By Colin Deppen

Spotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and WITF Public Media.

The majority of news outlets in Pennsylvania rank high on trustworthiness, but there is a growing crop of digital sites with ties to both Democratic and Republican groups that are taking hold in the state with few, if any, disclaimers about their partisan motives.

In total, 70% of the 160 local news organizations reviewed in the state were determined to be highly credible, slightly above the nationwide average, according to the Pennsylvania News Trust Report by NewsGuard, a nonpartisan media rating organization.

Credibility is determined by examining nine apolitical factors, including not repeatedly publishing false content, regularly correcting or clarifying errors, clearly labeling news versus opinion content, avoiding deceptive headlines, disclosing ownership and financing, and more.

Of concern, however, is the remaining 30 percent of organizations, which includes partisan-funded local news sources that threaten to erode trust in local news, according to the report. They’re part of a new wave of websites designed to look and feel like hyperlocal outlets, but with undisclosed sources of support, rampant conflicts of interest, and “highly slanted coverage” that strongly reflects the political leanings of their funders, the review found.

And those partisan ties span both sides of the political spectrum.

“If every person when they click on a link thought for a second before believing the information and asked themselves: Have I heard of this source? Do I know anything about it? Is this an actual, credible news operation?” said Matt Skibinski, the author of the report and NewsGuard general manager. “That would be one of the ultimate solutions.”

One news group, run by Metric Media, operates 45 local websites in Pennsylvania, many of which appear similar to credible news sources in their communities. But they fail nearly all of NewsGuard’s basic journalistic standards, the report found.

The sites are part of a nationwide network run by a conservative political consultant, the report said, and have been found to publish “coverage that is ordered up by Republican groups and corporate PR firms,” according to The New York Times.

But you wouldn’t know that by visiting the websites. For example, the “About Us” page of the Lehigh Times, which closely resembles the highly credible lehighvalleylive.com, says it was created “to fill the void in community news after years of decline in local reporting” and that its approach is to “provide objective, data-driven information without political bias.”

NewsGuard’s review of the site’s content, however, found highly slanted coverage in favor of Republicans and in criticism of Democrats. The report also found the network of sites recently published a series of stories on the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on the hotel industry without disclosing that Metric Media’s CEO, Bradley Cameron, has ties to hotel owners.

“When we looked [at those sites] over a period of time, we saw a large number of articles about imposing lockdown restrictions on hotels,” Skibinski said. “Then we looked at the website of an organization [Cameron] is associated with and in his bio on that site it revealed he was basically doing lobbying or consulting work [for members of the hotel industry].”

Cameron did not respond to questions from Spotlight PA about this finding.

Spotlight PA

In another example, The Keystone, which began publishing in February 2020, describes itself as “a local news site for Pennsylvania” that was started because the “decline of local news around the country has negatively impacted civic engagement.”

But The Keystone is part of the Courier Newsroom group owned by the Democratic advocacy organization Acronym, which, on its website, says it has “helped elect progressive candidates across the country” and describes its work as running “dozens of targeted media programs to educate, inspire, register, and mobilize voters” to vote for those candidates, according to the report.

“In other words, Acronym’s goal is not to produce quality journalism—it is to win elections for progressive candidates,” the NewsGuard report said.

The Keystone acknowledges Acronym’s involvement on its “About” page but insists on its editorial independence. But that message was undermined by Acronym’s own draft business plan, which outlined a mission “designed to drive strategic narratives to key audiences” with sites like The Keystone, per a copy obtained by Vice News. The draft also quotes Acronym CEO Tara McGowan as saying “news” content is a better way to reach voters than campaign ads.