DENVER — In the age of digital journalism, there is no shortage of news sources, from traditional print newspapers to broadcast channels to online media.
Separating fact from fiction can be tricky, particularly in the digital age where websites are cheap to run and relatively easy to create.
More than a dozen new websites that are made to look like newspapers in Colorado have popped up recently and come from questionable backgrounds.
The websites, which go by names like the Adams County Times, Centennial State News, Colorado Business Daily or Grand Junction Times, look legitimate.
Almost all of them take on a similar format and share similar stories. All of them are run by Metric Media LLC, a company that claims to own hundreds of newspapers across the country.
A recent study by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism found that Metric Media had created roughly 450 of these sites in 2019 and tripled its size to 1,200 this year.
It’s a phenomenon that has been dubbed "pink slime journalism," where the stories themselves are not blatantly false but slanted and often paid for by interested parties.
Denver7 scrolled through each of the 16 websites that claim to be Colorado news and found most of the bylines are attributed to Metric Media staff or say they are press releases.
On the about page, the sites claim, “Our approach is to provide objective, data-driven information without political bias. We provide 100% original reporting, including to share as much data as possible from government and other publicly available sources.”
However, Denver7 found that most of the local stories on the Metric Media sites are either reworded press releases or rewrites of articles published by reputable reporting sources with a slight slant which tends to lean conservative.
The reporters who were named on various bylines were found to be freelance writers who do not live in Colorado and who write articles for Metric Media’s websites in states across the country. None of the writers Denver7 reached out to responded to our requests for comment.
Denver7 attempted to reach out to Metric Media for comment. One of Metric Media’s corporate pages didn’t work at all.
The other featured a contact page with an email that is not functioning and no phone number provided. The contact pages for the websites lead to an address in Delaware.
A New York Times investigation found that Metric Media is largely overseen by Brian Timpone, a former television reporter in Illinois who is now a conservative businessman. Denver7 attempted to reach out to Mr. Timpone for comment but was unable to reach him.
For communications experts like William Huddy, all of this is a reminder for news consumers to not believe everything they read.
“People have been learning how to use the internet and how to make money from it. This is I think more than anything else profit driven,” said Huddy, who is a senior lecturer at MSU Denver’s communication, arts and sciences department.
He believes both the left and right are learning to use the internet to their own advantage and so the responsibility falls on readers to do some vetting.
“We can’t just hide our heads. We have to be aware of what’s going on and be a strong student and consumer and know what our rights are,” Huddy said.
There are three rules Huddy says readers should follow when it comes to the news: authenticity, fidelity and feeling.
When it comes to authenticity, take a closer look at the source the story is coming from. Look at other stories the outlet has published and click through its about page.
“Number two, and this is what communications theorist Walter Fischer said so well is the fidelity does it ring true does the information that you’re reading on your social media site does it ring true to you,” Huddy said.
Finally, Huddy says it’s important for readers to rely on a gut feeling and ask themselves if something feels off about the story or incomplete when it comes to their personal ethics.
It’s also important to not rely on only one source for information.
However, he points out that this is not the first time reporting has been questioned and that the internet did not invent this problem.
“There’s always been yellow journalism or that journalism out there. We’re seeing it in that new medium called social media, but it’s been around a long time,” Huddy said. “You can go back to the beginning of the broadcast. You can go back to Germany and propaganda and how information can be twisted to suit a particular purpose. It’s just something we need to be aware of.”
Last year, Colorado lawmakers passed a law aimed at teaching students media literacy. A bill to implement the program in schools failed this year as the legislature’s attention shifted to responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I believe in free speech I don’t think we should ever squash that but when is presented as unbiased accurate reporting that’s a real problem,” said Rep. Lisa Cutter, a co-sponsor of both bills.
Cutter says her goal was for students to be taught how to look at information and even videos online and figure out whether the information they are reading is real.
“It’s not about teaching anybody how to think or what to think it’s just teaching them how to look for information with a critical eye,” Rep. Cutter said.
There are some easy things to look out for to determine whether a news site is authentic or not.
Check to see if the website features an ethics policy for its reporters to abide by. Click through the staff biographies and find out where they are based and whether they have written numerous other articles for the same website or type their names into social media and Google to see whether they have an online presence.
Check the website’s about page and contact page to see where it is based and whether the station is easy to contact.
For both Rep. Cutter and Huddy, the bottom line is for readers to not believe everything they read online and to fact-check before sharing an article or re-tweeting it.
“As it becomes easier to share information, just check and make sure that what sources we're leaning into and leaning on for information to make really important decisions on our lives and for democracy in an election year. We’re responsible to know that those sources are good solid sources,” Rep. Cutter said.