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The community responds: Our online survey report

This blog post about our NewsTrust Baltimore local news experiment was written by NewsTrust Baltimore community manager Gin Ferrara and originally published on our Baltimore blog on June 29, 2011. It is republished here for the benefit of our national community.


In April and May 2011, NewsTrust Baltimore staff invited members, partners and supporters to take a short online survey about our service. We asked them to share their perspectives on the usefulness and impact of our site and to make suggestions for improvements and new features. Here are our findings about this survey.



Overview

We collected both quantitative and qualitative data in this brief survey, using tools from the website Survey Monkey. Individuals were asked a combination of multiple-choice and short-answer questions. There were 12 questions total, which could be completed in about 5 to 10 minutes, on average. Questions addressed user satisfaction with the site, frequency of use, areas of strength and weakness, and potential new features. Links to the survey were distributed to all members of NewsTrust Baltimore via email, and emails were also sent to community partners. Public links to the survey were posted on social media, our blog and on the homepage of the site. 

The online survey took place from April 22 through May 6, 2011. In total, 192 people began the survey, and 135 completed it. A smaller, normalized sample of 87 respondents was used for analysis purposes, to feature more diverse responses; this community sample was intended to be more representative of our community, with fewer college student responses. It also excluded NewsTrust staff responses, as well as duplicate or incomplete responses.

1 The survey gave respondents the option to select a user group that best represented them: 50 respondents self-identified as college students, seven were educators, seven were journalists, 14 were unaffiliated members, and the remaining nine were visitors. This breakdown is similar to NewsTrust Baltimore’s overall statistics, with one exception: We experienced a very high response rate from college students, many of whom were encouraged by their teachers and likely driven by NewsTrust incentives, such as our student certification and awards, to complete the survey. The percentage of student members on the NewsTrust Baltimore site is about 40 percent of total members (versus up to 60 percent of total survey respondents). We used this sample for much of the analysis in this report, as well as for the charts.


Key findings

The majority of respondents (about 60 percent) found NewsTrust Baltimore to be personally useful or very useful. Many survey participants thought the project was unique and a valuable complement to existing news sources, as well as a way to identify trustworthy sources for local news. Respondents also told us that they were introduced to several new media outlets via NewsTrust Baltimore, and they said they felt comfortable commenting in what they considered to be a respectful online community.


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Based on the pilot stats we collected, we know that NewsTrust Baltimore had many unique visitors (11,215 visitors in its first three months), but fewer people signed up as members (514) and reviewed stories (329). Most survey respondents (85 percent) said they visited the site weekly, and roughly half (52 percent) reviewed stories at least once a week.

When asked which features of NewsTrust Baltimore were most interesting to them, 59 percent of survey respondents said they were interested in finding good local journalism all in one place and 57 percent were interested in discovering local news sources that they hadn’t heard about.

“I like that I pay attention to a wider variety of new stories and outlets because of NewsTrust,” member Kate Bladow wrote in a survey response.

Diana Soliwon, the former editor of Owing Mills Patch, commented that the local site was “very helpful for someone trying to figure out where to get their information in the greater Baltimore area.”

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Responses to a question about possible new services shows that respondents’ interests were divided somewhat evenly among activities for college students (49 percent), a suggestion box for new story ideas (47 percent), and a field guide for local news sources (44 percent).

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Areas of improvement recommended by many respondents included making the site simpler to use, adding more diverse and entertaining stories, and increasing community dialogue opportunities.


Findings by group

NewsTrust Baltimore serves many groups of people with different backgrounds, interests and approaches to the site. We have filtered the survey findings into groups to examine their different perspectives on NewsTrust Baltimore.

College students

College students were one of our most active groups of members. Of the students in the community sample, 50 percent of them said they visited the site more than once a week, and 48 percent visited the site weekly or monthly. Students were also our largest pool of reviewers, with 30 percent of respondents saying they reviewed stories every few days and 62 percent reviewing stories weekly or monthly.

Students told us that the program was beneficial to their education and future goals. Many of our student participants were studying journalism and made the connection between NewsTrust’s services and their own careers. Fifty-four percent of respondents liked discovering news sources they hadn’t heard about, and 52 percent liked rating the work of other journalists.

