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Trust Index: Questionable local news sites are exploding in Texas ahead of election

Online outlets masquerading as credible local news websites are increasing across the U.S. ahead of the 2020 election, including in Texas.

A report published by the Columbia Journalism Review finds an explosion of “pink slime” news sites, especially in battleground states ahead of the November election.

“Pink slime” is the name given to these low-cost, automated news sites that are built to look like other credible news sites, but are owned, funded or operated by political-interest groups or “dark money” networks. They are not real news sites, although they may, at times, feature news.

The sites often feature fake authors, who are listed for countless other sites in the network.

The network of “pink slime” sites has increased from 450 sites in December 2019, to more than 1,200 in 2020, according to the Tow Center.

In many cases, Columbia Journalism Review found convoluted connections between sites and different information about its origins on its “About” page and social media pages, likely meant to confuse potential readers.

It’s unclear how impactful these sites are, especially in filling information voids in communities without enough credible news outlets.

There are 65 of these local-looking sites targeting Texas with hometown sounding names like houstonrepublic.com, dallascitywire.com, and austintxnews.com, but they’re all owned by a single company in Delaware called Metric Media.

“What’s concerned us is the possibility that the distribution of local journalism becomes part of a party’s political strategy,” says Phil Napoli, and professor and author at Duke University who co-authored a study on pink slime sites. “Once we are talking about journalism resources being allocated as a tool of influence in a specific direction,” he says, “that does open the door to the greater likelihood of misinformation.”

We showed these sites to a few people in Houston’s Hermann Park, and after a few minutes of comparing them to legitimate news sites, they were able to identify which one was not local.

Nothing is foolproof, so to help you spot the difference, look for a date stamp and an author byline.

Can you tell who wrote the article?

Has that article been published on other websites with key details and locations changed?

What does the “contact us” page look like?

And you can always stick with trust news sources that you know.

The bottom line is that anyone can say they’re a journalist and the definition of news is in the eye of the beholder. But to claim to be a source for local news with no local employees or local presence, with automatically generated content and writers that don’t really exist? That rates “yellow” or “be careful” on our Trust Index.

Be Careful

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KPRC 2′s sister station in Detroit first reported on this. Read that report here.


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