Over the past few years, the movement to restore civil discourse to politics and understand news bias has grown enormously. In pursuit of our mission to provide bipartisan dialogue to the politically engaged, Divided We Fall aims to provide a platform that highlights people or organizations involved in bipartisan or non-partisan movements. To that end, we are launching a “Building Bipartisanship” series.
Today, we sat down with Harleen Kaur, co-founder of Ground News, to discuss the ability of modern technology to combat media bias. Ground News is an app that culls through more than 50,000 news sources to help news consumers combat misinformation and fake news. Ground News allows users to compare how media outlets with different political ideologies are covering stories.
What is Ground News and How Did You Decide To Start This Company?
Harleen Kaur: Hi! It is nice to meet you today, and I am excited to discuss Ground News and Divided We Fall.
Grace Brangwynne: Hello Everyone, it is good to talk to you all.
Conor Donnan: It is nice to meet you too. We figured we would talk about your use of modern technology to help people understand media bias. I think it would be great if you could tell us about you, how you co-founded this app, and the vision you had when you found it.
Harleen: Yeah, I can get started there. I’m Harleen, the CEO of Ground News. I am not a journalist by background; in fact, I am trained as an engineer. I started my career working for NASA on space projects such as New Horizons. As an engineer, I was very comfortable with tech, but I did not feel I could trust the news that I was reading. I was concerned about the news stories I came across on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. These platforms do not train consumers to know what news is and what it is not. It started as mainly a personal problem for myself and my co-founder.
We created Ground News because we were a very tech-oriented team that wanted to solve the problem. We want to empower consumers who may not have the media training or media literacy to understand the bias and misinformation in the news they are reading. That way, they can confidently depend on it and understand all facets of it. Ground News is an app that people can download on their phone, and it will examine more than 50,000 news sources. Users can compare how outlets of different political ideologies are covering news stories.
Conor: Our team is, in many ways, the opposite of yours. Joe, Taylor, and I are all political science or History people. We have a strong social science and government background. Taylor worked in government, Joe is in the air force, and I am a doctoral candidate of History. Grace, our newest intern, worked in local government, and she studies political science. I know that Grace has questions, so I want to let her take over.
The Impact of Media Bias on our Society
Grace: I have about ten questions for you today. They revolve around the role of media and how it affects our society. The first question I have for you today is, why is it important to be exposed to different media perspectives?
Harleen: There are a couple of reasons that our app tries to expose people to different perspectives. Firstly, if you are only listening to a single style or viewpoint, then you are potentially missing a lot of stories and information. Some media outlets refuse to cover specific topics, so you find a clear bias. For example, the right-leaning media may not include climate change stories, or Left-leaning media might not cover immigrant crime news stories. We see that not just in the political bias but on geopolitical agendas too. The Hong Kong protests get covered very differently throughout the world. It’s essential to understand the bias and read different sources.
Grace: I agree it is so important to have a more comprehensive view of all current events. For my next question, does the media we consume impact the people we surround ourselves with? How do new technology and apps like Ground News change that?
Harleen: Yeah, I think that we all want to reaffirm our biases. We try to surround ourselves with people who think similarly. It is not comfortable for us to talk to people who will have different opinions than us. Ground News and Divided We Fall show people that they can have disagreements and expand their social circles in a way that traditional media does not.
Grace: Do you find that you are willing to talk about controversial issues with your friends, or do we always avoid it?
Harleen: Honestly, I find those conservations very uncomfortable, but I think there is legitimacy in having those discussions. It is essential to understand other people’s points of view and have those conversations as opposed to avoiding it. Ultimately, it will expand your knowledge of other people and may expand your horizons as well.
Grace: That is a fantastic answer. I guess this leads to my next question. Why are more people relying on social media as their primary form of news today than traditional outlets?
Harleen: I think it is because social media platforms like Facebook are more accessible. They do not set out to deliver news, but they find themselves awkward when sharing it. One minute someone is reading about a wedding, and below that is another person’s post discussing the death of George Floyd. The problem is that social media platforms do not take the responsibility to say what posts are news and what posts are opinion. The recent developments between Twitter and President Trump have been a real statement by them and something that social media should do more often to all politicians and outlets.
This is one of the reasons we initially drew a nutritional label approach to news. We wanted to show people that there were different flavors of the same story on either end of the spectrum and allow them to understand what was being exaggerated or emphasized.
Grace: This is an excellent transition to my next question. What do you think of hashtag activism? Do you find it more unifying or polarizing?
Harleen: Good question. Yeah, I think it is about how people want to perceive it. It is similar to fake news in that it has been so politicized that it means different things to different people. When I say fake news, it might mean something different to you. It might be different from people. It might be. So I think it’s, yeah, it’s not easy.
Grace: Yeah, I look at my Instagram and Facebook feeds. All I see two opposing sides, specifically about George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. People repost information that I am not sure is true or false. I think those conversations are worth having on a platform like Divided We Fall. Still, it is hard to know what information from people on twitter is correct for most people.
So that leads me to my next question. Which is what are some common signs of misinformation?