Devin Hamberger said in the survey, “I think it is a great way for students to expose themselves to good journalism that not only helps them be critical consumers, but also helps their own writing skills.”

Micah Mohlmann was one of several students who felt that the site improved their own critical thinking: “I have learned how to better analyze and reviews news stories. It has helped me to critique articles in a professional manner.”

Rebecca Jackson wrote, “As a journalism student, looking at the work of local journalists helped me understand the things I need to look for in my stories.”

While students enjoyed learning more about the big issues of Baltimore, they also expressed interest in seeing more multimedia stories and more news that they felt was relevant to their lives.

“I think that having more news sources for young people would make me visit more often,” wrote Megan Flannery in a survey response.

Other students commented that they would like to read and review more stories about sports, entertainment, the arts, health, and beauty. In addition, 78 percent of college students said they would like to see activities specifically for college students on the site.

Kara Duffy suggested, “I would like to see News Trust have some focus on other colleges. It would be cool to have a group where journalism majors in Maryland colleges could post their articles and have other students grade them.”

Educators

Our teachers, professors and youth workers used the site primarily as an educational tool. JoAnne Broadwater, a Towson University professor, wrote in a survey comment: “I like it for its usefulness in the classroom. I think that it will help students to be more critical of what they are reading. I also like the concept of requiring them to read news and then evaluate it. Since many students do not read news stories at all, they have difficulty writing news stories and grasping the concept of a carefully constructed story. I think NewsTrust will help them to become better writers.”

While the site saw strong adoption by college students and their professors, some respondents saw a need for more focused attention on high school students. Susan Malone, executive director of Wide Angle Youth Media, wrote, “I would have liked to see more intention to create a youth-centered site where young people can start to digest news in bite-size pieces, that utilizes anonymity so young people can feel more inclined to participate.”

The convenience of aggregating local news was appealing to this group of respondents, with 86 percent of educators reporting that they like being able to find local news all in one place. They were also introduced to new local media organizations, with 71 percent reporting that they discovered new news sources via NewsTrust Baltimore.

Journalists

For journalists, NewsTrust Baltimore presented an opportunity to engage with their audience in a new way. A large percentage (86 percent) of journalists who took the survey said they visited the site more than once a week, and 46 percent visited daily, though the majority (71 percent) of journalist respondents said they rarely or never reviewed stories.

Stephanie Hughes, a producer at WYPR-FM, found the site to be valuable to her programming: “I like getting direct feedback on the segments I'm working on. NewsTrust responses are especially valuable because I know people are encountering the segments via the web, as opposed to just on air. WYPR is figuring out how to create great content for both on air and online, and it's interesting to see how reactions from online consumers differ -- it helps us to figure out what we can do to enhance the web experience. “

Howard Libit of Center Maryland, a NewsTrust Baltimore media partner and former Baltimore Sun editor, said in a survey response: “It has been interesting to see and read other people's perspectives on the different journalism taking place in the market. I am also learning about some individuals and groups involved in journalism that I was not previously aware of.”

For some journalists, the site offered new opportunities and new questions. City Paper writer and editor Bret McCabe wrote, “I'm just curious as to how best to interact with the feedback generated by this site, because if people are going to the effort of commenting thoughtfully about what they read, it should have some utility in the practice.”

Journalists were one of the more critical groups of respondents regarding the website’s usability. They described it as “cluttered” and asked for “a better job of displaying stories,” as well as “a more attractive site.” These comments were representative of the suggestions for improvements from this group.  

Members

This “members group” includes members who had signed up on the website and who were not included in the other categories, such as partners and students. Their participation spanned the spectrum, with many members visiting the site weekly (43 percent) and half of all members reviewing once a week (29 percent) to once a month (21 percent).

These members said they liked the convenience of finding good journalism in one place (79 percent), and several mentioned their appreciation of the respectful environment on the site.

Gabby Knighton commented, “I like that there is a ’sane’ community of news readers out there. You don't see them as often in the ‘comments’ sections” of other news sites.

Debra Joseph wrote, “I like the transparency, the focus on smart journalism critiques, and the mutual respect among members.”

