Beware of local news sites that are not what they seem | WFAE 90.7

When it comes to online news, it’s often up to viewers to make sure what they’re seeing is real. But that’s getting harder as local media struggles in many communities and new, partisan networks of websites spreading dubious stories take their place.

And these pages can convince. They have legitimate sounding names like “Mecklenburg Herald” and websites that are similar to many other news outlets. But they are run by partisan groups pushing an agenda.

WFAE’s Gwendolynn Glenn spoke to Katie Peralta Soloff, editor of Axios Charlotte, about a last article Details on the rise of these potential misinformation networks. It’s a phenomenon called “pink slime.”

“Some of them seem to be little more than press releases, really,” Soloff said. “I think the scary part is that readers don’t always have the media knowledge to tell the difference. You know, something that looks real looks like a newspaper imprint on his website. And unfortunately it takes a pretty keen eye to tell the difference.”

The Axios reporting team found the following:

  • In the past year, a network of more than 50 “locally branded” news sites has sprung up, run by a Washington-based progressive organization called the American Independent. These include the Mecklenburg Herald, The Piedmont Tribune and Triangle News in North Carolina. These sites published “strongly slanted political news aimed at boosting midterm Democratic candidates and attacking Republican opponents,” Axios reported.
  • Metric Media, a conservative-leaning group, also operates a network of 48 local branded sites in North Carolina, including South Mecklenburg News, North Mecklenburg News and Gastonia Times.

Soloff said the sites appear to be local, with a mix of generic lifestyle content and stories rewritten from press releases. But that belies their partisan leanings and true origins, especially when it comes to stories they publish about other issues, such as downplaying the seriousness of COVID-19.
“Often these are stories that may not carry much weight in more reputable news outlets. I’m not sure if everyone writing these stories for these local websites is actually a local. You may be located outside of Washington or another hub where these websites are located. But of course they pretend to be local,” Soloff said.

Behind this trend is the continued decline of many traditional local media sources, particularly local newspapers. The News Desert Project found that 36 North Carolina newspapers have closed or merged in the past two decades, and six North Carolina counties have no local newspaper at all. That’s more than the surrounding states.

Soloff said it’s important for people to be careful before believing anything they read online — or share it on social media. You can check sites like NewsGuard to get independent ratings of a news site’s trustworthiness.

“I would say don’t just get everything from one particular outlet on the internet,” she said. “Make sure you look beyond Facebook. Facebook and other social media sites tend to be echo chambers serving you the kind of content you crave.”

Listen to the full conversation here

WFAE’s Gwendolyn Glenn talks to Axios Charlotte’s Katie Peralta Soloff about ‘pink slime’ on the local news.