Harleen: I’ll share with you how we algorithmically try to deal with it. We look at the credibility of the source and where it is coming from. We take that very seriously. It does not mean that we only cover mainstream media or that only mainstream news can be accurate. We ask questions such as “how long has this new source existed? What have they published before? What have third party people platforms said about this news platform?” We also allow people to submit new sources. We already have 50,000 sources, and people keep adding. Divided We Fall would be a news outlet that is not traditional media, but it can cover events reliably.
I think a person should try to mimic this algorithm by asking questions about the validity of the news source and the story it is telling. If you can find more publicly available information that details a similar news story and validates the source, then that is great. If not, you can ask why it hasn’t been verified.
Grace: That is fascinating. You search through an extensive database of material, and I suppose people like to read more obscure sources because they are getting frustrated with mainstream media outlets. Do you think mainstream media is becoming less credible, and what should we pay attention to with their stories?
Harleen: Well, I think they are getting more polarized, which creates an underlying issue of the sustainability of journalism. Media outlets depend mostly on advertising to pay the bills, so you have to get people clicking on the news. The best way to get people clicking is to push agendas and write more polarizing articles. They fall into the trap of having to create increasingly more politically charged pieces to attract readers. Fox News and CNN know that they do well with a subsection of consumers in the US, so they keep catering to that group. They do not change their side of the story because it will impact their finances.
Ground News aims to get people to read different news sources. If you are only reading one, you are only getting information catered to a small fraction of the country. We make that easy because you can swipe through and see multiple perspectives on a story. Overall, I think you can change the news by changing how monetization of the news industry works.
Conor: On that topic, that is one of the reasons that Divided We Fall is a non-profit organization. We don’t have any funding from major corporations or political parties. We do have some advertising income, but the majority of our cash flow comes from donors. We all volunteer for free, and we find that our donors like that because we are more accountable to them. Fox and CNN are often accountable to advertisers, but we put our readers first. Readers trust our news source because they know we are not in it to make a profit.
Harleen: That is true. I am meeting with a guy called Josh Silver later, have you heard of him? He is one of the directors of Represent Us. I think they are another organization that is perfectly aligned with your mission and our mission.
Grace: Thank you for that information. We will have to check them out. What would you say to someone who only watches one new source with a clear bias?
Harleen: As I said earlier, you will be missing out on news. For example, our weekly newsletter is trying to show readers what reading one story would make them miss. I think it is vital for people to flip the channel and see the other side.
Grace: I agree. When you were formulating Ground News, which types of media sources did you find had the most considerable influence on public opinion? Was it the 24-hour news cycle, podcasts, print media, online publications, or other sources?
Harleen: Good question. I think it depends very much on the demographics of the readers. A podcast goes to a particular demographic that listens to them. It’s a great format. It allows for a longer-form discussion as opposed to just listening to a snippet. Older generations prefer broadcast television. I think depending on the demographic; all these mediums have huge impacts on public opinion. Even print media, I think those would do read it are impacted by it. The effect a medium has is proportional to the size of the subsection of readership they appeal to.
Grace: For my last question, what would you have readers ask themselves when they are looking at information?
Harleen: At Ground News, we want readers to ask themselves if the news source is credible, and is there a different side to this story? You will find that all sides of the media spectrum use exaggeration of facts and emotional language being. Therefore, I would ask if I feel emotional about an article or headline, and why I feel emotional? What is the news outlet trying to get me to think? They should try alternative forms of media like a newsletter service, Divided We Fall, or Reuters to see what those places are saying. That way, you can understand how the news uses emotion and what the other side is feeling.
Conor: What you’re saying is, if I am a good conservative listening to Anderson Cooper, I should attempt to hear the views of a liberal like Sean Hannity? In all seriousness, I think that is the importance of Divided We Fall and Ground News. You have this incredibly beautiful and easy to use app that shows people where news stations fall on different political issues. That lets readers know the inherent bias before they even start reading. I loved it so much that I now recommend it to my friends.
On our platform, we try to let people see that the news does have to be “talking heads” yelling or some sort of “gotcha” questioning. We think it is fine to disagree on a topic, but we want people to have the ability to hear the other side. We promote the open dialogue that is often missing from news outlets today. We are saying, “you do not have to agree with each other, but it would be nice if we could at least listen to different perspectives respectfully.”
Harleen: Thank you! We tend to get positive feedback. The only negative feedback we get is when people don’t agree with the categorization. We do get a lot of emails saying, “Hey, why is the BBC center? It’s left-leaning?” but we do not rank anybody. We take third party ratings and consumer data to place news outlets on a spectrum. That feedback has led us to consider giving people the ability to set the new station on a range themselves so they can compare their view of the station to our software’s categorization.
Grace: Harleen, I wanted to thank you for appearing on Divided We Fall and talking about Ground News. We are hopeful that organizations such as yours will continue to highlight media bias for readers. That way, we can continue to promote a world where news outlets serve the people.
Harleen: Thank you very much. Those were very thoughtful questions. No “gotcha journalism” at Divided We Fall.
Grace Brangwynne is a student at the University of Connecticut. She studies Political Science as part of the MPA/MPP Fast-Track program. Grace has interned in a variety of local government positions at the Town of Seymour.