SpinSpotter: media policing is a good idea, but…

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Everyone and their crazy uncle are (rightfully) consumed with this week’s chapter in the collapse of the financial services industry, so allow me to distract you with something entirely different. It’s a new venture called SpinSpotter that evaluates news coverage for spin, letting followers know which reporters are biased and which are keeping their journalistic integrity intact.
From a moral standpoint, doesn’t it sound perfect? I applaud its founders for their desire to keep media in line. I believe, however, they’re forgetting one minor detail: we actually like spin.

I’m not defending lies in the media or product embellishments or a lack of transparency. This kind of spin gives everyone involved a bad name. But SpinSpotter tells us it will catch things like language that offers a supportive nod to a presidential candidate’s speech – basically any items that can be construed as slanted can be tagged. The database of flagged terms will be largely user generated, and as the NY Times notes that could hold the tool back depending on its users’ enthusiasm. Or it could send them spinning (ha) in the wrong direction.

The company’s website eloquently explains:

The neat thing about the adaptive SpinSpotter technology is the ability to filter and identify the presence of spin in any news article, web site, press release, or thinly disguised political talk sheet.

To paraphrase an oft-repeated truism about our media focus as consumers: “we like to admire ourselves.” Conservatives watch FoxNews, liberals listen to NPR, animal activist families read Grrrrr! Magazine. To eliminate “spin,” which in this case includes everything from the intonation of a reporter’s voice to reprinting press releases, is to hack off the media’s personality at the knees.

I do believe there should be thoroughly objective news out there. Network news, daily papers, news wires – these outlets should report the news. That’s their whole raison d’etre.

Aside — My favorite transformation over the past 20 years has been that of the network news teaser: from “tainted water in Smithsville considered toxic, more at 11” to “there’s poison in the water in a local town…is it YOURS? We’ll tell you at 11 – only on Fox!” But I digress…

I’ll be interested to see how far SpinSpotter goes. It is launching to pretty significant fanfare (is a positive review of the product considered spin? Is it flagged by SpinSpotter, or does it cause the system to meltdown in a heap of smoldering, phony idealism?) and will undoubtedly borrow momentum from the presidential campaigns. But once the election passes will it have any real power on its own?

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