A Response Regarding SpinSpotter

Posted by: Jon Fine on September 10, 2008

UPDATE 9/16: SpinSpotter founder Todd Herman weighs in on all this in the comments section.

Few things ring the bells louder, at least on this blog, than anything related to media bias, and so I figured that the SpinSpotter news that several journalists, myself included, wrote about earlier this week might make good fodder for, well, lots of people. Evidently it has! (And thanks, by the way, to the emailers who called these discussions to my attention while I had my head down on deadline.)

Some thoughts:

1. re: being called out for saying “bombs land” is passive voice-- mea culpa. mea maxima culpa.

2. Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times, who did a much better job than I did of noting that the software doesn’t particularly work well right now. SpinSPotter founder Todd Herman says that the system’s waiting to see how users react before cranking up the algorithims:

>>> That is partly because SpinSpotter has started out with very few phrases in its database of spin, said Mr. Herman. “Referring to something as spin is a pretty serious thing,” he said. “We don’t want to go through vandalizing properties. We would like to do this responsibly.” The company will watch how users react to the red flags that its algorithm catches and and decide how vigilant to be, and as users report their own spin sightings, the spin database will gradually fill up with user entries. SpinSpotter acknowledges at the top of its Web site that it is “very beta.”

I should have made clearer that I was walked through a very early and pre-launch version of SpinSpotter, last week, and that timing issues forced me to write my story before the site went live. This happens sometimes when you're dealing with breaking news.

3. Still, for good or ill I am more interested in the implications of SpinSpotter—what something like this could mean for the ecosystem of news—and whether or not what appears to be a neat idea actually, you know, makes sense in the real world. It’s an interesting idea, a controversial idea, maybe an ultimately misbegotten idea. (I get into this a bit more in my column, which I finished yesterday and which will go online tomorrow.) My bad for focusing more on that than on how well a very early version of the service worked; I didn't think it fair to fully judge a technology that hadn't yet launched. Would I do the same thing the same way again? Maybe not.

(UPDATE/CORRECTION: the below references to Roger L. Simon originally identified him as a different Roger Simon. My apologies to both men.)

Late in my reporting process I had an interesting interview with Roger L. Simon, the novelist/screenwriter and co-founder of blogging network Pajamas Media. who’s also on SpinSpotter’s advisory board. Time and space meant that I couldn’t get much of it into the column but the interview excerpts below touch on some of the more columnish thoughts I was thinking, as opposed to the straighter news take I filed to the BusinessWeek Web site this weekend.

What else should I have asked him? And where might something like SpinSpotter lead us?

JON FINE: Is bias a problem for media?

ROGER L. SIMON: That’s a complicated question. I am fairly extremist--I think all human beings are biased. It’s almost impossible to write without bias. I know my biases! That’s not to say anything negative, by the way. Bias is as American as apple pie. It’s human. Now. I think there’s a difference between bias and fairness.

JF: Yes, that's an important distinction.

RLS: We’re all biased. I went on the air today and I said, look, I am voting for McCain, and I am honest about it.

JF: Why did you get involved with this?

RLS: I think it’s a fascinating metering of this kind of bias and a fascinating method of demonstrating bias to the reader. The reader is then free to do with that what he or she may. What I like about SpinSpotter is it flushes all this stuff out and we can have discussions about it, rather than being behind a wall of secrecy. To me it is a noble endeavor, and communication is a noble endeavor. Ways of measuring [bias] are all to be applauded.

[Here Simon cites the example of someone who apparently expressed a concern that SpinSpotter would drain all the color out of writing. To which I said . . . )

JF: Well, yeah, that thought's occurred to me more than once. Don't you think it might?

RLS: My response is, only for an idiot. And you can quote me on that. Really. The point is this is a tool, not a be-all and end-all. I know how I would use it. I would use it as a research device. An illustration. It will be interesting when we run George Orwell through SpinSpotter, the people who we think are the classics of journalism. It’s a fun exercise. It’s just an educational tool. I don’t think it’s a be-all and end-all tool.

Writing is art. This just shows you when certain things are happening. Look, I am on the board of this, one of the people charged with honing it, and the very difficult task of deciding what’s spin and what isn’t. I am sure we on the board will be-- may be-- wrong frequently. I don’t know! I don’t know yet. But it’s a great topic of our time. I look forward to when they can do on it video as well.

Reader Comments

Roger Simon

September 10, 2008 10:31 PM

Jon:
You recently wrote: "SpinSpotter's advisory board contains notable names from the center, right, and left. Among them are longtime commentator and Politico.com columnist Roger Simon, National Review's Jonah Goldberg, and Mother Jones and The Nation contributor Brooke Allen."

In fact, I am not on SpinSpotter's advisory board, have nothing to do with the group and, until your article, had never heard of it.

I would appreciate you correcting the record.

Thank you,
Roger Simon
Chief Political Columnist
Politico

Jon Fine

September 11, 2008 11:34 AM

Roger:
My apologies. Reference above (and elsewhere in my SpinSpotter stories) has been corrected to reflect they came from Roger L. Simon, founder of Pajamas Media.
Jon

Todd Herman

September 15, 2008 1:23 PM

Jon: Thanks for the piece you wrote and thanks to the readers for all comments. There are some misconceptions regarding the nature and purpose of SpinSpotter's current, early beta-testing period that we started last Monday---I hereby take all of the blame for the misconceptions. Our goals during this public (very) beta test are two-fold: To recruit a core group of users who can mark-up spin online and help make our algorithm more intelligent---the algorithm is “listening” and will learn from users; our second goal is to continue to refine the technology (including a beta-version of Spinoculars that runs on IE, which should launch within a month). As more people use Spinoculars to mark the spin they find online, our algorithm will get “smarter” and you'll see SpinSpotter's "SpinBot" flagging more things automatically and, more so, doing that with good quality. SpinSpotter is, at its heart, a user-driven system, and we take very seriously the responsibility of making the system as objective and balanced as possible. If your readers have more questions, I will try to post here more often. We are delighted that people care so much about the issue of spin and we are actively consuming all comments, starting with the criticisms.

Don

September 15, 2008 1:44 PM

The problem with the libertarian concept of a tool devoid of a conscience is that it tends to be of the lowest common denominator of self-awareness.

You could not both be Craig Newmark, create a free web classified system, and not be aware that you were going to put journalists out of business WITHOUT being ignorant of the classified ad in the newspaper world.

You could not be Roger L Simon starting spinspotter, be aware of how political discourse is covered in the United States today and NOT be aware that journalists will get fired if public outcry over their "spinspotter number" reaches a fever pitch. It's just lack of self-awareness if anyone believes that spinspotter will be agnostic or won't change how articles are written.

It's like saying that cheap gas won't have an impact on housing development creation in the exurbs or that cheap "Saturday night special" handguns won't be favored by criminals or that blowing off that family dinner with your girlfriend to see a band that's in town won't cause a problem because you've been a good boyfriend the other 364 days. Yeah, Roger L Simon, there's this world out there called journalism and it's got a level of schizophrenia because everyone purports to believe in journalistic ethics, but no journalists really follow what they learned in college, so you make this self-deception widely available based on word choice and journalists will be gaming the system faster than some spammer "optimizes their site for search engines."

Which reminds me that I need to link to my blog here because google weights links coming from Businessweek.com higher so my site will be in the top ten when they google, "Entrepreneurs fooling themselves."

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