tiaIra Basen, a producer with the CBC and a friend of mine from Carleton University days, is writing a book on media spin, a term often used interchangeably with bias. But Ira says spin is actually subtler and more insidious. It is the shading of meaning or interpretation of events in favour of a particular point of view, and it is sometimes inadvertent or even unconscious. There are several ways spin will creep into a story, including:

  1. The use of emotional words: The use of terms like ‘terrorist’, ‘freedom fighter’, and ‘resistance movement’, for example. Did you know that Reuters’ policy is not to use these, or similar terms charged with emotional baggage, unless they are used in quotation marks with the unambiguous source of the quotation cited, even with pseudo-qualifiers like ‘alleged’ or ‘so-called’. The job of the media is to report the facts, and to avoid subjective labels, even if they may be substantiated in the reporter’s, or most people’s, minds. In some cased, this spin technique can be used in reverse: the term ‘abuse’ instead of ‘torture’, or the use of ‘casualties’ or the infamous ‘collateral damage’ instead of ‘dead civilians’.
  2. Orwellian misuse of words: The Bush Administration is notorious for this, using words like patriot, freedom, and peace to mean nearly the exact opposite, and attempting to entrench public and media misuse by naming programs and laws with Orwellian terms (Patriot Act, Operation Iraqi Freedom). Improper personification and similar techniques (e.g. using the name of a country or the name of its people instead of ‘the government of’, to confuse government policy or actions with popular opinion: “Iran Building up Nuclear Arsenal”, “Syrians Refuse to Stop Funding Terrorists”) can accomplish the same end more subtly.
  3. Self-censorship — What is not reported: The choice of what not to report at all, and when (before or after the public is focused on it) and where (front page or at the end of the continuation of a story on page 32) to report, can have a greater impact on viewers or listeners than what is actually, factually reported. Recently, for example, the media had an abrupt about-face, ceasing their self-censorship of showing flag-draped coffins and even reading the names of American dead (oops, casualties) in the Iraqi war, because they realized to what extent that self-censorship impacts public perception. Likewise, the media have a natural propensity to not report stories that they believe are complex (e.g. the violations of the Geneva Conventions by the US Government), long-term (e.g. environmental deterioration and biodegradation), distant (e.g. Third World genocides and wars unless US troops are involved) or intractable (e.g. famine in East Africa and North Korea), because they are hard, expensive stories to do well, and hence do not offer the ROI of, say, a celebrity scandal or shaggy dog story. This is not especially political — it’s the same phenomenon that has led to prime time TV being filled with cheap ‘Reality TV’ programs instead of serious drama or intelligent comedy. It’s about lack of money, more than lack of integrity.
  4. The way something is reported: Being in a commercial business, the media have a natural temptation to sensationalize, to create extraordinary buzz, because it’s good for ratings or circulation. If CBS had chosen merely to describe what it had learned about Abu Ghraib, and not to show the photos, the impact of the story would have been much different, and it is not surprising that the Bush Regime (oops. some senior policy-makers in the US Government) have since trotted out videos and photos of Saddam Hussein’s brutality and murder to counter the emotional impact of the Abu Ghraib photos.
  5. Oversimplification: Although I have an optimistic view of most people and believe they are capable of and interested in learning in detail about issues and programs that affect their lives, the media have a more jaundiced view that the public (oops, the majority of citizens) either can’t understand, or don’t care about, such detail and subtlety. Especially in political campaigns, there is therefore a tendency to try to reduce the differences between the voter’s choices to an absurd degree of simplicity. The parties and candidates exploit this by feeding the media sound bites and negative ads that exaggerate and oversimplify (or outright misrepresent) their opponents’ positions or actions. So whether the public wants to be or not, the media are complicit in the ‘dumbing down’ of issues to a dangerously over-simplified degree. The only question, and one which I understand Ira’s book is going to address, is whether the media are pandering to citizens’ inability to understand complex and subtle issues, or to politicians’ desire to oversimplify these issues for political advantage. Or perhaps both.

There are other ‘spin’ techniques, of course, such as Failure to present opposing interpretations of the facts, Giving credibility to unidentified and unsubstantiated sources (“One senior former official said”, “Saddam was believed to have…”) and Assuming facts without evidence (e.g. most of what we read about WMD), but I think these are the most common and most insidious. Let’s take a look at a case study. Before you read the following article, please note — this is important — It is slamming the media’s spin in handling the Clinton Administration for its bombing of Sudan, before 9/11 and before the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, please read this article. It’s long, and a bit strident, but worth the read.

Finished? Did you shudder a bit when you read, in an article written about Clinton in 1998, “Is bin Laden’s new assignment perhaps to be a bogey-man of convenience whom the U.S. government can link to any government it wishes to bomb?”

