How an ex-NASA engineer is fighting bias in media with Ground News

Harleen Kaur is the CEO of Ground News

Former NASA engineer Harleen Kaur is working to shatter people’s news filter bubbles.

She co-founded Ground News with Sukh Singh to help combat disinformation, fake news and media biases. The platform compares how news sources across the political spectrum cover major stories. 

Each headline is accompanied by a coverage analysis that shows what sources on the left, center and right are reporting, in addition to a summary of whether there is a media bias or blindspot. Ground News uses third-party non-profit organizations to rate news organizations by their political biases.

We reached out to Kaur — CEO of the company —  to find out what they have learned about news literacy since their launch last year, how journalists can help fight against media biases, and what’s next for Ground News.

The world was a different place in January 2020 when Ground News launched. Can you share some of the lessons you and your team have learned about media biases since then? How has Ground News evolved? 

Kaur: When we launched Ground News in 2020, we all thought our increasingly polarized world needed this platform. People with differing political beliefs were no longer sharing a collective reality and as the world moves more online, this issue is getting worse as people become further enveloped in their filter bubble. This seemingly primarily virtual problem moved into the mainstream on January 6, 2021 as the world watched thousands of people, propelled by conspiracy theories, storm Capitol Hill. Unless addressed, this lack of shared reality will continue to have real-world consequences, whether it’s the fracturing of relationships or an increase in politically charged violence.

We have evolved to address the needs of consumers who want to lift the veil on media bias and read the news that an engagement maximizing social media algorithm likely wouldn’t show them. We are expanding our analysis by looking at not just the bias of the organizations but going one level down to the bias of each journalist and going one level up to the bias of the corporate parent. In 2021, we will be launching these features so readers can see the corporate and ownership bias of each of the organizations. For example, CNN being owned by AT&T or the majority of the conservative media in the US owned by Newscorp and how their agendas are reflected in the news organizations reporting.

What advice do you have for journalists right now to help overcome some of these biases?

Kaur: First, one should acknowledge that they likely consume news and content in a filter bubble. Unless someone makes a concerted effort to keep social media algorithms guessing, they are likely enveloped in a filter bubble. Make an effort to talk to people in person with different perspectives and approach the conversation with the intent to learn, not lecture. Twitter threads seem to bring out the worst in people and in-person conversations are often much more constructive.

Second, read news from outside your bubble, from a place of curiosity rather than criticism. The best way to burst your filter bubble is to adopt a balanced news diet and read news from perspectives you typically avoid. If you identify as a liberal, read news from right-leaning publications. If you identify as conservative, read news from left-leaning publications. This is far more time consuming than simply browsing your Twitter or Facebook feed, so we created Ground News to make it easier to read the news from a variety of perspectives and get the full picture

What are the biggest surprises you saw from your media analysis? 

Kaur: That filter bubbles have become nearly impenetrable and many people refuse to acknowledge the reality that they are enveloped in one. The rise of partisan media and content bubbles has siloed us to such an extent that one event can be sliced and diced to fit dozens of narratives. While it is often subtle (which is more dangerous), it can often be very overt as well.

A good example of overt bias is the recent Gina Carano story where many news orgs lead with an extremely loaded headline that tried to convince their audience of a narrative before they even had a chance to read the article and understand what happened. Rolling Stone, who leans left, published the headline “Gina Carano dropped from ‘Mandalorian’ following ‘abhorrent’ social media posts” and the Federalist, who leans right, published the headline “Lucasfilm bows to internet mob, fires ‘Mandalorian’ star Gina Carano. I am not equating those two news sources, but is often surprising how stark news organizations can be in pushing a narrative.

I was also surprised to see how filter bubbles can affect views on more serious issues, like the coronavirus. People on different sides of the political aisle have been hearing about two different pandemics. It has been proven that people who read the news in a media bias bubble and had no access to dissenting information were responsible for spreading misinformation, especially amongst the older age group. Too many Americans are walling themselves off into digital citadels of self re-affirming information, allowing anti-science and dangerous rhetoric to spread unchecked.

How do you reach new users, particularly those who do not consume news very often? 

Kaur: We have to meet them where they read the news and engage with content. This means that we have to partner with YouTubers, newsletters, podcasters, Instagram influencers etc. Alternative media is exploding and we have to meet that moment.

Working with influencers who have an audience of people who are likely already practicing a balanced news diet is easy. These people are likely to engage with our product as it gives them an easier way to make cross-referencing the news and checking their news blind spot. However, these are people who want our product, but don’t necessarily need our product.

Reaching people who need a product like ours has proven difficult as people have a natural apprehension to new information, or in our case, a new way of consuming it. In order to burst people’s filter bubbles, we first have to enter them. This involves sponsoring people who could be considered partisan and strongly opinionated which may at first seem contradictory to our mission. This strategy is still new for us and it is yet to be proven success or failure. Either way, we remain committed to being an apolitical entity that is only interested in giving our users a more mindful way of consuming news.

The blue, white and red graphics on Ground News are very easy to spot and understand but could potentially perpetuate distrust. How can Ground News help improve news literacy and combat disinformation among vulnerable users? 

Kaur: Great question! On our app, we have changed the messaging to make it very clear that the underlying bias ratings that inform these graphics are sourced from independent, third-party agencies that are dedicated to monitoring and rating news outlets along the political spectrum. We have found that this methodology helps build trust with wary users, as people have typically expected that it is just our team unilaterally making these decisions.

We have been carefully walking the line of intervening in the user news reading journey as we do not see ourselves as the sole arbiter of truth. We’ve found that our features such as the News Blindspot feed pushes around readers’ intuitions about political truths more effectively than, say, declaring what is true and what is not true. There’s something about the side-by-side comparison and the feeling that both sides are missing out on a bigger picture that the Blindspot feature taps into in a sort of non-confrontational way by showing that both sides have blindspots. This approach has helped us build a brand that is trusted by people from across the political spectrum. As a news/tech company in 2021, this is something that we fought hard for and will continue to fight hard to keep.

As for future plans, we plan to create a feature that analyzes language in articles. We find that misinformation articles are more sensational, more emotionally loaded than accurate reliable journalism. The better we get at flagging such artificially-loaded articles, the better we can help our subscribers spot and fight misinformation.

What has the reaction been like since launch? 

Kaur: Very positive – we have seen massive interest in what we are doing from users and thought leaders from all across the political spectrum. When we launched, we expected mostly interest from the US market which has been proven mostly correct. However, we have also recently seen increasing interest from people overseas, namely the UK and Australia. To match this demand, we have recently improved our product so international readers can customize their feed to their home country and see how bias impacts the news they read.

Last summer, we got a lot of feedback from users telling us that while our app did help them stay informed, we could do more in addressing biased news where it spreads — social media. After all, filter bubbles today are what parental political opinions were 10 years ago. They are absolutely integral in shaping someone’s worldview and once formed, are very hard to burst. To tackle this problem, we created a browser extension that overlays our coverage analysis (blue/grey/red bars) on every news article on Twitter, Facebook and Reddit. 

Whenever you read a news article, our browser extension will show you who else is covering the same news story and compare how other sources from all across the political spectrum are reporting on it. The tool is useful for those who want to do a self-audit of the news they read on social media, and see to what extent they are enveloped in a filter bubble. Or those who want an easier way to cross-reference the news they see online. We plan to continue to create tools and extensions of our product that address pain points that people have when trying to access the full picture of any news they read online.

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