Fair and Balanced — Almost

Media criticism done wiki-style.

Let's face it: The media stand about even with pederasts and Peter Ragone on the Public Trust-o-Meter, with readers seeing an agenda behind every story. Yet for all the derision, most efforts to parse the veracity of news content remain hopelessly superficial. Digg.com, Redditt, and similar aggregators, while grazing over a wide swath of media landscape, assess stories solely on popularity, ignoring such trifling matters as accuracy and sourcing.

Enter NewsTrust, an online rating service self-touted as "your guide to good journalism." The nonprofit Web site (www.newstrust.net) appraises the credibility of stories across the mainstream and alternative news continuum, from the New York Times to Captain's Quarters, a conservative blog. Founded by Fabrice Florin, a former Apple and Macromedia honcho who later launched Handtap and GoComics, NewsTrust assigns a rating of one to five stars to a story based on 11 variables. They include balance, context, fairness, and "importance," defined as whether a story enlightens readers beyond what they know — or think they know — about a subject.

Florin, whose Mill Valley office doubles as NewsTrust HQ, explains the site's mission this way: "We're trying to free people from the slavery of their beliefs."

The 4-month-old site, still in its beta phase, relies on members — pegged at 3,800 and growing, according to Florin — to evaluate the news. Anyone can sign up, but as with the rating factors, which have varying "weight values," all reviewers are not considered equal. Those with a media background or deep knowledge of a story's specific topic influence its overall ranking more than casual news consumers. The "weight" of reviewers also rises or falls based on the ratings other members give their postings.

That system of cross-checking, coupled with Florin and his small staff vetting reviewers, acts as the nonpartisan site's defense against political bias — in theory. Florin concedes NewsTrust's early returns show a leftward tilt. On average, the Times, NPR, and other so-called liberal media have received higher story ratings than the likes of the Wall Street Journal and Fox News.

In hopes of calibrating the site's neutrality, Florin has courted conservative groups and bloggers, urging them to sample the site. Provided they do, perhaps NewsTrust will emerge as a site where fair and balanced means something more than From the Lips of Karl Rove.

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