bias and advocacy journalism. Thompson points out that the difference lies in transparency. For example, a group like the Audubon Society publishes articles with a clear message supporting conservationism. However, their mission statement is clear so readers know what they're getting. These websites, like the Lansing Sun, describe themselves as unbiased and local news trying to “fill the vacuum left behind by a shrinking news industry” and Thompson underscored that this is not how their articles come across.
Don’t Be Fooled
“You know, in 2019, when so much is on the internet, readers really have to think and be careful.”
Now more than ever, Thompson points out, it is important to read news with a critical eye. Rampant disinformation was a player in the 2016 election and 2020 is just around the corner. Thompson shared a few ways to keep yourself from falling for less-than-truthful reporting. She said, make sure websites are active and regularly updated. She also recommends being wary of reporting that doesn’t have an easily accessible contact page with contact information for the publication’s journalists. She pointed out that local journalists truly are local, they live in the communities they report on and you might see them in coffee shops or at the grocery store. Above all else, Thompson said it’s important for readers to think.
You can find Carol Thompson's reporting on the sites, here.