With the benefit of hindsight (and the opposing political party in power) it’s easy to see the incredible spin in the venerable Times’ reporting in 1998, and to see that to some extent this ubiquitous media spin contributed to the overwhelming bipartisan approval for the US to launch a war against Afghanistan, against precisely the people we had supported and financed earlier in their war against the USSR, the enemy of that earlier day. I confess that I had few misgivings about war with the Taliban, despite the fact that I am a life-long pacifist. Why? Because nowhere (except the discredited extreme conspiracy-theorist papers) were we presented with spin-free reporting (or opposite-spin reporting, if you think spin-free reporting is an oxymoron) on what exactly was, and had been, going on in Afghanistan, and why things were the way they were. There is almost always a rational explanation for things that appear absurd or unreasonable in the absence of the facts. We are just now beginning to realize the degree to which our money and support made the Taliban both popular and tyrannical in Afghanistan. And still we are missing most of the facts about that country, and about Iraq. The facts, alas, are not the same as the news. The media’s job is to report the news, not to dig up the facts. Investigative journalism is what we desperately need, but there is no money in that, surprisingly little demand for it, and precious few willing to take the enormous risks to pursue that thankless career.

It’s easy to take sides, especially when the current US administration is so unapologetically propagandizing (i.e. deliberately and systematically spinning) every issue it deals with, to a degree not seen since the Vietnam War. But the reality is that the media, taken as a whole, are neither liberal nor conservative. The political position of each media outlet on any given issue is somewhere in the middle of (a) the position of its editorial board, (b) its perception of the position of the ‘average’ reader/viewer, (c) the position of the reporters covering the story, and (d) the position of the people presenting the story (usually the administration of the day). That means that to right-wingnuts like this guy, the media will always appear liberal, and to unabashed left-wingers like me, the media will always appear conservative. But the truth is, at least in their story reporting (editorials and schlock talk radio aside), there is no vast media ‘conspiracy’ at either end of the political spectrum. Most people in the media are doing their best to do their jobs in a way that balances the views of the above four ‘interest groups’. They are vulnerable to the spin techniques listed above — if you’ve ever interviewed someone, you’ll appreciate that unless you’re really treated abusively there’s an earnest desire to represent what they had to say clearly, favourably, but above all objectively.

To the extent they get it right, they deserve a lot of credit — it’s a difficult, thankless, often dangerous and tedious job. To the extent they, and their editors, let spin creep into their stories, we have a duty as readers and viewers and citizens to recognize it, and discount it accordingly. The fact that so many of us are using the Internet to learn more, to check out other interpretations of events, and to get behind the stories so we can understand and talk about the issues facing our world more knowledgeably, we are contributing to the democratic process, and helping to reduce spin. At the same time, there is a tendency in the blogosphere to frequent sites authored and populated by like minds, and some of the hysterics of extremists of every stripe are quite frightening. My blog wears its left-spinning, overtly editorial stripes quite proudly and unapologetically, but I make a point of reading a few of the more moderate conservative blogs on each new issue, and occasionally some of the bizarre extreme leftist blogs — because the danger of exposing yourself to a lot of spin is that, if you’re not careful, you can find yourself permanently off-balance.

And as we all know, “fair and balanced” is another term that’s subject to a lot of spin. George O. must be ‘spinning’ in his grave.

This entry was posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Raging Bee says:

    Just randomly meandering through your post, I came across this bit: “…the media have a natural propensity to not report stories that they believe are complex (e.g. the violations of the Geneva Conventions by the US Government), long-term (e.g. environmental deterioration and biodegradation), distant (e.g. Third World genocides and wars unless US troops are involved) or intractable (e.g. famine in East Africa and North Korea), because they are hard, expensive stories to do well, and hence do not offer the ROI of, say, a celebrity scandal or shaggy dog story.”This alleged revelation doesn’t exactly punch me in the gut, for the simple reason that the media DID INDEED report on ALL of the issues you cited, and have in fact been doing so for as long as I’ve been reading newspapers. But of course, since you alleged that the media merely “have a natural propensity” not to report such events, and not that they actually “did not” report them, your statement remains unprovable, and un-disprovable – because, in fact, it really didn’t say anything at all.Is that “spin,” “obfuscation,” or “obscurantism?”

