Understanding ‘pink slime journalism’ and what it reveals about conservatives and liberals

The future of journalism is online. But that also makes it ripe for abuses, including with the increase in computer-generated articles and “local” news being written by people who may not even live in the United States.
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SALT LAKE CITY — Six in 10 Americans who are Republican, or lean that way, believe that news organizations make mistakes to deliberately mislead people, according to a new report from Pew Research Center.

The number is even higher among supporters of President Donald Trump, who repeatedly berates the mainstream news media for dispensing what he calls “fake news.”

That could make conservatives the group most susceptible to an emerging phenomenon that has been dubbed “pink-slime journalism,” websites that masquerade as local news, but may exist to promote a partisan agenda and gather data on users, according to an investigation by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.

The term “pink-slime journalism,” believed to have been coined in 2012 by journalist Ryan Smith, suggests something more sinister than “yellow journalism,” which describes news coverage that is overly sensational or tawdry and which dates to the 19th century. Pink-slime journalism, however, is throughly modern, enabled by computer-generated articles and accounts compiled by people who may not live in the United States.

Priyanjana Bengani, senior research fellow for the Tow Center, said that at least 189 of 450 websites she has investigated are linked to a single company, Metric Media, and the number of these websites has tripled since last year. The sites are easy to produce, with content produced robotically or, in some cases, pilfered from other news organizations in violation of copyright law.

“It’s easy to emulate what a news site looks like. It’s not easy to emulate the content, but it’s easy to emulate the design,” Bengani said.

But the owner of Metric Media, a Chicago businessman and former TV journalist, says that his company and its mission has been misrepresented. In fact, Brian Timpone says that Metric Media LLC, which has 11 websites devoted to Utah news, is poised to fill the growing void of community news.

“The goal of Metric Media is to rebuild and democratize community news across the country,” Timpone said in a statement.

About 1,900 newspapers — 1,800 of them weeklies — have shut down since 2004, Poynter.org has reported, and more than 50 local newsrooms have closed since the start of the pandemic.

President Donald Trump holds up a copy of The Washington Post with the headline that reads “Trump acquitted” as he speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020.
Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

Reasons for being

One of Metric Media’s Utah websites, called the SLC Times, says it is one of hundreds nationwide that exist “to inform citizens about news in their local communities.” It gives a mailing address in Dover, Delaware.

Writing for The Atlantic earlier this year, McKay Coppins said that many local news sites are part of disinformation campaigns orchestrated by political operatives.

“At first glance, they look like regular publications, complete with community notices and coverage of schools. But look closer and you’ll find that there are often no mastheads, few if any bylines, and no addresses for local offices,” Coppins wrote. “Many of them are organs of Republican lobbying groups; others belong to a mysterious company called Locality Labs, which is run by a conservative activist in Illinois. Readers are given no indication that these sites have political agendas — which is precisely what makes them valuable.”

The owner of Locality Labs, now Pipeline Media, is Timpone, who told the Deseret News that it is no secret that he is a Republican, because of his political contributions. But he said his websites have no political leaning and are “data-driven and fact-centric.” In addition, he said in a statement that restoring community news can help lessen the partisan divide.

“We believe the disappearance of community news has contributed to a marked decline in civility in America. When Americans know about their neighbors’ wedding anniversaries, their work promotions, and their children making the honor roll at school or earning junior-high basketball accolades, they are less likely to caricature and typecast each other over political issues,” he said.

Timpone, who has a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, describes his business as software and data, and said he plans to establish another 15,000 websites within the next year.

“We are developing proprietary software tools and public record collection systems that make the recovery of community news possible. We produced 5 million stories last month and will double that output by the end of the year.

“The status quo in journalism— the story formats, the business models, the editors-as-gatekeepers approach — no longer works. Outdated models are tainting once-trusted news brands and have strangled community news production when we need it most,” he said.

Metric Media LLC publishes under a licensing agreement with the Metric Media Foundation, which is registered as a 501(c)(3).

Federal law prohibits these nonprofits from “directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office” although some types of voter education activities are permitted.

Some “local news” websites, however, have been revealed to have partisan motives.

In 2018, Politico reported that a website called the Arizona Monitor, which published an endorsement of U.S. Senate candidate Kelli Ward, was actually “an anonymous, pro-Ward blog.”

“The site launched just a few weeks before publishing the endorsement, and its domain registration is hidden, masking the identity of its owner. On its Facebook page, it is classified as a news site, but scant other information is offered,” Politico reported.

Ward’s campaign denied any involvement with the Arizona Monitor website which vanished soon after Politico’s report was published.

While there is no evidence that “pink slime” sites are causing direct harm to consumers — such as infecting their computers with malware when they click on links — their presence is indicative of disturbing trends in media, media analysts say, cautioning consumers to be wary of unfamiliar news sites.

