SpinSpotter takes aim at 'media bias'

Seattle-based startup SpinSpotter, founded by former radio talk-show host/Microsoft executive Todd Herman, debuts here at DEMOfall 08 today with a browser plug-in designed to help users identify media bias with precision and objectivity.

Uh, good luck with that.

From the company's press release:

SpinSpotter unveiled a new online service designed to surface specific instances of bias and inaccuracy in any news story online. By installing a SpinSpotter toolbar called Spinoculars, users of the SpinSpotter service can easily see, share, and edit any clear sign of bias anywhere on the Web. 

To develop an objective methodology for identifying media bias, SpinSpotter executives assembled a team of distinguished writers and journalists, including professors at some of the country's top journalism schools. Their expert knowledge, along with the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics, were then combined with guided user input and sophisticated algorithms to identify each instance of bias and inaccuracy in online media, whether it is a reporter stating opinion as fact, an unattributed adjective, a paragraph lifted from a press release, or an expert source with a clear conflict of interest.

SpinSpotter, which will be on stage tomorrow afternoon, could wind up providing a useful service, at least to the extent that it makes easier the identification of inaccurate and misleading assertions of indisputable fact (and to the extent there is such a thing). The "expert source" unmaskings and flaggings of unattributed press-release pass-alongs should be helpful, too, not to mention embarrassing for those reporters who are capable of being embarrassed.

However, where SpinSpotter will run into trouble is by trying to do the impossible: referee writing right down to the adjective level. 

Here's an example from a slide (No. 2 in this slideshow) provided by SpinSpotter, in which the New York Times is cited for bias:

The Times wrote:

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton deferred her own dreams on Tuesday night and delivered an emphatic plea at the Democratic National Convention to unite behind her rival, Senator Barack Obama, no matter what ill will lingered.

SpinSpotter threw a penalty flag for "unattributed adjective."

The reporter has no idea how "emphatic" she was or whether she made a "plea" or a calculated political decision. The fact is, she asked her delegates to endorse Obama.

And then SpinSpotter offered this alternative:

Top Edit: Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton deferred her own dreams on Tuesday night and asked her delegates to nominate Senator Obama.

After being put through the SpinSpotter wringer, "delivered an emphatic plea" becomes "asked her delegates to nominate."

In my opinion, they're wrong on both counts: Clinton's speech was indeed a plea (I watched it) and it was certainly most emphatic. Neither the word plea nor the word emphatic describes anything other than her verbal intensity and delivery style. Even a con man can deliver an emphatic plea (that's not a subtle dig at Clinton, by the way). Had the Times writer called the speech "heartfelt" or "sincere," we could talk about the unknowable ... and bias.

Of course this is only one small example of what SpinSpotter does, but I'm examining it closely to make my major point, namely that subjectivity and its evil twin, bias, are in the eye of the beholder more often than not.

"Take back the truth," SpinSpotter says (pleads?) on its Web site.

Easier said than done.

(Update: Scott Rosenberg, co-founder of Salon and author of Dreaming in Code, sees much less to like and a much more basic question: "The pitfalls and perils in getting an effort like this to work in any sort of way that doesn’t evoke titters are legion. But let’s not even bother with that part of the debate. (Businessweek offers a list of the six criteria, which include everything from too much passive voice to too much “reporter’s voice.”) The real issue here is that the very idea of SpinSpotter is wrongheaded. … If Spinspotter succeeds in redlining every appearance of what it considers “bias” from the news, surely the resulting gelded coverage — deprived of any trace of anyone’s voice, echoing with what Jay Rosen calls “the view from nowhere” — will no longer be of interest to any reader more human than the Spinspotter code.")

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