Three Dimensions Separating Spin From Education
Read the following article explaining why there "isn’t a single reason" why Senator McCain should not have selected Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his Vice Presidential running mate:
Seems like a straightforward article, doesn’t it?
Note as of 9/5/2008: The above link is no longer available. Based on what I wrote in this post, the author decided to replace that article with this much more upgraded version:
For more about how this happened, and my tribute to the article’s author for his dedication to upgrading his journalistic integrity skills, read the following blog post after you finish reading this article.
If you’re going to get good at spotting spin, this article illuminates three key dimensions to investigate with ANY article you read:
- Does the Source Apply Standards Consistently: Ask yourself the following question — If this source applied the same standards to the candidate or position on an issue that s/he opposes as s/he is using to support the candidate or position on an issue s/he supports, what conclusion would s/he have to reach about the opposiing candidate or position? If we were to apply the standards the author used in this article to conclude that there isn’t a single reason why Governor Palin should not be Senator McCain’s Vice Presidential running mate, the conclusion we would have to be reached is that Senator Obama is a legitimate selection for President. So, as you read this article, it is important for you to wonder whether or not the author would want you to come to this additional conclusion. You might have to look at other articles the author wrote (or at whether the articles in that publication tend to have an overall slant in one direction or another) in order to get a sense of this. But, if your answer is "yes," the article is more likely to be providing more education than spin. And if your answer is "no" or "I doubt it" then you can safely assume that the author’s bias has caused the article to contain more spin than education. In the case of the article used in this example, the author is a conservative. To me, the slant of his article reflects this, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! What would be wrong is if you, the reader, didn’t make a point of figuring this out when you read the article, so that you weigh what was written in the context of the conclusions that the author most likely wants you to reach — about what the author favors AND what the author does not.
- Is Anything Stated or Implied as Fact Actually Spin: Is the source telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? The example article contains at least three points worth looking at more closely in order to discern whether they are spin masquerading as fact.
- The author states about Governor Palin and Senator Obama that "she has been an elected state chief executive for 20 months. He has voted ‘Present’ as a junior senator and run for president for 2 years." This implies that he (Obama) has been a senator for less than two years when the actual fact is that he has been a senator for over 3 1/2 years, while also impling that Obama has been inactive as a senator for the past 2 years. It also implies that heading up a national presidential campaign is not executive experience, which it most definitely is.
- The author uses a larger number for her (20 months) and a smaller number for him (2 years). The classic book, How to Lie With Statistics," talks about this. If you want to spin in one direction, 20 sounds better than 2. If you want to spin in the other direction you say "barely more than 1 1/2 years versus well over two times that amount of time." If you want to be truly objective you compare apples to apples: 20 months versus 42 months.
- Let’s look further at 20 months versus two years. As of writing this post, Governor Palin has indeed been Alaska’s governor for 20 months. Senator Obama has been the U.S. senator from Illinois for 42 months. Yet, the author has taken it upon himself to determine that a senator has functioned in that role for only 12 of those 42 months.
- Let’s now add population size to amount of time served. Sarah Palin has been governor for a little over 1 1/2 years of a state with a population of 670,000, after having been the mayor of a city of less than 9000 people for 6 years. Senator Obama has been a United States senator from a state with 1.8 million inhabitants for 3 1/2 years after having been an Illinois state senator for approximately 7 years (1997-2004), representing a population of over 900,000 residents. Yet, the author implies that these two backgrounds are equivalent because he is factoring in considerations such as differences in executive responsibilities between a U.S. senator and a state governor. Nothing wrong with that… unless this is done through omitting facts that deprive the reader from coming to a truly informed conclusion about whether they agree with the author’s assertion that these two backgrounds are essentially equivalent.
- So, here is the bottom line: When you see information stated in a slanted or incomplete way, you can safely assume that the author’s intention is spin rather than education.
3. What Are the Source’s Objectives: Is the source of the article or the publication in which the article is featured putting him/her/itself forth (either implicitly or explicitly) as being objective or unbiased? Or does the slant of the article, or the conclusions it would have the reader reach, happen to match the author’s and/or publication’s underlying bias, position or ideology? The author stated to me that he is a conservative but that is not made explicit in his article. This article is posted on the American Chronicle website. The way their "About" page is written, it appears as though they want to be perceived as an unbiased news source that welcomes all perspectives. And perhaps they are indeed this. However, no amount of research on my part could locate any information about the owners or editors of this website. I had originally been led to believe that this site forwards a conservative agenda but my research turned up absolutely no evidence of this… or anything else about the identities or leanings of the publisher or editors. All I could find is that copyright is owned by a company called Ultio, LLC, whose corporate offices are listed as being in Beverly Hills, CA, but their corporate website does not list owner or director names. I don’t know about you but I find this quite unsettling.
To summarize, here are three reasons to question whether the article’s and/or publication’s intention is propaganda rather than education: 1) American Chronicle chooses not to explicitly label any op-ed pieces as such on the article’s page (including the article serving as my example in this post) so that readers can easily distinguish between news articles and opinions; 2) The article itself appears to apply inconsistent standards toward the party the author supports and the party the author opposes; 2) American Chronicle chooses to not be transparent about its ownership or editors.
