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Watch out for local news sites that aren't what they appear to be

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

And these sites can be convincing. They have legitimate-sounding names like the “Mecklenburg Herald” and websites that look like those of many other news outlets. But they’re operated by partisan groups pushing an agenda.

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

“Some of them appear to be little more than press releases basically regurgitated,” Soloff said. “I think that the scary part is readers don't always have the media savvy to tell the difference. You know, something that looks legit has the look and feel of a newspaper masthead on its website. And unfortunately, it does take a rather discerning eye to tell the difference.”

The Axios reporting team found:

  • A network of more than 50 “locally branded” news sites have sprung up in the past year operated by a Washington-based progressive organization called the American Independent. Those include the Mecklenburg Herald, The Piedmont Tribune and Triangle News in North Carolina. Those sites published “heavily slanted political news aimed at boosting Democratic midterm candidates and attacking Republican opponents,” Axios reported.
  • Metric Media, a conservative-leaning group, also operates a network of 48 locally branded sites in North Carolina, including the South Mecklenburg News, the North Mecklenburg News and the 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 real origins, especially when it comes to stories they publish about other topics, such as downplaying the severity of COVID-19.
“A lot of the time, these are stories that might not hold much water in more reputable news outlets. I'm not sure that everyone who writes these stories for these local sites are actually local. They might be out of Washington or any other hub that these sites are kind of based in. But of course, they pretend to be local,” Soloff said.

The background for this trend is the ongoing decline of many traditional local media sources, especially local newspapers. The News Desert project found that 36 newspapers in North Carolina closed or merged in the past two decades, and six North Carolina counties have no local newspaper whatsoever. That’s more than the surrounding states.

Soloff said it’s important for people to be wary before believing everything they read online — or sharing it via 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 that you look beyond Facebook. Facebook and other social media sites tend to be echo chambers where you are served, the type of content that you crave.”

Listen to the full conversation here
WFAE's Gwendolyn Glenn talks with Axios Charlotte's Katie Peralta Soloff about "pink slime" in local news.

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.