This group of members also had suggestions for improvements. Some asked us to increase the number of stories and the frequency of refreshing our pages with new articles. We also found that, while some people were critical that we sent too many emails, others wished we sent more. This suggests that a user’s email preferences and settings could be made more clear, so users could easily adjust their communication with NewsTrust Baltimore to their comfort level.

Visitors

We were fortunate to receive feedback from visitors, partners, community leaders, friends and supporters of the site, people who didn’t consider themselves members but who cared enough about our outcomes to share their thoughts in this survey.

These respondents said they did not review stories often but visited the site frequently (77 percent visited the site at least weekly). Their feedback was thoughtful and specific.

Carl Ehrhardt wrote about the challenges of adding another social network site to his regular use: “Perhaps if NewsTrust were an app for Facebook it would be easier.”

John Walters saw a challenge in the volume of participation on the site and felt that some of the tools,  “like the discussion features, might be useful if there were more users.” Others also expressed this concern about the number of reviewers on the site.


Feedback by activity

In analyzing the survey results, we also looked at how people responded based on their activity on the site. People who said they reviewed stories more than once a week are defined as Active Members, those who reviewed stories weekly or monthly are Basic Members, and people who reviewed rarely or never are considered Visitors for this assessment.

Our Active Members group found the review tools to be a valuable service, with 71 percent of them reviewing stories every few days and 29 percent reviewing stories once a day or more.
Olivia Stephens wrote, “I think it’s a great tool for people to evaluate the news critically and really understand how to find reliable, credible news.”

Active Members also appreciated that NewsTrust Baltimore let them keep up with local news (54 percent) and find everything on one site (50 percent). Lauren Calva commented, “There really isn’t another website, that I know of, that collects local journalism and puts it all in one place.”

The majority (64 percent) of our Basic Members group reviewed stories once a week. They, too, like finding a variety of local news on a single website, but 60 percent also reported that they enjoyed discovering news sources they hadn’t heard about. Basic Members had the greatest number of suggestions for new content and topics.

Our Visitors group did not review stories but visited the site with some frequency, with 49 percent visiting more than once a week. They said they came mainly for the convenience of aggregated local news and are interested in reading a field guide for local news sources.

“The most significant feature for me is NT’s ability to be a trustworthy aggregator of local news,” wrote Michael Catalini, a journalist.


Conclusions

Overall in our collected survey responses, we found that NewsTrust Baltimore was valued as an aggregator of local news, introducing people to new sources and serving as a one-stop daily news site. Members appreciated the rational critique process and the sense of respect for commenters.

NewsTrust Baltimore was also found very useful as an educational tool, helping students build critical media skills, separate fact from fiction, and work on their own writing.

We also learned that there is room for improvement, through streamlining the site, increasing the frequency and diversity of stories posted, and creating more community participation opportunities. There is also a desire for more education resources, both activities for college students and learning tools that are appropriate for high school students.

All of us at NewsTrust and NewsTrust Baltimore appreciate the time and thought that respondents took in answering the survey, and we hope to continue to work together to build a robust, inclusive and relevant news community.

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Truthsquad: Is Maryland "America’s number one public school system"?

This blog post about our NewsTrust Baltimore local news experiment was written by NewsTrust Baltimore writer Andrew Hazlett and originally published on our Baltimore blog on June 20, 2011. It is republished here for the benefit of our national community.


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In March 2011, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley stated on his website that Maryland has "America's number one public school system." This claim, which was frequently used by O'Malley and other state leaders in campaign speeches, has been questioned by several experts and commentators, who cite evidence that Maryland public schools are behind other states on a number of key measurements.

Given this controversy, we invited the Baltimore community to join our first local Truthsquad and fact-check this statement on the NewsTrust Baltimore site in June 2011. To find out if O'Malley's claim was true, NewsTrust staff and members posted and discussed a wide range of education statistics and competing arguments over school policies and student achievement.

After reviewing the evidence and views of our community on this statement, NewsTrust Editors find O'Malley's claim to be "HALF-TRUE."

Here are some of the key facts and insights that led us to this finding.


We're No. 1! … Or are we?

