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'Full Frontal Scrutiny' Web Site Exposes the Work of Front Groups

Consumer Reports WebWatch, Center for Media and Democracy Collaborate on Blog-Driven, Wiki-based Site Inviting Contributions fro

YONKERS, N.Y., Jan. 29 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Full Frontal Scrutiny (http://www.frontgroups.org/), a joint project of two non-profit organizations with a strong history of independent, public interest investigative reporting online, launched today to expose the work of hidden persuaders on the Web and in other media.

Full Frontal Scrutiny is a joint venture between Consumer Reports WebWatch and the Center for Media and Democracy. The site seeks to shine a light on front groups -- organizations that state a particular agenda, while hiding or obscuring their identity, membership or sponsorship, or all three.

WebWatch and the Center will create original content for Full Frontal Scrutiny, debuting today with two exclusive features: An investigation of front group activity in the popular online information resource Wikipedia, including a guide to help consumers get the most out of that site; and a history of front groups and their activities. Full Frontal Scrutiny will also publish selected content from WebWatch and from the Center's SourceWatch database, as well as aggregating news about front groups from other reliable sources.

Author Sheldon Rampton is the Research Director for the Center for Media and Democracy, and the creator of its popular site http://www.sourcewatch.org/, an edited online encyclopedia of the people, organizations and issues shaping the public's perceptions and agenda. Said Rampton, "Full Frontal Scrutiny will be like no other site on the Web. Fakers, phonies and front groups beware, you will be exposed."

The joint venture grew from WebWatch's mission to create guidelines for Web site credibility, which it has successfully done for travel, health, search sites and others. WebWatch's credibility guidelines emphasize that the most trustworthy Web sites clearly disclose their address, identity, purpose, mission, corporate parents and sources of funding. The Center's SourceWatch site, open to contributions from the public, has indexed and reported on hundreds of organizations whose offline or online presence fails the transparency test, by omission, obfuscation, or deception.

"For six years, Consumer Reports WebWatch has evaluated sites against five simple guidelines for credibility and trustworthiness," said Beau Brendler, WebWatch's director. "Who owns the site? What's its purpose and mission? Does it disclose sources of funding or key relationships with third parties? These are important questions for consumers to ask about any Web site, and they're also remarkably effective for ferreting out sites that intend to spin, obfuscate or dress up an unpopular agenda."

Full Frontal Scrutiny will focus on front groups in the health, personal finance, electronics and Internet, automotive, home, environment, travel and other topic areas of particular interest to Consumers Union and within its expertise.

What's a Front Group?

Not all organizations trying to shape public opinion are front groups. Some organizations may represent a particular point of view, and don't hide who's paying the bills. But just about all front groups try to mislead in one way or another.

A front group typically has some (but not necessarily all) of the following characteristics:

-- It avoids mentioning its main sources of funding. This does not necessarily mean absolute concealment of sponsorship.

-- It's set up by and/or operated by another organization, particularly a public relations, grassroots campaigning, polling or surveying firm or consultancy.

-- It engages in actions that consistently and conspicuously benefit a third party, such as a company, industry or political candidate.

-- It shields a third party from liability, responsibility or culpability.

-- It re-focuses debate about an issue onto a new or unrelated topic, for example, portraying secondhand smoke from cigarettes as a property rights issue.

-- It has a misleading name that disguises its real agenda, such as the National Wetlands Coalition, which opposed policies to protect U.S. wetlands; or the Consumer Alliance for Energy Security, which is funded by the oil, gas and manufacturing industries and advocates for offshore drilling. Sometimes a front group's name might seem to suggest academic or political neutrality ("Consumers' Research," "American Policy Center"), while in fact it consistently turns out opinions, research, surveys, reports, polls and other declarations that benefit the interests of a company, industry or political candidate.

-- It has the same address or phone number as a similar group that has since disbanded, or been forced out of business by exposure, lawsuits, etc. Or, possibly, it has limited or no contact information, with a telephone number no one answers and an e-mail address no one responds from.

-- It consists of a group of vocal, "esteemed" academic "experts" who go on national tours, put on media events, give press conferences, seminars, workshops, and give editorial board meetings around the country, etc., even though the organization would not seem to have the budget or financial means to carry out such events.

