In my view, this question is, in its core, about the reliability of online information. There are so many sources of online news available to us at a mere click of the mouse that many people feel at a loss as to what sources can be trusted. But the distinction between reliable and unreliable news sources is not at all clear-cut.
Sure, some websites are completely fake and only publish blatant falsehoods. Most news outlets, however, report on real events most of the time but with a clear bias, mislead their audiences by playing fast and loose with established standards of journalistic decency, or publish an individual piece of content that is more sloppy or unreliable than the rest and is blatantly misleading. The first group is obviously best avoided if you're looking for reliable information, but the second and third group require more scrutiny. For example, a news outlet may be a relatively sincere source of information on some topics, and a propaganda tool on others. Also, it is good to keep in mind that even biased news sites may put forward valuable viewpoints; subjective does not always mean misleading.
“A news outlet may be a relatively sincere source of information on some topics, and a propaganda tool on others.”
With this in mind, it's possible to assess news sites on their level of general reliability. There are a few organisations that do this; for example, Wikipedia has a list of fake news sites (which I've made use of in this article as well). Real or Satire is a new platform where users can submit news sites to a reliability verdict (real, satire, neither, biased, clickbait, green ink, or undetermined). The Media Bias Fact Check looks at a broad spectrum of media outlets, and assesses their degree of leftward or rightward slant. And there are browser plugins that you can download (here and here) that can tell you whether or not an article or site’s reliability is disputed (these plugins are pretty basic. I wouldn't rely on them too much).
A while ago, The Question asked its readers which news sources they would like to know more about in terms of their reliability. I'll discuss these sites below. The categories I use are the following:
Fake: Fake news sites form the core of the controversy surrounding the much talked about ‘fake news’ issue. The opportunity to make a quick buck through advertising revenue has proven too tantalising for some purveyors of fake information to pass up. This has resulted in the proliferation and (occasional) viral success of completely fabricated news stories. A source is ‘fake’ when a large share of its content has no connection to reality. Sites in this category cannot be trusted to dispense reliable information and should be read with great care, if at all.
Disinformative: Reports on real events, but has been found to display a willingness at the editorial level to publish false or deliberately misleading information on certain topics; this goes especially in the case of unsavoury connections to governments. Sites in this category are mostly unreliable, and should always be read in conjunction with other news sources.
Biased: Displays a clear ideological slant towards one end of the political spectrum. While it is good to keep this slant in mind, biased sources should not be automatically labeled unreliable.
Please bear in mind that this list of sites is by no means exhaustive. Also, I will not directly link to any of these sources’ web page, because I don't want to boost their Google Page Ranks any more than is absolutely necessary.
Fake news sites
– Anything owned by Jestin Coler, including abcnews.com.co, drudgereport.com.co, conservativefrontline.com, denverguardian.com, firebrandleft.com, usatoday.com.co, unitedmediapublishing.com, and washingtonpost.com.co. Some of these sites were responsible for a number of fake viral stories about the US election, particularly Hillary Clinton. NPR looked up the man who owns them, a middle-aged, suburban American dad named Jestin Coler. You can read their fascinating profile of him here.
- Every one of these stories from from ‘abcnews.com.co’ (which has nothing to do with ABC News) is false. The .co suffix and the ‘Fashion Week’ tag are giveaways:
- Any English-language news site based in Veles, Macedonia, including worldpoliticus.com, trumpvision365.c0m and usconservativetoday.com. A group of young guys from this small town runs a number of sites focusing on Donald Trump's electoral campaign, and makes a killing doing so. BuzzFeed looked them up and wrote a great article about their motivations. You can read it here.
- Infowars.com, by Alex Jones. While the majority of Infowars’ content does at least make passing reference to real events, many of its most high-profile stories are entirely false, including its claim that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax, that the Jade Helm training operation was a trick to declare martial law in Texas, that devil-worshiping paedophiles run the New World Order, and that the Democratic Party in the US ran a paedophile ring from a pizza shop.
- InfoWars’ founder Alex Jones. The site is a key propagator of fantasy right-wing ‘news’.
- NaturalNews. This site, owned by a man named Mike Adams, regularly publishes material that can only be described as pseudo-scientific. Topics include the non-existent link between vaccines and autism, chemtrails, genetically modified mosquitoes, and homeopathic treatments for Ebola. A brief look at the site's front page reveals a number of articles with a heavy bias towards homeopathy and against what is called the mainstream scientific community. Despite its claim of being the ‘world’s top news source on natural health’, it mostly peddles debunked healthy myths that are best left alone.
Disinformative news sites
- RT (formerly Russia Today). This channel is owned by the Russian government, and in recent years has expanded its market from Russia to the rest of the world. It now broadcasts in Russian, English, Spanish and Arabic. The channel purports to present ‘alternative’ viewpoints to mainstream media narratives. In some respects, this is true; for example, RT was quite early to cover the Occupy demonstrations in the US in 2011 and 2012. However, where issues pertaining to the Russian Federation and its government are concerned, RT is protective of Russia’s interests to the point of disinformation and fabrication. One example is its validation of various conspiracy theories surrounding the downing of flight MH17 in July of 2014. RT’s coverage is therefore largely indistinguishable from a propaganda tool for the Russian government, and it should not be relied on as one's only source of information.
- “RT’s coverage is largely indistinguishable from a propaganda tool for the Russian government, and it should not be relied on as one’s only source of information.”:
- Breitbart News. Founded by Andrew Breitbart, this site has become a staple of the far-right US political sphere. Its former executive chairman, Steve Bannon, is currently president-elect Donald Trump's chief strategist and senior counselor. While Breitbart is no different from many other ideologically inspired news sites in terms of its level of bias and one-sidedness, it has repeatedly shown to be willing to disregard standards of journalistic decency by publishing false articles and headlines (such as ‘Obama: “I'm the closest to a Jew“ to ever be President’; Obama never said this). Furthermore, its overt support for Donald Trump and its connections to his incoming administration make any presumption of neutrality when it comes to US politics impossible.
Biased news sites
- The Canary. The Canary is a left-leaning political blog that has gained a lot of popularity since its founding in 2015. It regularly takes a stand against the ‘establishment’, and is a supporter of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The majority of its traffic comes from Facebook. In December of 2016 it was reported that The Canary would be targeted by a Labour Party inquiry into fake news websites, prompting a fierce response from its editor-in-chief, Kerry-Anne Mendoza. As far as I can tell, The Canary is not a purveyor of fake news or disinformation, and it is rather up front about its political leanings.
- The Blaze. Founded by well-known media personality Glenn Beck, The Blaze is a conservative multi-media TV, radio and internet platform. While both Beck and The Blaze’s editorial staff are open about their support for conservative policies and ideas, especially Beck openly voiced his opposition to Donald Trump during the 2016 election cycle.
- Glenn Beck’s site The Blaze: hugely biased, but somewhat fact-based:
- The Raw Story. A progressive online news outlet that publishes content with a left-leaning perspective. As far as I can tell, it has an agenda but, much like The Blaze, does not necessarily toe a governmental or party line. It is clearly no fan of Donald Trump, but to say that it publishes overt fabrications is a stretch.
- Addicting Info. Much like The Raw Story, AddictingInfo is a progressive site that puts forward mostly left-leaning narratives. It has satirical articles that may be misconstrued as fake news, but they are clearly labeled, so that would not be their fault. It has been banned from Reddit, but this appears to be because of its being spammed by shill accounts in its comments section.