There’s ample research that shows Americans are fed up with the news, much of which they perceive to be partisan or biased. A recent study from my organization, The Factual, shows how academics can help address this problem and strengthen our news environment. Academic authors—armed with their extensive topical expertise and loyalty to data—excel at creating the well-researched, unbiased information the public craves. More frequent writing by academics for general consumption can help combat misinformation and improve the overall news environment.
What Makes News Objective and Informative?
For a public concerned with bias and misinformation seeping into the news, a logical solution would be a way to rapidly identify articles that hit high standards for informational quality and minimal bias. In an effort to combat misinformation and help readers access high-quality news, The Factual built an algorithm that ranks the quality and objectiveness of news articles. We settled on four metrics that reward thorough research, transparent sourcing, unbiased language and the reliability and reputation of the author and publisher. Together, these components produce a score from zero to 100, what we call a Factual Grade.
In many ways, each metric serves as a proxy for expertise, be it through the provision of superior evidence or the inclusion of authors with demonstrated relevant knowledge. It should be no surprise that academic authors check many of these boxes. At a time when some are casting doubt on the value of expertise, and science in particular, The Factual sees value in reasserting the connection between expertise and quality news.
The four main metrics our algorithm uses to rate the news are:
- Cited evidence: The algorithm looks at the sources linked throughout an article as well as at the number of direct quotations. Articles that link to other high-scoring articles from external sources score higher than those that use few links, link to a narrow range of sources or link to articles that score poorly. Similarly, articles tend to score better if they include direct quotes of meaningful length, a sign of primary research.
- Writing tone: The algorithm uses natural language processing to look for signs of subjective commentary, such as first-person pronouns (for example, “I believe”) and unnecessary adverbs (for example, “shockingly”). It also analyzes the emotional nature of selected words and sees how prevalent they are within a given length of text. In general, highly opinionated or subjective articles are less likely to score highly.
- Author expertise: The algorithm looks to see if the author has a history of publishing on a topic, as well as how their prior articles scored. If an article is about COVID-19, for example, the algorithm evaluates whether the author has a record of writing on health-related topics. Those who have authored numerous high-scoring articles on a topic are more likely to score higher. This metric directly rewards relevant expertise.
- Publisher history: A publisher’s history, as measured by the articles that The Factual has already analyzed from that site, helps indicate whether an article is likely to be credible. For example, articles from an outlet that routinely produces low-scoring articles tend to score lower in our algorithm.
Together, these metrics indicate whether an article is likely to be a credible source of information. When these scores are aggregated over thousands of articles, they reveal relationships and trends in the media ecosystem, including the critical role academics can play in creating fact-based, informative news.
How Academics Can Support Objective, High-Quality News
Academic experts have an essential role to play in the news environment due to their topical knowledge and commitment to rigorous, fact-based information. When authors who have studied a topic for years share their insights with the public, they are more likely to bring other quality sources to the table as evidence, to comment clearly and neutrally about a topic, to engage with opposing perspectives, and to have written on that topic previously—many of the factors our algorithm has identified as crucial for producing high-quality, objective news.
The relationship between academic experts and high-quality news has been corroborated by our research thus far on the media ecosystem. The Factual recently put together its most rigorous data set to date, which analyzes the article output of 245 major English-language news sources. We took a sample of 1,000 articles from each source and then mapped how each site performed according to our Factual Grade and its subcomponent Writing Tone, which measures the objectivity of the text. The resulting scatterplot demonstrates quite clearly that research-focused news outlets that prominently feature academic expertise tend to produce higher-quality news stories.