 

O'Malley's statement that Maryland has "America's number one public school system" is based in part on research by the newspaper Education Week, which has given Maryland a No. 1 ranking for the past three years. These favorable findings were frequently cited by other state officials, such as Maryland schools superintendent Nancy Grasmick, who has been widely praised for helping improve the state's public schools over the past 20 years.

Maryland schools also received a No. 1 ranking from the College Board for the state with the highest percentage of graduates who have been successful on Advanced Placement tests. And last year, "Maryland was one of only a dozen states to be awarded a $250 million competitive federal grant, known as "Race to the Top," as noted in this Baltimore Sun story.

By these measures, the state's schools would appear to be among the nation's best. But when those reports were released and when O'Malley made this No. 1 claim, several experts and commentators questioned the findings. In recent years, Maryland public school graduates have been deemed unprepared for college. State-by-state comparisons of performance on standardized tests place several states ahead of Maryland in student achievement. And most observers we spoke to agree that Baltimore City's public schools face serious challenges, which seem to contradict this claim.


Evaluating O'Malley's claim

 

Given this mixed evidence, we asked NewsTrust staff and community members to review and post links to relevant news stories and factual evidence related to this claim. Participants were then invited to weigh in with their reactions on a special Truthsquad page, from Monday, June 6 to Sunday, June 19, 2011.

Over the past two weeks, we collected a dozen links to determine the accuracy of Gov. O'Malley's statement. We found a wide range of news stories and opinions, think-tank reports, government statistics, and other evidence and commentary supporting or opposing this claim. Members of the NewsTrust community weighed in with their views and observations, as well. Of 42 respondents at the time this post was written, a plurality of 17 voters found the statement false, but there was no majority view. Fourteen voted that the statement is "true" and nine were "not sure." 

Let's review the evidence we gathered and discussed during our collective quest.

The primary basis for O'Malley's claim appears to be this report produced by Education Week. Their annual "Quality Counts" report is based on test scores, spending figures, and aggregated statistics from 50 distinct indicators. The data are grouped into broad categories: chance of success, K-12 achievement, school finance, and transitions and alignment. This report has given Maryland the highest grade for three years running and, as education reporters for The Sun have pointed out, "Gov. Martin O'Malley and other state leaders mentioned [the Education Week rankings] frequently in campaign speeches."

Community member and former Baltimore Sun editor Howard Libit wrote on the Truthsquad page:

The Education Week analysis of states is about the best system that we have for ranking the states. The long-term consistency of Dr. Nancy Grasmick has provided Maryland with the opportunity to enact reforms and see them through, particularly on such issues as student assessments and holding schools (and systems) accountable for achievement and teacher performance. Setting clear, consistent standards is really one of those things that makes the state stand out.

Still, Grasmick acknowledged some ambiguities in the survey results. At a Washington, D.C., event after the report's release (video available here), Grasmick welcomed the positive attention to Maryland schools, but she shared that her team had "drilled down" into all of the report's 50 indicators and found that "we're not consistently strong in all of those indicators."

There are also important questions about the criteria and findings of the Quality Counts report. In her comments on our Truthsquad page, Sun columnist Marta Mossburg questioned the formula used by Education Week: "A number one ranking should reflect student knowledge, not money spent and other inputs."

Though the Education Week report does reflect attempts to measure student knowledge, it certainly gives considerable weight to "inputs" that may not translate into positive outcomes for students.

At the time the report was released, a story in the The Baltimore Sun noted some skeptical voices, including from a representative for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The Sun article pointed out that "Maryland falls behind in the gap between the achievement of its poor children and those who aren't poor, ranking 37th in the country in the National Assessment of Education Progress."

 

Community Insights

 

In their observations during this Truthsquad, a number of NewsTrust Baltimore community members echoed those concerns.

Community member Khalilah Harris, who heads the Baltimore Freedom Academy, a Maryland charter school, wrote:

The state of Baltimore City schools, Prince George's County schools, schools in NW Baltimore County, etc. are evidence of this claim being questionable. I need evidence of a measure that pairs MD scores with states who use similar tests, rates family engagement, student success post high school, massive reduction of achievement gap on a school by school basis, and a large percentage of its most decrepit school buildings in good condition to agree with this. Being #1 with two of the wealthiest counties in the country is so very easy. Further, there is little to no evidence of efforts or reform that reduce poverty at a rate that would impact the necessary family investment in eliminating low expectations for children.