“There’s a range of reasons these websites are set up. It’s not one-size fits all,” said Philip Napoli, professor of public policy at Duke University.

“Some are being set up primarily to compile data on visitors and to use the data in subsequent campaign emailing,” he said. Others are “zombie sites,” publishing content produced elsewhere and earning profit from advertising revenue.

But some of the websites are, “first and foremost trying to move the needle politically in individual communities,” Napoli said.

Partisan divide

For a year, Pew Research Center has been examining trust in media, and Republicans have historically had less trust in media than Democrats, said Jeffrey Gottfried, a senior researcher and co-author of the latest report,

“Going back, for a while, there’s been a divide between the parties with Republicans consistently expressing more negative views, even going back before 2016. The thing that’s really interesting is that differences in the views of the news media became more stark in the wake of 2016. The divides we see now are quite large, and they don’t seem to be going anywhere,” he said.

While Republicans’ trust in media sources has declined, Democrats’ has slightly increased over the past four years.

The latest report explored Americans’ views on why news outlets sometimes make significant mistakes, from benign reasons such as not having enough time to report accurately, to more malevolent ones, such as the desire to intentionally mislead.

“Republicans overall are more likely to think that mistakes happen because of ill will,” the report said. Sixty percent of Republicans feel this way, but the number rises to 67% among people who identify as Trump supporters. (Fewer than one-third of Democrats said ill will was a cause of mistakes.)

The report also found that 60% of Democrats say the news media care about how good of a job they do, compared with just 28% of Republicans.

Another reason that Republicans may be more likely to seek out new sources of information rather than established outlets: Nearly 7 in 10 say journalists do not care about the people they report on. Just 40% of Democrats said that.

Whack-a-mole

The president frequently alludes to coverage by newspapers and cable news channels as “fake news,” and conservative talk show hosts often deride mainstream news organizations as the “lamestream media,” which can drive conservatives to seek news from less conventional sources.

The growing number of local news outlets is not limited to websites. Napoli, at Duke University, said that a Facebook page called “North Carolina Breaking News” was operating with run-of-the-mill announcements and traffic stories, but that occasionally an extremely polarizing and partisan story would slip into the mix.

After it was discovered that one article was about something that had happened 2 years earlier and in another state, Facebook shut down the page, which by then had 50,000 followers. But Napoli said a similar one soon reappeared with the name “North Carolina Breaking News for Republicans.”

“It really is a game of whack-a-mole,” he said of efforts to shut down dubious news sites.

SLCTimes.com

Dr. Mary Tipton, the South Jordan pediatrician featured on SLC Times, said she spoke to a reporter, Juliette Fairley, who Timpone said is based in Manhattan. The article, which is marked as “opinion,” expresses Tipton’s views about reopening the economy and sending children back to school during the pandemic.

Tipton is also featured on another Metric Media website, Beehive State News, in an article by T.H. Lawrence on the same topic.

“I did notice it was an unknown and odd collection of other media,” Tipton said in an email regarding the SLC Times website. “But that’s all I know.”

Stilted language may reveal the robotic news gathering method employed by many of these sites. Bengani, the Tow Center researcher, said that “algorithmically generated articles” — such as those describing political donations on the SLC Times website, are products of code, not people.

“There’s a table somewhere that has details like contributor, contributee, and amount donated. Instead of a human being writing these articles, there’s a template, and each row of this table yields a new story,” she said.

Timpone said that some compilation of data is done outside of the United States, but that all of the company’s editors and freelance writers are located in the U.S.

Personal connection

The proliferation of local news websites comes at a time when American newspapers are struggling to survive amid the loss of advertising. One in 5 local newspapers have closed in the past 15 years, and many daily newspapers are no longer printing seven days a week.

Napoli, at Duke University, said that there’s nothing illegal about news sites that have a partisan slant. “It’s just something different from what we expect at the local level,” he said, adding, “What we need to see happen is for the whole funding model of journalism to change... We have to acknowledge that the commercial model of funding local journalism is broken.”

But as for traditional news outlets that still operate, the Pew report suggests that there are ways that the lack of trust between conservatives and news organizations can be restored.

For one thing, more than half of respondents said that they desired a “personal connection” to their sources of news. “Americans who feel connected to news outlets — whether in feeling valued by, understood by or loyal to them — express far more positive views toward the news media. For instance, those who feel that their news sources value them are much more likely to expect their news to be accurate and to think news outlets are transparent with audiences,” the report said.

They also want to have “friendly and warm” journalists who share and understand their views, and they are more likely to trust news organization that are transparent about their finances and that acknowledge and correct mistakes.

Despite the wide partisan divide on most issues, both Democrats and Republicans were more in agreement on two things, Gottfried said. First, that it would be better if Americans were more skeptical of the media overall. And, “Vast majorities of both Republicans and Democrats said that the public’s confidence in media can improve,” he said.

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