A Spotlight PA article published earlier this week by LNP | LancasterOnline examined “a new wave of websites designed to look and feel like hyperlocal (news) outlets, but with undisclosed sources of support, rampant conflicts of interest, and ‘highly slanted coverage’ that strongly reflects the political leanings of their funders. And those partisan ties span both sides of the political spectrum.” Spotlight PA cited a report from NewsGuard, a nonpartisan media rating organization; the report was commissioned by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, the nonprofit owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Spotlight PA is a nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Inquirer; its partners include LNP Media Group.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Americans relied on newspapers and evening news programs anchored by the likes of Walter Cronkite, dubbed the “most trusted man in America.”

Facts were facts — and largely the same set of facts was embraced by Americans no matter their political affiliation.

Then came CNN and the rapid growth of cable television, which eventually spawned Fox News and MSNBC. This was followed by the exponential growth of the internet and eventually social media. And our common set of facts was obliterated by the rapid-fire, 24/7 dissemination of partisan viewpoints masquerading as facts.

Amid the clamor, newspapers including LNP | LancasterOnline continued to report the facts and deliver the news straight-up. Newspaper opinion sections, like this one, remain clearly labeled as such. And newspapers continue to be islands of truth in a sea of disinformation, misinformation and weaponized partisan information.

Which is why some political partisans are creating websites that look like news sites. They seek the credibility of genuine news sites like LancasterOnline. They shouldn’t be given it, because the so-called “news” they offer is slanted by the political bias of their creators.

There is at least one such site in Lancaster County. We’re not going to provide its name, because it doesn’t deserve amplification. There are scores of other such sites across Pennsylvania, operated by both Democratic and Republican interests.

Following are questions you can ask to determine whether a website is a reliable information source. They are gleaned from NewsGuard’s methods of assessing a site’s reliability.

— Is it easy to figure out who’s behind the site?

— Is it clear who owns and finances it, and who is in charge of content?

— Is it easy to contact the site creators and content creators?

— Can I trust the site to report news accurately?

— Does it disclose conflicts of interest?

— Is advertising clearly identified?

— Are the headlines deceptive?

— Does the site have an agenda?

— What is the reputation of its owners and creators?

— Do they say how they ensure their reporting is fair and accurate?

— Do they correct any mistakes they make quickly and publicly?

As Republican state Sen. Ryan Aument of Mount Joy pointed out in an op-ed published in this newspaper in August, “Probably most frustrating is the realization that we cannot always believe what we see. We should all be aware of the power of photo-editing software and ‘deepfakes,’ or the use of artificial intelligence to manipulate videos or audio to change what a person appears to have said or done.”

Readers of LancasterOnline know that it’s produced by LNP | LancasterOnline and published by LNP Media Group, which is owned by the Steinman family, stalwarts of the Lancaster County community since 1756. The family has been in the newspaper business here since 1866.

Its news operation has no agenda except to serve as Lancaster County’s best source of community news and to serve as a watchdog of local and state government.

The newspaper’s top leadership is listed on the masthead on the Opinion page. Newsroom, circulation and advertising contact phone numbers are listed on Page A2 of the print edition and a staff directory can be found under “Contact Us” on the LancasterOnline menu.

Its Opinion section is clearly defined and separate from its news department. Each opinion post on LancasterOnline is clearly marked as such.

Mistakes are quickly and publicly corrected on Page A2 of the print edition, and noted on LancasterOnline articles. It can be mortifying for an LNP | LancasterOnline staff member — from any department — to have to publicly correct a mistake, but owning up to mistakes is part of the job and the newspaper’s credibility requires it.

And the financial interests of this newspaper’s parent company are disclosed in news and opinion articles, whether the subject is the nonprofit work of The Steinman Foundation, or Steinman Communications’ investment in the private entity that owns the franchise for the Lancaster Marriott at Penn Square.

This newspaper — unlike partisan sites pretending to be nonpartisan news sites — never tries to sneak things past readers. Executive Editor Tom Murse wouldn’t allow it.

In a letter to subscribers this week, Murse noted that the pandemic has illustrated the “fundamental, unassailable fact” that finding “good information is a matter of life and death.”

Wrote Murse: “Without access to timely and accurate news — information that’s grounded in fact and science — we’d have had a difficult time keeping our friends and loved ones healthy amid the worst public health crisis of our lifetimes.”

Which is why, he wrote, LNP | LancasterOnline’s team of journalists has “worked tirelessly to debunk disinformation and misinformation that spread virally across social media to keep you and your families informed about COVID-19.”

We will continue to do this with the support of our subscribers. We are grateful for your support, and urge you to continue to be discerning readers.

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