How objective and spin-free is our news? There is much conjecture that media spin is damaging the relationship newspapers have with their audience, with a recent UK survey indicating that just 43% of the population trust newspapers. With the armies of Communication Directors, PR professionals, lobby groups and political parties battling the press with dizzying budgets and ready-made press releases, is the truth getting through?
With this problem in mind, a new online tool called "SpinSpotter" has been launched. It promises to - once it is fully launched and out of beta testing - scan articles and expose bias, misreporting and spin in the news online, for example a political piece that gives a one sided story or uses colourful language that exaggerates the facts.
Once downloaded, the SpinSpotter Spinoculars appear on your Web browser toolbar and "flags" any bias in an article you are reading with a red icon. Users with the software can highlight and comment on questionable content using a guide to potential inaccuracies and biases created by a panel of journalists compensated by the company. Only people with the Spinoculars program installed on their PCs will see other users' comments. The company is using the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics and input from an advisory board of journalists to police and judge each allegation.
The innovation was launched by ex Microsoft boss Todd Herman and John Atcheson, the founder/CEO of both MusicNet and Ads.com.
The Editors Weblog managed to pin down Todd Herman for a brief chat before he dashed off to promote - and maybe spin? - the new software.
EW: How do you think newspapers will react to SpinSpottter?
TH: Journalists tend to approach us with skepticism, as they should, and some worry that their work might come under attack. But their attitude quickly changes when they realize that SpinSpotter also can protect them against vague, unfounded accusations of bias since users have to be very specific about "why" they think something is inaccurate or biased and must work within a carefully constructed set of rules based on the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists.
They are also pleased to learn that we have all sorts of safeguards to ensure people don't abuse the system, from a Journalism Advisory Board of journalists, writers and academics; to a layer of referees who are mostly graduate students at journalism schools; to a trust rating system that gives more weight to the judgments of users who have proven to be objective in finding spin, vs. those who are showing themselves to be too biased or partisan.
Once the service is officially launched (we are still in beta-testing mode) I wouldn't be surprised if some newspapers started to use SpinSpotter as an internal tool or asked us to develop custom services for their own use.
EW: Do you think this product is performing a task that editors and newspapers should be doing themselves?
TH: Most editors do perform this task, and perform it quite well. But it is extremely hard to be 100 percent objective 100 percent of the time -- especially in an era of declining advertising revenue when editors and reporters are expected to do more with less. And then, of course, there is the small minority of reporters and editors who are simply not as vigilant against bias as they should.
EW: What inspired you to launch SpinSpotter?
TH: Although my CEO and I have opposing political viewpoints -- I am conservative and he is liberal -- we both agree on one thing: A free, independent and trusted press is critical for a democracy. We both admire courageous journalism but are disappointed to see the press lose credibility with readers. According to Pew Research, 66 percent of Americans think the U.S. press is one-sided.
EW: What technology is powering your device and how does it work?
TH: At heart, we are a user-driven system. Our SpinSpotter Spinoculars make it easy for people to identify, share and edit any signs of bias or inaccuracy they find online. Right now we are in beta, meaning we are still testing and refining the service.
SpinSpotter is not a place for people to hurl vague accusations of media bias, however. If they want their markers to be seen by other people using the service, they must clearly label which "rule" the journalist has violated (these are drawn from the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists and interpreted by our Journalism Advisory Board and team of referees) and back-up their assertions. Otherwise, their trust rating will decline and their entries will be all but invisible.
EW: How do you envision SpinSpotter developing in the future?
TH: The topic of media bias is much too important to take lightly. We hope our service will raise the level of discourse on the subject by encouraging people to be much more specific and rigorous in their analysis of bias in the press. And as the service fosters that debate, we think the service will grow and evolve. For example, we envision giving editors and reporters special access to respond to users' "spin-markers" and engage in dialog over their choice of words or sources.
We can also imagine newsrooms and journalism schools using the service as a tool to encourage fair and balanced reporting. Lastly, we can foresee a day where SpinSpotter helps people make choices about what they read based upon the level of "spin" any given article contains.
EW: It is obviously early days for your device, but how has the take up been so far?
TH: If passion counts for anything, the response has been great. But, these are *very* early days. In fact, we are in what is called an early beta phase, meaning all of our current users are actually helping us test the service's technology and refine its algorithms through their usage.