In closing I want to be absolutely clear about one other thing — I selected this example for only one reason: it is an all-too-typical example of spin-based analysis BUT my evaluation as an integrity analyst is that these integrity deficits exist on far too many websites and across the ENTIRE political spectrum. So, if you choose to read this post as an indictment of one specific author, one political orientation or one website, rather than as an attempt to educate citizens in how to become more discerning, you would be putting a spin on my post that is out of integrity with my intention.
My message to you is that each of us is responsible as a citizen and voter to apply the principles I have described in this post to EVERYTHING you read or hear, regardless of whether that information agrees or disagrees with what you believe is true. Unless you do this, you will continue to be a pawn of propaganda rather than a "freesponsible" citizen. Unless you do this you will continue to be taken in by a lack-of-integrity strategy that is currently used far too often in virtually all parts of society. That strategy is called, "the ends justify the means." They don’t.
Every one of us, including you, can do something about this. You can start speaking up whenever you see journalism integrity deficits by calling them out and insisting on integrity-based journalism instead. Using the article I analyzed in this post as an example, you would point out the spin to the author and his/her editor, and ask that the author or editor make it clear that the article provides a biased analysis, not objective non-biased reporting. In other words, you tell the editor to explicitly identify all opinion pieces as such on those article pages, to differentiate them from true objective non-biased news stories. And you would also demand that the publisher become transparent about its editorial bias by disclosing its ownership and its editors’ names.
(By the way, I find NOTHING wrong with providing biased analysis. What I find utterly wrong is doing this in ways that obscure this, such as writing an article or presenting it in ways that make it appear as though it is unbiased analysis.)
I have taken the action with this author that I recommended above (and I will be e-mailing this post to American Chronicle as well). I e-mailed the author to invite him to read this post in the hope that he might choose to upgrade his writing style to better support rebuilding a healthier representative republic (or democracy, depending on which term you most resonate with, though I believe both have their truth). The author has read my post and responded to it a couple of times, the first interchange of which I have appended further below. Based on his input, I have modified this post to reflect the better understanding he has helped me gain, and I am truly thankful to him for that.
In that vein, please note that I in no way am accusing the author of the article I use as an example in this post as lacking in personal integrity. In fact, I suspect that he has a high level of personal integrity, though I hardly know enough about him to know for certain. What I do know for certain is that accusing him of lacking personal integrity would be character assassination, and that is a strategy that I abhor. There is a huge difference between asserting that a strategy lacks integrity and stating that the person using it lacks personal integrity. If my intention was to impugn the author’s character I would have used his name multiple times in this post. Instead I have not used it at all, except below where I give attribution to an e-mail he sent to me. Rather, the purpose of this post is to point out strategies that, even though widely used, reflect journalism integrity deficits, in my opinion, not to character assassinate the people using these strategies.
That said, for all of the reasons I have described in this post, the article I used as an example simply illuminates strategies that I believe are damaging the political discourse in the United States every single day, from across the political spectrum. My perspective is that these strategies will continue to do damage to our political process until citizens wise up, start speaking up against them, and stop being propagandized by them.
When enough people start taking these actions I can virtually guarantee we will at last see a more widespread return to responsible, integrity-based journalism (reporting, analysis and opinion). And with this, we will have taken another important step toward re-invigorating our republic’s founding principles into how our country runs on a practical day-to-day basis.
Gary Loftis wrote the following to me in response to my above post:
Thank you for analysis, David. However, I make no pretense at being a journalist. My essays reflect my opinions.
I wrote the following back to him:
Thank you for clarifying that you are not intending to put yourself forward as a journalist.
On its "About" page, The American Chronicle clearly states that "we are an online magazine for national, international, state, local, entertainment, sports, and government news. We also provide opinion and feature articles." Positioning itself as purveyor of news, opinion and feature articles clearly establishes The American Chronicle as an online newspaper. In journalistically responsible newspapers "analysis" articles are clearly labeled as such and op-ed pieces only appear on op-ed pages.
The voicing you used for your piece placing it either in the category of analysis or opinion. Nothing appears on your article’s page that explicitly identifies it as an op-ed piece. Instead, your info box clearly establishes your journalistic credentials: "His work has earned or contributed to significant professional recognition, including an Edward R. Murrow Award (Best Local News, KSLA-TV, 1987) and a Blue Pencil Award: Best Professional Journal in North America (Air University Review, 1986)."
I see our great country as being ensnared in a war among pontificators whose purpose is to sway citizens to their point of view no matter what it takes… including omitting vital facts or distorting existing ones. Doing this replaces true education with spin masquerading as education. As I wrote in my post, this "ends justifies the means" strategy is utilized by the entire political spectrum and all special interest groups today. In my opinion, this strategy makes it harder rather than easier for under-age citizens to grow up to become responsible voters, and makes it more difficult for adult citizens to responsibly exercise their right and responsibility to vote. In other words, spin damages rather than strengthens a republic’s health.
I will defend to the end your right to your opinion, in the name of individual freedom and freedom of the press.
I will simultaneously defend integrity to the end by educating the public to become better at discerning between spin and education, in the name of promoting the common good.
With all respect,