News consumers should be aware of ‘pink slime’

DOVER — Does this headline grab your attention?
“As election looms, a network of mysterious ‘pink slime’ local news outlets nearly triples in size.”
A story in the Columbia Journalism Review earlier this month pulled the curtain back on “shadowy, politically backed ‘local news websites’ designed to promote partisan talking points and collect user data.”
Over the past eight months, the Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism found the number of these sites had grown from 450 in December to more than 1,200 today.
Six are in Delaware.
Five of those are Metric Media sites.
They go by names such as First State Times, Kent County Today and Sussex Review.
Sounds local, of course.
But there appears to be more than meets the eye.
Their websites say the following:
“Metric Media was established to fill the void in community news after years of decline in local reporting by legacy media. This site is one of hundreds nationwide to inform citizens about news in their local communities.
“Many local and state governments operate without sufficient media oversight. When citizens are deprived of basic government information, communities and civic discourse suffer.
“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.”
Once you poke around the sites, you can see that’s not the case.
Metric Media doesn’t have a local news operation, although its websites here and all across the country offer 850 New Burton Road, Suite 201, Dover, DE, as an address.
That’s actually the business address of Cogency Global, a firm that offers incorporation services.
“In our latest research, we found the vast majority of the domains were under the umbrella of Metric Media, a Delaware limited-liability company that is a division of Situation Management Group,” wrote Priyanjana Bengani, a senior research fellow at the Tow Center in the analysis for the Columbia Journalism Review.
“Metric Media properties now account for over 960 sites, or 80% of all the domains we’ve identified that belong to this network. All publishing is done ‘under a licensing agreement with the Metric Media Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit news content provider.’”
A line in the story sums up the news-gathering operations of the companies — Metric Media, Franklin Archer (which has one website in Delaware), Local Government Information Services and Locality Labs — included in the analysis.
“Over 90% of their stories are algorithmically generated using publicly available datasets or by repurposing stories from legitimate sources,” the story said.
As you move through the pages of the Metric Media website, you can see many examples of content that were simply automatically pulled from others’ websites.
The First State Times, for example, has an opinion piece from the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce, which did not submit the piece to them to post.
Tow Center found that these digital websites have a conservative bias and that there is reason for concern as these sites proliferate ahead of the 2020 election.
The Sussex Review, for example, offers a Politics page that has not been updated in months. But it has a series of stories, from March, outlining who donated money to the campaign of Lauren Witzke, a Delaware Republican running for U.S. Senate.
Each story simply grabs the name of the donor and amount given to the Witzke campaign.
The First State Times has posted some Delaware General Assembly stories.
In some of those cases, the reporting was simply a rewrite of Delaware State News stories.
At this point, it is unclear whether these “news” sites will become more active. Some of the pages have not been updated for weeks.
And, in closing, about the term “pink slime” …
Its origin was in a 2012 ABC News report on the pink food additive — filler — in ground beef and other foods.
Ryan Smith, a freelance writer, first used the phrase regarding the questionable news gathering practices of the now defunct Journatic about eight years ago.
“People didn’t think much about the beef they were eating until someone exposed the practice of putting so-called ‘pink slime’ into ground beef,” he said at the time. “Once it came out, the food industry moved quickly to change it. I feel like companies like Journatic are providing the public ‘pink slime’ journalism.”
Andrew West is executive editor of the Delaware State News.

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