As diﬃcult as it is to run an independent media outlet, there’s a company making it substantially harder. Its name is NewsGuard. The company claims to rate online content, including from media outlets, for trustworthiness, but a closer look shows it does much more than that—its business model produces censorious pressure on news organizations. An investigation by The Epoch Times has revealed troubling questions regarding the quality of and the agenda behind NewsGuard’s oﬀerings.
Founded in 2018, NewsGuard dispatches its “analysts” to prepare reviews of online content creators and to issue ratings “to help readers have more context for the news they read online.” The ratings display as small badges with scores next to search results.
That, however, represents only a small part of the picture. The bigger picture shows that NewsGuard’s most potent function stems from its relationships with advertising agencies, which have steered their clients to cut off advertising dollars for content creators disfavored by the company’s “analyst” reviews. As it so happens, corporate, establishment-friendly media tend to receive high scores while independent media skeptical of the establishment tend to receive low scores, even if they adhere to high journalistic standards.
The Epoch Times emailed NewsGuard questions regarding its products, activities, personnel, and funding, but received no response.
NewsGuard presents itself as objective and nonpartisan. Its ratings, the company says, measure media quality on nine criteria, including transparency of authorship and ownership and adherence to standard editorial practice, such as issuing corrections and labeling opinion pieces. In practice, however, most of the score boils down to whether the media present content that, in NewsGuard’s opinion, is truthful.
The ﬁrst criterion speciﬁcally looks at whether the target repeatedly publishes false claims. Another examines whether it publishes news “responsibly.” But failing the ﬁrst one means failing the second one, NewsGuard explains on its website. Yet another criterion is whether the target uses accurate headlines.
Again, if the headline says something NewsGuard considers to be untrue, that counts as a failure. Another criterion looks for a policy of regularly correcting errors—or what NewsGuard considers to be errors. Together, these four criteria add up to more than 60 points of the 100-point score.
Even if NewsGuard can’t ﬁnd anything to dispute, it can still dock points if the target doesn’t suﬃciently represent opinions the company would like to see.
Such content providers “egregiously cherry pick facts or stories to advance opinions,” it argues.
Meanwhile, at least 60 points are needed for NewsGuard to issue its “credible” rating.
This methodology becomes particularly problematic when NewsGuard itself is wrong on the facts. For example, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company considered false the notion that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China. If a news outlet with a perfect score responsibly reported on the extensive circumstantial evidence indicating a lab leak, it ran the risk of NewsGuard decimating its score and falsely labelling it an “unreliable” source that “severely violates basic journalistic standards.”
The COVID-19 origins issue was a rare case in which NewsGuard eventually issued a correction, though it only went as far as saying that the lab leak hypothesis couldn’t be completely ruled out.