News & Criticism

The Spin We Love to Hate

Do we really want news without a point of view?

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Aside from young Arab males who enjoy wearing bulky sweaters on transcontinental flights, is there any entity that attracts greater scrutiny these days than the average A.P. sentence? In this era of bitter partisanship and hypermediation, every adjective employed in the name of journalism gets a vigorous patdown from a thousand Internet vigilantes; every expert quote is strip-searched and anally probed by Accuracy in Media and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting; every suspiciouslooking statistic gets water-boarded to within an inch of its life by the ruthless inquisitors at Factcheck.org.

If you're a journalist, be grateful. Without the public's appetite for bias-induced outrage, the splatter patterns generated by plummeting circulation numbers and Nielsen ratings would be even more gruesome than they already are. The specter of spin keeps readers and viewers engaged: No blogger has ever passed up an evening of reality TV simply because he has nothing but good things to say about New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney. The desire to correct and humiliate runs deep within us all.

But do we really want to rid the world of spin? And is it even possible to produce a news story on some controversial subject that is so devoid of bias that everyone from Noam Chomsky to Michael Savage finds it sufficiently fair and impartial? What would such a journalistic unicorn look like? Who would its audience be? According to a 2007 Pew Research Center report, 67 percent of Americans say they "prefer to get news that has no particular point of view"—a revelation that must have come as a surprise to Rush Limbaugh, Michael Moore, Bill O'Reilly, Keith Olbermann, Matt Drudge, and all the other industry innovators who've enjoyed such great success delivering exactly the opposite.

Still, a growing number of Web start-ups believe that Pew statistic smells like opportunity. At the nonprofit NewsTrust.net, users collectively evaluate stories based on fairness, context, and other core journalistic principles; the highest-rated stories receive the most prominent positioning on the NewsTrust.net home page. At Skewz.com, users simply judge each story in terms of bias: Does it have a conservative slant or a liberal slant? Over time, Skewz.com uses the feedback from its users to determine a media outlet's general position on various issues. For example, according to Skewz.com users, the English version of the Al Jazeera website skews "slight right" in its 2008 election coverage.

Then there's SpinSpotter. The brainchild of Todd Herman, a Seattle entrepreneur with a background in Internet radio and streaming media, the SpinSpotter browser plug-in lets you visit virtually any website and hack it up like Tina Brown channeling Freddy Krueger. Find a specific phrase or sentence that fails to pass your spin sniff test, then create a SpinSpotter "marker" for it. When other SpinSpotter users visit the page, a crimson slash of warning highlights the passage. A click on it yields your explanation for why it qualifies as spin and your version of how the text ought to read.

To keep users on track, SpinSpotter has designated "seven deadly spins" that are fair game for media bloodhounds. They include using language that conveys meaning beyond any facts or information an article actually provides, quoting sources without adequately divulging their biases or affiliations, and not giving equal voice to all sides of a story. A team of SpinSpotter referees is assessing the efforts of early users: Are you following SpinSpotter's guidelines and accurately identifying instances of legitimate spin? Or simply offering bias of your own? If the refs deem you a trusted user, the markers you create are more likely to be seen by other SpinSpotter users. If you have a low trust rating, the markers you create will get less exposure within the system. Eventually, trust ratings will be determined automatically. If trusted users rate your markers favorably, or if you rate the markers created by trusted users favorably, you begin to earn trust within the system too.

These days, most news media sites allow users to heckle from the bleachers—i.e., the comments section at the end of an article—but with SpinSpotter you can get right down on the playing field and kick dirt on the reporter's shoes. And replace her copy with your own better balanced, more transparently sourced version of it.

If you regularly read the reader comments at news media sites, you know that the impulse toward meticulously objective reporting, or even the impulse toward spelling, is not particularly high. Instead, comments sections are dominated by sarcasm, rancor, blanket assertions, speculation, the occasional random appeals to check out dating websites, and spin. Or to put it another way: While 67 percent of Americans may prefer to get news that has no particular point of view, they've shown little interest in producing such news themselves. Even when the efforts of America's most ambitious citizen-journalists coalesce into websites that attract more readers than most newspapers can claim, that still holds true. "News without a particular point of view" is not exactly the first thing that jumps to mind when you think of sites like Daily Kos, Little Green Footballs, or The Huffington Post.

Still, Herman believes the various technologies built into the SpinSpotter system can guide users to "despin" the news in a fair, objective, regulated manner. "There's no shortage of places where people can go online to rant about the fact that the media's biased," Herman explains. "We're trying to apply a systematic methodology that says, 'Great, you feel that way, show us where.' It is our attempt to raise the bar of discourse."

It's that last part that seems tricky. There's a reason this product is called SpinSpotter and not, say, ObjectivityAdder. Over the last decade, as the Internet has transformed the news industry, it's pretty clear who's been having the most fun. It's not the beleaguered acolytes of Objective Journalism, who take fire from the left and the right as their budgets are slashed and their workloads increased. It's the bloggers, who get to report and opine with unfettered fervor about the issues that matter most to them while taking the press to task for its biases.

But if for some inexplicable reason the citizen-journalists suddenly want to take on the thankless burden of objectivity, why not? If LockedNLoadedMom or GOParazzi223 want to add impartial, well-sourced context to the A.P.'s White House coverage while pressing the mute button on their own opinions, let them at it! Conversely, news media operations that hold impartiality as one of their core values should recognize the opportunity that products like SpinSpotter present. Spin generates buzz. Spin gets readers clicking and clucking. Why not embrace it?

The irony of spin is that it takes indepth research and reporting to do it well. It takes a willingness to study, analyze, and even empathize with other perspectives to the point where one can persuasively rebut them. If your goal as a journalist is mere balance, it's easy to get away with being superficial: Simply quote one expert from the Heritage Foundation and one from the People for the American Way, and you're done. If you want to create an effective piece of spin, however, you need sources that are more convincing than think tank quote dispensers. You need bullet-proof statistics. Your rhetorical flair must be underpinned by facts that can't be disputed even by those who disagree with the conclusions you draw from them.

Or—and this has its appeal too, of course—you could simply let the SpinSpotting masses do your work for you. While you hone your adjectival innuendo, they figure out the most neutral way to accurately describe John McCain's public speaking style. While you blame Barack Obama for the Fannie Mae meltdown, they meticulously and dispassionately research the genesis of the no income/no asset verification loan industry. At least until they decide that it's a lot more satisfying, and certainly a lot less trouble, to shout "Spin!" at Katie Couric and Brit Hume than it is to produce fair, transparent, rigorously reported news that everyone agrees has no particular point of view.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco.