NewsTrust: 'A Story Can Cause You to Do Something Stupid'

Jun 27, 2011
Allan MacDonell is TakePart’s News + Opinion editor, with a focus on social justice.

Take a look at your news diet. Are you indulging in the “sweets and calories” entertainment news of The Daily Show, and neglecting your PBS News Hour “broccoli”? Are you gorging on FOX News “saturated fats” and bingeing on MSNBC “sodium bombs”? That’s a good way to get fat in the head, and nobody wants to be a fathead.

You are what you read, and how you read it. (Photo: fabola/Creative Commons)

NewsTrust is akin to an online produce stand for healthy news consumption, and it likes to push the food analogy. U.S. grocery shoppers, it says, have been checking nutritional labels for decades. As a result, more Americans than ever are making healthy and informed food choices. NewsTrust’s Fabrice Florin believes its time for us to become as picky about what we accept into our brains as what we put into our bellies.

Do you have a taste for the truth? Here, sit down to NewsTrust and explore an emerging community of news connoisseurs. Or just listen in as Fabrice Florin tells TakePart why NewsTrust tastes good, and is good for you.

TakePart: Explain how NewsTrust is different from a news aggregator.

Fabrice Florin: NewsTrust is a news-evaluation site. As a community, we rate the news based on core principles of journalism so we can find the best journalism on important public issues. An aggregator typically will sort stories based on popularity, and popularity is very different from quality.

TakePart: Is NewsTrust a form of citizen journalism?

Fabrice Florin: We are citizen reviewers. We’ve got 20,000 members who participate in news through us. In partnership with the Center for Public Integrity, we have a program called TruthSquad that invites our community to fact-check statements from politicians and media pundits. We try to find out whether that statement is true or false. We dig up links to factual evidence that either supports or opposes the particular claim. At the end, we write a verdict that determines whether the claim is true or mostly true, or false or mostly false.

TakePart: So you’re exercising a muscle of discernment?

Fabrice Florin: Essentially, we’re re-engaging people’s critical thinking skills. Everyone is feeling overwhelmed with information overload. All these fragments are coming at us; so our reptilian brains kick in and instead of actually looking at the information and evaluating whether or not it’s good information, we just scan it. We look for someone saying something that we agree with; we blog it; we tweet it; we email it to our friends. We don’t take the time to weigh the evidence, to examine the facts, to check out the sources. And yet it’s not that hard to do.

TakePart: Don’t people sift for truth naturally?

Fabrice Florin: You would be surprised at the number of adults who cannot tell the difference between factual news reporting and opinion. People will see a political ad on television and think that it’s news. It’s that bad.

TakePart: How is NewsTrust funded and how do you hope to fund it in the future?

Fabrice Florin: We’ve had support from the MacArthur Foundation; the Omidyar Network from Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay; the Open Society Foundations; and I’m an Ashoka Fellow for the work that I do as a social entrepreneur. Our hope is that as the service expands, we’ll be able to monetize some of that traffic.

TakePart: What makes you believe people will take the time while consuming news to pause and review it?

Fabrice Florin: We don’t expect everybody to do that. The whole concept of NewTrust is that 2 percent of our members do all the hard work for the other 98 percent who benefit from that hard work. It’s similar to what happens on Wikipedia. We understand that’s how the web works. The majority of visitors to our site are just benefiting from this great feed of interesting stories from sources that they might not have come across otherwise.

TakePart: Would the NewsTrust mission be possible without the Internet?

Fabrice Florin: No…. No.

TakePart: How's a NewsTrust user different from a typical newspaper reader or cable news watcher?

Fabrice Florin: They’ve learned to question what they see on their televisions and on their screens. “Is this factual? Is this fair? Is this well-sourced?” Storytelling is essentially an act of surrender: you surrender yourself to the narrator, you say: “Take me on a great journey, and I’ll suspend my belief as well.” You put your critical thinking skills aside for the benefit of enjoying the story. The problem is that a story, when it’s related to civic action, can actually mislead you and cause you to do something stupid. On NewsTrust, in general, there’s an intellectual curiosity that's been developed, and a willingness to think it’s possible that you may be mistaken, or that someone who disagrees with you may not necessarily be wrong.

TakePart: How much faulty information is presented as fact by the news media?

Fabrice Florin: There is misinformation out there, and it’s spreading rapidly. It’s not necessarily coming from the mainstream media—although it’s there as well—it’s coming from user-generated content. Unfortunately, one of the curses of the Internet is that it helps spread misinformation very widely, particularly when it aligns with people’s preconceived notions. It’s harder to stop those rumors when they’re started. The best remedy, we think, is to develop the ability within each of us to recognize fact from fiction.

TakePart: What needs to happen to ensure the future of quality news?

Fabrice Florin: The key for a healthy news ecosystem is not just the supply of the information; it’s also building a demand for quality news and information. A lot of people focus only on the supply side and say: “Well, if you only produce more factual information then we’ll be fine.” We’re saying: “That’s not enough. You also have to build an appreciation for quality information so that people will actually seek it out and share it with their friends.”

The Internet has encouraged us to graze and consume small fragments of information, but you can't just feed only on fragments of information. They’re junk food for the mind.

To further conversations raised in Participant Media's new documentary "Page One: Inside the New York Times," TakePart is presenting "Consider the Source," a multi-part original series featuring award-winning reporters, photojournalists and voices in digital media.

Participant Media—TakePart's parent company—acquired "Page One: Inside The New York Times" at the Sundance Film Festival and is releasing the film theatrically with Magnolia Pictures.

Photo: fabola/Creative commons via Flickr.
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