Media Bias? Not if This Web Site Can Help It


SpinSpotter, the product of a self-avowed conservative and a progressive, claims it can sniff out spin in news stories

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Roger L. Simon's media affiliation.

In a development that could titillate political partisans of all stripes, a new Web application promising to spot bias in news stories will launch on Monday, Sept. 8, just as this ferociously contested election season shifts into high gear.

A beta version of SpinSpotter, initially accessible only through the Firefox browser, goes live at spinspotter.com on Sept. 8, as does a downloadable toolbar application the company call Spinoculars. When turned on in a user's Web browser's toolbar, Spinoculars scans Web pages and spots certain potential indicators of bias. The toolbar also will allow its users to flag phrases in news stories and opine on those called out by other Spinspotter users. The application's algorithms work off six key tenets of spin and bias, which the company derived from both the guidelines of the Society of Professional Journalists' Code Of Ethics and input from an advisory board composed of journalism luminaries.

The tenets are: reporter's voice (adjectives used by a journalist that go beyond the supporting evidence in the article); passive voice (example: a story says "bombs land" without stating which party is responsible for them); a biased source (a quoted source's partisanship is not clearly identified); disregarded context (a political rally's attendance is reported to be "massive," but would it have been so huge had the surviving members of the Beatles not played?); and lack of balance (a news story on a controversial topic gives much more credence to one side's claims).

An early guided tour of a news story on the Web seen through the prism of Spinoculars showed how the service highlights, in red, phrases that may tip off instances of opinion creeping into reportage. Users can then mouse over a red "S" icon near the offending phrases on the Web page to see what caught Spinocular's attention, and see a more neutrally worded recasting of that portion of the article.

SpinSpotter's founder and chief product officer, Todd Herman, says the service will rely heavily on the input of its users, and, in a manner familiar to denizens of participatory Web projects (à la Wikipedia), the contributions of those whose annotations are consistently trusted by the SpinSpotter crowd will carry more weight. Herman, a former Microsoft executive, says users will be rated (through the software and feedback of other users) on their skill in correctly applying the spin rules. And a small group of journalism students will serve as referees of a sort, checking phrases submitted by users to ensure they conform to SpinSpotter rules.

Before critics on the right or left rear up with accusations that this new arbiter of bias is lousy with biases of its own, it's worth noting that while Herman calls himself a conservative, CEO John Atcheson describes himself as "very progressive." SpinSpotter's advisory board contains notable names from the center, right, and left. Among them are longtime commentator and co-founder of blogging network Pajamas Media Roger L. Simon, National Review's Jonah Goldberg, and Mother Jones and The Nation contributor Brooke Allen.

SpinSpotter will look for news stories that closely resemble the wording of related press releases. It can also direct users to different takes on news stories. And SpinSpotter "might prove some stories don't have the level of bias that some people perceive," says Martha Steffens, a SpinSpotter adviser who's a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.

If the service takes off—a big if—SpinSpotter has the potential to clarify issues in the existing ecosystem of news—and make serious mischief within it. News organizations have been battered by business woes and increasingly loud allegations of bias from both the left and right. It's easier than ever for these allegations to find receptive audiences, thanks to the amplifying tendencies of tight-knit Web communities and the ease with which such opinions can be distributed online. And anti-media comments were freely expressed in speeches at last week's Republican National Convention.

Herman, a former Microsoft (MSFT) executive, says SpinSpotter can identify and resist attempts to game its system should partisans attempt to paint every article in The New York Times as wildly left-leaning or every piece on Politico.com as wildly right-leaning. (Both allegations have arisen this political season.) As for whether SpinSpotter is set up to prize a very narrow definition of excellence in journalism, Herman said SpinSpotter didn't seek to produce "opinion eunuchs," but rather the use of "language and techniques and clarity and information that allow users to draw their own conclusions…If an article presents itself as "objective," it probably should be."

Tom Curley, chief executive officer of the Associated Press, cautioned that he hadn't yet seen SpinSpotter. But he said "having some observations [in a news story] that are shaded one way or another may be good or may not, regardless of whether an algorithim spotted a word" or phrase.

Fine is BusinessWeek's MediaCentric columnist and Fine On Media blogger .

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