In reviewing the Education Week study, community manager Gin Ferrara, a former Baltimore media educator, said:

While Maryland ranks 4th in the Achievement Index, the 3rd measurement in that category, achievement gaps between rich and poor, is much lower than the other top states. Maryland's 15.9 ranks us around 37th for providing opportunities for all our citizens.

Several other commenters raised the issue of statewide figures masking inequality and inconsistent results in local districts. To support his finding that O'Malley's statement was "false," community member Chip Molter wrote:

Providing effective education to young people inside Baltimore City is not an easy issue by any means. It is intertwined with so many other issues facing the city and its inhabitants. However, as long as Baltimore City and Anne Arundel school systems occupy a second tier status within the state, it is difficult for the residents of those school districts to cheer along with the Governor as he congratulates himself for the fortune of the rest of the state's educational success.

And NewsTrust Baltimore member Christopher Siple wrote on the Truthsquad page:

A lot of the rural schools and Baltimore City (another school system that rocketed to #1 under O'Malley's leadership if you were to ask him) aren't doing so hot, while Howard and Montgomery Counties are some of the richest in the union, so it isn't terribly shocking that these schools tend to be of a higher quality. Maryland is so heterogeneous in its quality of life and education that it's only political sophistry to claim its #1 status in the entire United States.

Indeed, Census Bureau figures make clear that Maryland is one of the wealthiest states in the nation. But these statewide figures can hide the fact that very large islands of persistent poverty co-exist with the state's wealthier districts.

 

Other Statistics

 

In addition to the Education Week rankings, several other measures would also place Maryland at the top of the education pyramid. The Maryland State Department of Education has celebrated students' high scores on Advanced Placement tests in news releases like this. Though some have doubted the push to enroll students in AP courses and Maryland's efforts specifically, many students in the state seem to be finding success through these opportunities.

On the other hand, there is some evidence that many Maryland students are graduating from high school without the tools they need to succeed in college. In a Baltimore Sun opinion column about Nancy Grasmick's legacy, Marta Mossburg points to remedial education statistics and anecdotes to suggest that there is a "swelling tide of students who graduate from state public high schools without basic reading or math skills."

Last year, a think tank advocating for a more rigorous education compared Maryland's standards with those of other states and the Common Core standards that have recently been adopted in many states. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute gave relatively low marks to Maryland's standards in English language arts (grade "C") and math (grade "D") and said:

The Maryland [English and Language Arts] standards are a mixed bag. Standards are generally well organized, and many are clear and specific. Others, however, fail to clarify expectations or omit essential content that students should master as part of a rigorous, K–12 curriculum. ... Maryland's [math] standards are poorly organized and difficult to interpret without additional explanation, which is only occasionally provided.

In June 2010, Maryland adopted the Common Core standards. Still, the Education Week ranking would have been based on the pre-existing standards that were critiqued by the Fordham study.

Another source to consider in evaluating the governor's claim are data collected by the U.S. Department of Education. According to information we reviewed, Maryland students have done well on reading and math assessments, but they have not scored higher than students in several other states.

The Condition of Education 2011 report is a comprehensive study worth exploring in depth. For our purposes, we can look at some recent statistics on achievement by eighth-graders. The percentage of students scoring at or above "proficient" in reading was 36 percent in Maryland, but 43 percent in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Vermont also had a higher percentage of proficient readers than Maryland.

The results in math were similar. Forty percent of eighth-graders in Maryland were rated at or above proficient in math, but other states had a greater proportion, notably Massachusetts (52 percent).

Another Department of Education report, Indicators of School Crime and Safety, had some disturbing figures about Maryland schools. In 2007–2008, 8.4 percent of Maryland public school teachers reported that they were physically attacked by a student from school during the previous 12 months. This was the highest percentage of any state in the nation.

Though the Education Department's vast stores of information should be read and used with care, we found enough data to suggest a more complex reality than O'Malley's claim would indicate.

