Study exposes disinformation risk among Australia’s online news sites

Just over a quarter of Australian news websites may deliberately publish inaccurate content to suit agendas, while most others should do more to demonstrate they are trustworthy, according to new research.

The research, conducted by Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and the Global Disinformation Index (GDI), assessed the content and editorial integrity of 34 local news outlets as it examined the risks of disinformation in Australia.

While only one website posed a “maximum disinformation risk”, two others demonstrated a “high” chance of carrying fake or misleading content, with six regarded as posing a “medium risk”.

The report forms part of the GDI’s mission to expose the perils of inaccurate reporting and to “disrupt, defund and down-rank disinformation sites”. The UK-based, not-for-profit organisation defines disinformation as content that is “deliberately deceptive and often malicious”.

“Disinformation [is] adversarial narratives that create real world harm,” GDI co-founder and executive director, Clare Melford, said.

In the QUT study of the Australian online news market, 25 platforms were identified as having a low to minimum risk of distributing such content.

The results were based on analysis of 10 anonymised articles from each site and their transparency regarding editorial policy, ownership, funding, fact-checking guidelines and correction procedures.

The nine sites with the lowest risk were News Corp-owned, Herald Sun, Courier Mail and The Daily Telegraph, along with, Seven West Media’s Perth Now, SBS, ABC and Australian Community Media-run Canberra Times.

These publications performed “almost perfectly” on content, according to researchers. Most articles are “neutral and unbiased, carry bylines and headlines which match the story’s contents, and do not negatively target groups or individuals”.

In contrast, the three outlets identified for their high risk of peddling disinformation “almost exclusively share hyperpartisan political content, with highly sensationalised, cherry-picked, and/or explicitly biased articles”.

The report added: “Many of the articles posted in these outlets negatively target individuals, groups, and/or religious or racial minorities.”

The study did not disclose which three publishers were most likely to spread disinformation, or which six posed a medium risk, although it said only one is controlled by a large media owner.

Other outlets assessed by researches included Crikey, Junkee, Nine-owned The Australian Financial Review and The Sydney Morning Herald, Business Insider Australia, Pedestrian TV, News Corp’s Sky News Australia and The Australian, The New Daily, The Saturday Paper and National Indigenous Times.

Despite the generally positive findings relating to content, all the sites studied could improve their transparency, the report concluded.  The ABC and SBS were the best performing sites.

“The rating of many outlets could be improved through greater levels of accuracy assurance and added transparency regarding funding sources, true beneficial owners of the site, and other operational and editorial policies such as the attribution of sources,” the report stated.

“Although our review indicates some level of fact checking occurring before publication of articles, few outlets explicitly outlined their fact checking process and included this information in their editorial policies”.

Making such changes “represents a straightforward opportunity for improving their risk rating,” it said.

“Overall, many of the risk factors in Australia come from a lack of transparency on journalistic and editorial checks and balances in their newsrooms.”

Professor Patrik Wikstrom, director of QUT’s Digital Media Research Centre said the “tsunami” of fake news surrounding COVID has rattled public confidence.

“Media organisations are facing a crisis. In expanding to the online world, the industry has been exposed to more risks concerning disinformation,” he said.

“News websites have financial incentives to spread disinformation, to increase their online traffic and, ultimately, their advertising revenue. The disinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic is the perfect example of the dangers inherent in this. By disrupting society’s shared sense of accepted facts, these narratives undermine public health, safety, and government responses.”

Wikstrom added: “The Global Disinformation Index deploys its assessment framework to rate the disinformation risk of news domains. These independent, trusted and neutral ratings are used by advertisers, ad tech companies and platforms to redirect their online ad spending, in line with their brand safety and disinformation risk mitigation strategies.”


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