  2. Makes my head spin.

  3. Jon Husband says:

    IF RB wants another examination of spin, obfuscation or obscurantism, here’s a well-thought out critique of how the media opertaes in our society – from the blog Orcinus

  4. Raging Bee says:

    Yet another blogger too hooked on superficial media nonsense (strictly for research purposes, of course) to catch the more meaningful news he considers nonexistent. Here’s a hint, guys: the channel-selector doesn’t work automatically; you have to reach for it!There’s plenty of real news available, you just have to go out of your way to get it. Look for “BBC America” at the very least, or, better yet, read the “Economist.” Quit staring at half-naked babes on “Fear Factor” and demanding that it morph into intelligence reports from Afghanistan.Speaking of “daily howlers,” check this out: “In the process, we keep the public (a large portion of it willingly) in the dark about the very real politics and policies that directly affect their security and well-being, both here and now and for the long haul.”Not only is the author accusing an unspecified “we” of a heinous act of censorship (you talking to ME, pal?), but the accusation is just plain false. Would the author care to specify, at the very least, WHICH big stories are being sat on? And what superior source gave the author the “real” truth?”…we find ourselves constantly arguing about the ‘morality’ or ‘character’ of politicians, an issue that is by nature a product of spin and propagandizing.”So our concerns about Bush’s competence, intelligence, mental engagement, honesty, soberiety, and seeming lack of anything resembling curiosity – in short, his “character” and “morality” – are nothing more than “a product of spin and propagandizing?”And finally, I noticed this blast from the day before “The Day After:” “…Osama’s men will come with a bomb…and they’ll destroy an American city. American society will end on that day.”Of course: we’re all such stupid animals that one bomb will destroy the thin veneer of civilization as we know it, and we’ll all fall into chaos and barbarism and start eating our kids. Will someone please update this guy’s hysteria?

  5. Raging Bee says:

    Jon: I notice that my company’s nanny-ware blocks access to your Web site. What’s up – porn, hate, gambling, or instant-messaging? Enquiring minds want to know… :-)

  6. Jon Husband says:

    RB, if you’re referring to my old blogging site, it is now kaput. I’m starting over.I have much to argue with (or offer alternative points of view) in your above comments, but I don’t want to get into any arguments at the moment. Suffice it to say that I have a sense that we wouldn’t be able to have much of a dialogue. I am clearly anti-American and anti-conservative when it comes to the principles and policies under which corporations, corporate media, and the current American administration. Re: my stance – there’s too much evidence of malfeasance to ignore, and there’s been so much shouting and twisting of meanings back and forth that I cannot but believe that the “we” we have become is generally – and I mean generally – controlled for us by the system that has been built around us. If one wants to be better informed than the average Jane or Joe, it takes time, research, doubt, courage, willingness to listen … even then, the big conflictual issues of the day (Iraq, government secrecy, corporate fraud) are framed in a widely-shared belief and control system that demands “being with the program”. So being against what is happening is by definition marginal – dissent is minimized, ridiculed and marginalized.With us or agin’ us has been successfully installed, and so it’s all over but for the shouting. The main forms of media do have a lot to answer for, imo.

  7. Jon Husband says:

    heheHere’s a documentary movie shot in 2003 that has made it to several film festivals, and has been relatively widely reviewed

  8. Raging Bee says:

    “Suffice it to say that I have a sense that we wouldn’t be able to have much of a dialogue.”Gosh, whose fault is that? If you give up trying to convince others, then don’t blame us if we’re not convinced.”…there’s too much evidence of malfeasance to ignore…”But you haven’t provided such evidence, or even offered any specific allegations; thus, you’re not really saying much of anything. I agree there’s plenty of examples of unsatisfactory performance by journalists, but that’s a far cry from “malfeasance.””…and there’s been so much shouting and twisting of meanings back and forth…”You’re absolutely right, and the left are at least as guilty of this as the right. At least the right can make their twisting sound credible, while the left just scream and sloganeer and twist their way into total, paranoid, pretzel-like irrelevance.”…the ‘we’ we have become is generally – and I mean generally – controlled for us by the system that has been built around us.”And you DO mean “generally” – as in lacking any specific examples of who is “controlling” what, or what/who/where this “System” is that you lefties have been prattling about since the ’60s.This sounds to me like classic paranoia and paralysis: the enemies are everywhere (another “axis of evil?), they’re controlling our thoughts and perceptions, they’ve got everyone duped, we can’t pin them down or do anything else, and if you don’t see things my way, it’s because you’ve been duped too, and there’s no point in trying to convince you, you’ll never understand anyway…As long as you’re so intent on bringing the name of George Orwell into this, let me remind you of one of his most useful bits of advice: if you think in abstractions (i.e., “corporations,” “a widely-shared belief and control system that demands ‘being with the program'”), then your words will rush into the vacuum and do all of your thinking for you.

  9. Jon Husband says:

    RB – have you ever travelled much outside of North America ? And if so, has it been for work or as a vacationer/short-hop tourist, or on a longer-term basis where you might have been able to develop some insights into, or relationships with other people, in that foreign place/culture ?

  10. Raging Bee says:

    Are you trying to change the subject, or are you implying that I haven’t travelled enough to know what I’m talking about? If something I said makes you question my intelligence, perhaps you should tell us what it is, instead of demanding qualifications which you have not provided for yourself.

Comments are closed.