NewsTrust contributing editor Kristin Gorski, an educator herself, reflected the ambivalence of many commenters:

What makes a school system #1? Governor O'Malley's claim got me thinking. While the Ed Week report indeed gives Maryland public school system its top score, a B+, followers Massachusetts and New York received Bs (all other systems received Cs and below). All school systems have individual districts and schools that are sorely in need of improvement – focusing on broad statements like who is "the best" compared to "the worst" doesn't inform.

NewsTrust member Bob Herrschaft also questioned the basis for making claims like these:

Political rhetoric can't readily be verified when using terms like "number one" (i.e. best). How do we define "number one"? Even two Phds in education are likely to have a completely different definition. Do we go by the number of graduates that go onto higher educational institutions, some of which are sham factories of propaganda, or do we look at the approach to the individual student's capacity to enhance his or her aptitude for learning?

 

Conclusions

 

NewsTrust Baltimore editors acknowledge that Gov. O'Malley's claim can be confirmed by credible independent sources based on certain measurements, but we also found enough reliable evidence to contradict that statement based on equally important measurements, leading to our finding that this claim is only half-true.

More important, we question the value of making such sweeping statements. Dubious claims and overstatements are an inevitable part of our political background noise, but there are costs. A governor should proudly share good news about the state's schools, and many who have celebrated Grasmick's tenure as state schools superintendent are fully cognizant of the major challenges still faced by Baltimore City schools in particular. But a proclamation that Maryland's schools are already "number one" can seem dispiriting to those who are engaged in an uphill struggle to bring educational opportunity to all young people in the state.

This short investigation of Maryland's school rankings has been a rewarding experience for our team. This was our first local fact-checking experiment, and we are bolstered by its results. This short comment from the governor's office gave us an opportunity to delve into complex issues around educational achievement and accountability as a community. We enjoyed this opportunity to learn from each other, through shared links and thoughtful observations from Truthsquad contributors.

We'd like to thank all the participants in this Truthsquad. Together, we explored a complex subject that is a major concern of Maryland's citizens. Your contributions helped expose some pressing issues and open up a valuable discussion, and we hope it will continue. We invite you to post your comments about our findings on our Truthsquad page -- or email us at editors-at-newstrust-dot-net. 

Special thanks to Craig Newmark, NewsTrust advisor and founder of Craigslist.org, for promoting this local Truthsquad in his blog post, which stated: "It's up to us to do the factchecking that we see little of, in TV or newspapers." We wholeheartedly agree, and we appreciate Craig's support of pro-am initiatives like ours.

For more information about separating fact from fiction, check out our "Crap Detection 101" guide by Howard Rheingold, as well as his video version; the Factcheck.org and Politifact websites; and the book "Blur," by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel.


More about Truthsquad

 

To learn more about the Truthsquad initiative, visit our project overview page. Truthsquad aims to strengthen the field of fact-checking by combining the best practices of crowdsourcing and social media with the expertise and knowledge of experienced journalists. This new experiment empowers citizens and journalists to collaboratively fact-check controversial claims from politicians, newsmakers and members of the media. Participants are invited to post questionable claims online, research factual evidence supporting or opposing these claims, and verify their accuracy as a community, with professional oversight.

NewsTrust created and tested Truthsquad in 2010, with funding from Omidyar Network and with the help of partners at the Poynter Institute, as well as advisors such as Brooks Jackson, director of FactCheck.org. The first pilots were well-received by online participants, partners and advisors, as well as by third-party observers, such as GigaOm. To learn more, read our pilot reports on PBS MediaShift, as well as on the national NewsTrust blog. NewsTrust has since hosted a variety of Truthsquads with other partners, including MediaBugs.org and RegretTheError.com, and with advice from Craigslist founder Craig Newmark.

NewsTrust has now formed a strategic partnership with the Center for Public Integrity to develop a daily service on Truthsquad.com, which we hope to launch in fall 2011. The goal is to create a one-stop destination for fact-checked information -- featuring its own findings, as well as promoting the work of other trusted research organizations, such as FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.

Stay tuned for more announcements about this initiative in coming weeks. To get our free newsletters, we invite you to sign up as a NewsTrust member, if you haven't already. This will also enable you to participate in more Truthsquads like this one.

