Spinspotter’s campaign against bias targets the wrong problem

Plenty of Web startups begin with a good idea and fail because it’s just plain hard to build software well, and Web sites are tricky beasts, and getting users isn’t easy. Then there are the startups where the trouble isn’t with execution; it’s with the initial idea. The company has simply set out to solve the wrong problem.

I have to say that Spinspotter, which debuted at Demo today, looks like it’s in that latter category to me. This is a site that uses an algorithm to detect what it defines as bias or “spin” in news coverage. (Here’s coverage from the Times, the Journal, and BusinessWeek.)

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.

Is having a computer program scouring news articles and underlining each appearance of what it defines as bias going to improve any journalist’s work, or any reader’s understanding of the news? 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.

There is plenty of room for Web sites and services that enable us to better sort fact from fiction, to help us think about what coverage is fair and what is duplicitous, to figure out who we might want to trust and who we might want to distrust among our media sources. But the helful site needs to start by asking those questions — not by simply exhorting its users to “Find bias and tear it a new one.” (The slogan makes me all warm and nostalgic for the blogosphere’s old promise of “we can fact-check your ass.”)

The complaints about “bias in the media” today do not emerge in a vacuum. It’s not as if there were some platonic ideal of news, an attainable and perfect “objective news reporting” standard that our reporters and editors just need to sweat a little harder to achieve. The frequent accusations of bias you hear today, from every point on the political spectrum, are a symptom of the extreme divisions in our political system and our nation.

Journalists are human beings. “Objectivity” is not within their capacity. Bias will always be charged. Sometimes it will come as a result of genuinely shoddy journalism, where reporters have slanted coverage unfairly based on their own prejudices; sometimes it will come as a result of shoddy news consumption, where a reader just doesn’t like the facts that a reporter has presented because they conflict with his world view. Spinspotter promises both “wisdom of the crowd” style voting and human “referees” to build checks and balances into its system. But I suspect these will just end up either recapitulating the left-right fusillades that already fill the political blog-comment-sphere, or reproducing the “view from nowhere” bromides that satisfy no one.

SpinSpotter’s design starts from an assumption that there is some abstract and definable concept of “bias” independent of our own relative perspectives. But we all encounter the biases in the coverage we read through the lens of our own pre-installed biases. And so what? Every act of journalism is biased! We can’t and shouldn’t set out to eliminate bias from journalism, not only because it is impossible but because it is unwise. Instead, we should expect journalists do a better job of being fair and accurate and passionate in their quest for the truth as they see it. We should help readers find the journalists they trust and question the ones they don’t. And we could all use help finding our way through this new era when there is little boundary left between the one group of journalists and the other of readers.

The real problem with our media in this decade has not been too much bias. The problem has been that too often our most influential journalists have not stepped forward to call out official lies. We have suffered from a surfeit of “on the one hand, on the other hand” journalism, which is a poor substitute for anyone’s truth. The Spinspotter-style effort to eliminate “bias” ultimately leads down the road to more of that ritual, not less.

Spinspotter’s home-page rhetoric crows, “The truth is back in town”…”Behold the epiphany of unfiltered news”…”take back the truth” — as if the truth were some golden residue left behind once you have stripped off all the layers of bias you can find. But I think that, even if Spinspotter could somehow perfect its algorithms and unerringly remove all the human perspective and “reporter’s voice” from the articles it points at, you’d find there’s nothing of any value left.

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  1. IanRae

    Excellent points. I actually prefer so-called ‘biased’ media, at least the ones that declare their bias. Fox, ignoring their silly ‘fair and balanced’ slogan is explicity right-leaning, and The New Republic or tpmcafe.com are left. Although last night’s cable networks were pretty awful. Fox was up in Alaska interviewing Wasilla folks on what a wonderful gal Palin is, while CNN was “Digging Deeper” into her church and possible religous beliefs.

  2. SpinSpotter has at least one excellent feature. It highlights text in a news story that was cribbed directly from a press release. You’ve gotta like that, don’t you?


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