When what looks like local news isn’t

On Your Side Investigations: Local news sites with questionable backgrounds

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - The names seem fairly common: North Birmingham Times, Gadsden Today, The Jefferson Reporter. But click on any of these supposedly local news websites, and you’ll quickly find this isn’t your run of the mill local paper online.

“I’d say they did a pretty decent job of almost spoofing traditional news outlet names,” observes Auburn University Journalism Professor Dr. Gheni Platenburg. “Typically if you see something with your city’s name and something newsy like ‘ledger’ or ‘inquirer’ or something of the sort, that can be very deceiving to people.”

Dig into any of these or the 19 total sites aimed at Alabama cities and counties run by Metric Media, and you’ll find a decidedly conservative perspective, though not all conservatives come away with glowing coverage.

For instance, a front page story about a low grade for Governor Ivey’s fiscal management by a conservative Washington think tank.

This article appears on the front page of several Metric Media websites.
This article appears on the front page of several Metric Media websites. (Source: North Birmingham Times)

“It’s problematic because they’re taking the look and tools of legitimate journalism and using them to their own ends and that’s not what journalism is about,” warns University of Alabama Journalism Professor Dr. Chris Roberts, who has helped write journalism ethics textbooks. “Journalism is about providing information to people so they can make their own decisions and understand the world around them.”

The sites are part of the Metric Media network that the New York Times reports includes around 1,300 websites that look like local news reporting. But the Times found many of the stories are directed by political groups to promote Republican causes or attack republican rivals. The Jefferson Reporter site on its politics tab features a story about Apple employees donating to the Democratic party, and a list of campaign contributions returned by the campaign of Democratic senator Doug Jones.

“Journalism is not about trying to sell you on something, and that’s what those sites are doing, and doing in a pretty poor way,” assesses Roberts.

It’s not only Republicans standing up these sites. Conservatives have asked the Federal Election Commission to force the Courier Newsroom network of sites to register as a political committee because of its ties to Democratic party groups, and one look at the network’s home page shows its leanings.

The home page of the Courier News network.
The home page of the Courier News network. (Source: Courier News)

“The way people who do propaganda or P.R. win is when they promote their stuff without letting you know they’re selling it,” Roberts says. “People who are media literate are the ones who understand they’re the object of someone who is trying to persuade them.”

“The example of eating your vegetables,” explains Platenburg. “Obviously some people just kind of stay away from that, they tend to like sweets and carbs. The same thing goes as far as news. People don’t realize you have to have a balanced diet as far as news sites as well.”

So how can you tell if your media diet is well-balanced and you’re getting facts not opinions?

“It takes an incredible degree of media literacy to read a story and see what’s in it, and more importantly what’s not in a story,” Roberts explains. “And why is the other side not contacted? Why is this an opinion and not a news story, and not noted as such? Is this an ad or a news story, and if it’s an ad, how come I don’t know that? These are the kind of things we have to teach ourselves.”

“I would say look at the writers - are they local names you may recognized? Does the content seem biased? Is it down the middle or swaying towards one perspective or the other? And not just the editorial section, but what is purported to be the news sections. Is it opinionated? Those might be signs this might not be the best source to include in your media diet,” says Platenburg.

Here’s a 9-question list from the Poynter Institute that can help you assess how trustworthy any news source may be.

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