 

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-- By Andrew Hazlett, on behalf of the NewsTrust editors

 

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Join the Truthsquad and fact-check O'Malley's claim about Maryland schools

This blog post about our NewsTrust Baltimore local news experiment was written by NewsTrust Baltimore writer Andrew Hazlett and originally published on our Baltimore blog on June 6, 2011. It is republished here for the benefit of our national community.


This week, we're excited to kick off our first local Truthsquad on NewsTrust Baltimore. Truthsquad is our community fact-checking service, where our community helps us research controversial claims from politicians, pundits and public figures.

For the next two weeks, we'll fact-check a claim by Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, about the state's public schools system. In a news release, he said that Maryland has "America's number one public school system." We need your help to determine if that's true.

Check out the page for this quote, and follow these steps to participate:

  1. Answer the question. Is it true or false?
  2. Review the related links.
  3. Answer the question again, if needed.
  4. Add your own links as research.

As you're considering the statement, you might want to ask yourself some questions: Who determines this ranking? On what criteria is it based? Have you had experiences with the public school system that lead you to believe or to question this statement?

At the end of the two weeks, we'll consider the evidence and reach a verdict, which we'll write up and post on this blog and on the Truthsquad page.

Please join in, and spread the word about this interesting new project!

More about Truthsquad

Truthsquad aims to revolutionize the field of fact checking by combining the best practices of crowdsourcing with the knowledge of experienced journalists. This new initiative empowers citizens to collaborate with journalists to fact-check controversial claims from politicians, newsmakers, corporations, political organizations and members of the media. Participants are invited to post questionable claims online, research factual evidence supporting or opposing these claims, and verify their accuracy as a community, with professional oversight.

NewsTrust created and tested Truthsquad in 2010, with funding from Omidyar Network and the help of partners at the Poynter Institute and advisors at FactCheck.org. The first pilots were well-received by online participants, partners and advisors, as well as by third-party observers, such as GigaOm. To learn more, read our pilot reports on PBS MediaShift, as well as on the national NewsTrust blog. NewsTrust has since hosted a variety of Truthsquads with other partners, including MediaBugs.org and RegretTheError.com, and with advice from Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist.

NewsTrust has now formed a strategic partnership with the Center for Public Integrity for this project and is developing an ongoing service on Truthsquad.com, which is expected to launch in fall 2011. The goal is to create a one-stop destination for fact-checked information -- featuring its own findings, as well as promoting the work of other trusted research organizations, such as FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.

Join the Truthsquad, and help us separate fact from fiction.

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Baltimore, as seen through the prism of different media

This blog post about our NewsTrust Baltimore local news experiment was written by NewsTrust Baltimore writer Andrew Hazlett and originally published on our Baltimore blog on June 3, 2011. It is republished here for the benefit of our national community.


Since the launch of the NewsTrust Baltimore project, we have conducted several news hunts that focus our community's attention on one major theme for a week. Early in May, NewsTrust Baltimore editor Mary Hartney wrote about our plan for a monthlong News Hunt experiment:

We want to take a closer look at various kinds of news sources. We’ll explore the different styles of journalism found in print, on television, over the radio and online. We will also dive deeper into some of the biggest issues that affect Baltimore.

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In that spirit, we spent one week focused on each of the main news media in Baltimore: print (newspapers, magazines, and wire services), television (commercial and public TV), radio (both news and talk), and online (blogs, web magazines, etc.). We blogged at the conclusion of each week and highlighted themes in coverage and pointed to recommended stories -- check out the linked blog posts for those summaries and more specific notes.

Over the course of the month, NewsTrust Baltimore editors and community members reviewed 238 stories. Of those, 28 were rated and 27 were determined to be most trusted. These highly regarded stories give us a sample of the city’s preoccupations and a good sense of how different media cover Baltimore’s most pressing issues.

During the month, the community together reviewed 115 newspaper stories, six from magazines, and four from wire services. We also reviewed 24 television reports, 18 radio segments, eight blog posts, and 63 online pieces.

As a comparison point, since the launch of NewsTrust Baltimore on Jan. 31, we reviewed 702 newspaper stories, 49 from magazines, 26 from wire services, 70 from TV, 74 from radio, 64 blog posts and 351 online stories -- 1,351 total stories. (15 stories are categorized as "other."