-- It touts repeatedly in communications that it is "independent," "esteemed," "credible" etc.

Front Groups and Wikipedia

Perhaps not surprisingly, the popular online information resource Wikipedia has been targeted by front groups. Full Frontal Scrutiny investigates this trend and offers consumers the following five tips for getting the most out of Wikipedia:

1. Take note of any warnings or cautions posted at the tops of articles by Wikipedia's administrators. They often flag articles that violate Wikipedia authorship guidelines.

2. Review the article's sources. Do they include citations from the mainstream media or peer-reviewed journals?

3. Use the "history" tab on each Wikipedia page to review edits made to its content. Click on the "discussion" tab to review users' debates on matters of accuracy.

4. If you're in doubt, step back and use a search engine. Review at least one page, preferably more, of search results to increase the likelihood of finding relevant information. Consider "sponsored links" that may appear within, above or to the side of "organic" search results (or all three) more carefully, since they are advertisements. A third party paid the search engine to place those links.

5. For another way to look under the hood of a Wikipedia entry, try using the Wikiscanner, to see who has been editing the encyclopedia. And scan the list of "salacious edits" Wired's readers have found using the Wikiscanner, revealing suspect contributions from employees at organizations ranging from Amnesty International to Scientology, the United Nations and Wal-Mart.

About Consumer Reports WebWatch

Consumer Reports WebWatch is the Internet integrity division of Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports Magazine, the Consumer Reports on Health and Money Adviser newsletters, BestBuyDrugs.org, and a variety of sites advocating consumer rights in the marketplace.

We research and investigate Web sites on behalf of consumers, and we advocate for consumer-focused Internet policy and governance. Consumer Reports WebWatch accepts no advertising. Consumer Reports WebWatch is a member of the W3C consortium for developing Internet standards; the Internet Society, a grass-roots group focused on Internet policy; and is an at-large structure (ALS) in the user community of ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigning Names and Numbers. WebWatch also serves as an unpaid special adviser to StopBadware.org, a "Neighborhood Watch" initiative led by Harvard University's Berkman Center and the Oxford Internet Institute devoted to helping Internet users avoid downloading malicious spyware, adware and malware programs.

For further information about Consumer Reports WebWatch, including staff biographies, visit Consumer Reports WebWatch at http://www.consumerwebwatch.org/

About The Center for Media and Democracy

The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) is a non-profit, non-partisan, public interest organization that strengthens participatory democracy by investigating and exposing public relations spin and propaganda, and by promoting media literacy and citizen journalism. CMD serves journalists, researchers, policymakers and citizens at large in the following ways:

-- Countering propaganda by investigating and reporting on behind-the-scenes public relations campaigns by corporations, industries, governments and other powerful institutions.

-- Informing and assisting grassroots citizen activism that promotes public health, economic justice, ecological sustainability and human rights.

-- Promoting media literacy to help the public recognize the forces shaping the information they receive about issues that affect their lives.

-- Sponsoring "open content" media that enable citizens from all walks of life to "be the media" and to participate in creating media content.

Toward these ends, the Center sponsors the following projects:

-- PR Watch, which investigates and exposes how the public relations industry and other professional propagandists manipulate public information, perceptions and opinion on behalf of governments and special interests.

-- SourceWatch, an Internet-based "open content" encyclopedia of people, groups and issues shaping the public agenda.

-- Congresspedia, the "citizen's encyclopedia" of the members of the US House and Senate.

-- Publications including articles and books by CMD staff.

-- Public education campaigns, including public speaking and activities such as CMD's work to raise awareness about the PR coverup by government and industry of problems related to mad cow disease.

For further information about CMD, including staff biographies and a list of our financial supporters, visit http://www.prwatch.org/.

Consumer Reports WebWatch

CONTACT: Sheldon Rampton of Center for Media and Democracy,
+1-608-260-9713; or Beau Brendler and Jorgen Wouters, +1-914-378-2600, both of
Consumer Reports WebWatch

Web Site: http://www.consumerwebwatch.org/
http://www.frontgroups.org/
http://www.prwatch.org/

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