Southern Poverty Law Center

Poynter Institute's Retracted List of Fake News Sites Was Written by SPLC Podcast Producer

Media watchdogs should not outsource their fact-checking to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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Last week, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a non-profit journalism and research organization, published a list of 500 unreliable new websites. But the list, which included many conservative news and think tank websites, was itself unreliable, and Poynter has since retracted it.

"Soon after we published, we received complaints from those on the list and readers who objected to the inclusion of certain sites, and the exclusion of others," explained Poynter editor Barbara Allen in a statement. "We began an audit to test the accuracy and veracity of the list, and while we feel that many of the sites did have a track record of publishing unreliable information, our review found weaknesses in the methodology. We detected inconsistencies between the findings of the original databases that were the sources for the list and our own rendering of the final report."

How exactly the list found its way onto the Poynter website in the first place is a bit of a mystery. Poynter confirmed that its author, Barrett Golding, is a freelancer rather than an employee, but did not answer other questions about the process of greenlighting this project.

Golding's LinkedIn account lists him as a freelance podcast producer for the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC did not respond to my questions about whether other SPLC staff had any influence or involvement over the list. Golding did not immediately respond to my request for comment, either. According to his Twitter feed, he works with the SPLC's "Teaching Tolerance" project. He was formerly a research fellow at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute and a producer for NPR.

It's worth trying to understand these connections because Poynter's retracted list of news sites list was shoddy and overly broad in a manner reminiscent of the SPLC's own work on tracking hate groups. As I explained in a recent piece for Reason detailing the group's personnel issues, the SPLC tallies hate groups in a manner that suggests hate is always rising, even if it's not:

According to the SPLC's hate map, there were more than 1,000 hate groups in the U.S. in 2018—nearly twice as many as existed in 2000. The number has increased every year since 2014.

The map is littered with dots that provide more information on each specific group, and this is where the SPLC gives away the game. Consider a random state—Oklahoma, for example, is home to nine distinct hate groups, by the SPLC's count. Five of them, though, are black nationalist groups: the Nation of Islam, Israel United in Christ, etc. The SPLC counts each chapter of these groups separately, so the Nation of Islam counts as two separate hate groups within Oklahoma (its various chapters in other states are also tallied separately). The map makes no attempt to contextualize all of this—no information is given on the relative size or influence of each group.

Additionally, the SPLC takes a very broad view of what constitutes hate: It considers the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal group that defends religious liberty, as an extremist organization. It claims that American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray is a white nationalist.

The Poynter list made similar errors. It included InfoWars (a literal conspiracy site) but also conservative new websites like The Washington Examiner, National Review, and The Washington Free Beacon. These sites get things wrong from to time, but so do mainstream and left-of-center news sources. (Indeed, this entire episode is a prominent example of a mainstream source making a mistake.) But those publications are not misleading in the same sense that Alex Jones is misleading.

Poynter has done some good work in the past. Moving forward, it should be more careful about outsourcing its fact-checking to people who work for the SPLC.

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