Themes in coverage

Throughout May, as we examined the local news scene through different media lenses, we found several recurring themes.

News about crime and violence is a matter of routine in Baltimore. Despite the numbing regularity of such news and the temptations to sensationalize, we have seen consistent efforts to humanize and contextualize crime reporting. Of course, there are straightforward crime-blotter reports, but we also saw many examples of compelling interviews, thorough reporting and judicious commentary.

Racial issues are often just below the surface in Baltimore news stories. However, with some prominent exceptions, these concerns are not usually confronted head-on. Is Baltimore’s racial polarization is so ingrained it is no longer considered newsworthy?

Additionally, we certainly saw plenty of coverage of drug-related violence and crime, but we did not review very much journalism about addiction, treatment or the root causes of urban violence.

Various news media outlets have taken a special interest in youth and in area schools. From independent bloggers to The Baltimore Sun, we saw many stories exploring education policy and leadership. In addition to some very prominent tragedies, we also saw significant stories about young people who were not perpetrators or victims of crime.

There was a lot of coverage of economic development in the course of the month, but these stories focused mostly on large public-private projects. We did not see an abundance of journalism about poverty or the day-to-day existences of people outside the economic mainstream.

Keep in mind that the four weeks of this news hunt are a sample of coverage, and these topics may be addressed at other times. 

Different media, different senses

In our weekly posts during this news hunt, we’ve noted how television’s images and immediacy can inform and stir strong emotion. We’ve reflected on the enduring quality of print media, the ubiquity of radio, and the explosion of local news and commentary online.

Contrary to some conventional thought, we found many television stories that eschewed sensationalism in favor of investigative work and reporting on wider contexts. We also found online news sources pursuing and publishing “old-fashioned” original reporting.

In an increasingly digital media environment, some of these barriers between media categories have blurred, and we have noted innovative use of new media from the city’s oldest news organizations. For example, WBAL Radio has been broadcasting since 1925, but it has enhanced its on-air news reporting with online video, additional audio clips and text-based reports. Additionally,The Baltimore Sun has been publishing more and more news in various online media and social networking platforms.

Though online sources are the most diverse by many measures (e.g., writing style and political ideology), they do not seem to reflect the city’s racial and ethnic diversity. It's hard to say if that is a result of a digital divide in internet access or a failure on our part to find and post stories from more diverse sources.

Media and the NewsTrust platform

Because NewsTrust Baltimore is an online forum for finding and reviewing news stories, we are limited to material that appears on the web. If, for instance, a television station does not produce online clips or transcripts, we cannot post and review its stories. The absence of an RSS feed also diminishes our ability to post and review an organization's stories. These are necessary limitations of our project, but they also points to a missed opportunity for these news outlets and their audiences, as well as for the NewsTrust Baltimore community.

Another factor to keep in mind is our propensity toward text-based news stories. We make a concerted effort to include and feature audio and video sources and stories, but the NewsTrust filter and the questions we ask in our review forms are most effective for evaluating longer-form text.

As some experts have pointed out, a lot of news these days is being produced outside the traditional “article.” At present, we don’t have an easy way to capture and review something like Baltimore Sun crime reporter Justin Fenton’s informative Twitter feed.

What are we missing?

We’ve tried to be diligent in tracking down and collecting active news sources in Baltimore, but every week we discover new ones in a constantly changing landscape. No doubt we have missed some neighborhood newsletters, personal blogs that venture into commentary, niche media outlets, or brand-new publications. If you know of news sources that we have overlooked, please leave a comment or send us an email at baltimore at newstrust dot net.

One of the primary purposes of NewsTrust Baltimore is to surface and highlight quality journalism -- and we also want to have a conversation about what's not being covered. There are issues, communities and events that simply don’t get the attention they deserve. We welcome your views on what subjects and stories are absent from the Baltimore news ecosystem, and we'll have a focused conversation on current gaps and possible solutions in July. 

Your insights are welcome

What are your thoughts? What are the strengths and weakness of Baltimore’s news outlets in various media? Do you have a preferred way of getting your local news? Please share your experiences in the comments section below and rate and review sources on NewsTrust Baltimore. Thanks for your participation!

 

Photo montage by Fabrice Florin

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