Thursday, October 16, 2008

RTFP: Crunchy frog at the NYT

Has it really been just a month since the NYT joined BusinessWeek (dutifully reported, once again, at Romenesko, and echoed meanwhile at Conde Nast Portfolio) in publicizing the handful of magic beans known as SpinSpotter? Well, who would know?

Online watchdog sniffs for media bias
If you don’t trust the news media, what are your options? You can fume about bias, wonder what you’re missing and suppress the urge to throw things. Or ignore some sources and turn to those whose slant you like. (NYT, 10/15)

Start-Up Attacks Media Bias, One Phrase at a Time
SpinSpotter, a new start-up, could send shivers across many a newsroom. The Web tool, which went live Monday at the DEMO technology conference in San Diego, scans news stories for signs of spin. (NYT, 9/8)

You can't expect even the argus-eyed Times reporting corps to read everything, but the point of the RTFP rule is that at least you read your own paper. That should mean, minimally, that you don't swallow the same implausible claims whole:

But what if there were a device that objectively flagged questionable elements in online news articles, poking and parsing words and phrases, and letting you contribute your own critiques? Well, a Seattle company called SpinSpotter has produced a piece of software — a free download that works within a Web browser — that tries to do just that.

More broadly, it should mean that you think twice about whether to write about the thing at all. (One way of phrasing this is: How are you going to write the SpinSpotter lede next month?) But SpinSpotter has apparently been busy refining its algorithms and advisory panels (and explaining its earnest good intentions at SpinSpotterBlog), so it seems to have earned another plug in the eyes of the Times.

Have things gotten any better? Well, not really. The Times's second iteration is a little more open in admitting that the thing doesn't really work and that there's no indication of when or whether it will. We learn a bit more about the human side of things. (Missouri journalism grad students will critique the critiques, o joy!) And the Times manages not only to correctly identify the passive voice -- "four people were killed in an accident" -- but to note that it has no consistent correlation with "spin."

Which -- where's the dead horse graphic when you need it? -- underscores the essential futility of the project. There's a "spin" case to be made around the morning fishwrap's treatment of the ACORN story ("Obama's ties to voter registration group questioned") and the treatment offered yesterday by McClatchy ("Fox News alone has mentioned Acorn stories 342 times in recent days"). One's passive, one's active; both are a form of "spin," but one of them is the form of spin that actually contributes to a better understanding of how the political world works. Guess which?

And it would be self-defeating for SpinSpotter to point out how much free publicity it's getting from the inherent biases of news routines. News likes stuff that claims to be new (and deeply fears being last with the story about the Next Big Thing). News is biased toward conflict. By defining the novel (in the man-bites-dog sense), news helps create a narrow definition of what's "normal" -- which is why some armed robberies are serious and some are just a laugh a minute. No wonder the founders say they don't intend to purge the news of spin entirely. So far, it's their best resource.

So the real burden here isn't on SpinSpotter; it's on the Times, which needs to start (a) reading its own product more consistently and (b) doing a better job on the Truth In Packaging front. At some point, when you're peddling chockies, "crunchy frog" just doesn't cut it anymore. Next time the Times writes about SpinSpotter, we need to see some mention that it the product contains crunchy raw unboned real dead frog. Garnished with larks' vomit.

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Blogger Phillip said...

Dead horse.

6:31 PM, October 16, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

Thanks. That was needed by us.

11:46 PM, October 16, 2008  

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