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Battling Media Bias

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A version of this article originally appeared in the Exception magazine and is republished with permission.

Bailout? Rescue Package? Corporate Welfare? How are we to know which terms used by the media are true and which are spin?

SpinSpotter, a new online venture, is attempting to solve this perceived problem. As the video above argues, most people think the media is "one-sided" yet few journalists are concerned over their declining credibility (spin alert: the studies used in this video have no citations!). Spin in the media could hamper our ability to make sound decisions about our complicated world, according to the video. By spotting spin using the SpinSpotter service, we can "whip the media circus back in shape."

The goals of this site might seem worthy on face value. Users mark sections of online news stories that are biased and eventually publishers are shamed into eliminating spin. Those crafty journalists will no longer be able to dupe everyone into viewing the world through their lefty lenses (to give you a sense of SpinSpotter's bias, Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large of National Review Online, is on the site's Journalism Advisory Board).

Yet it is doubtful that this service will change the way news is reported. Users need to install applications like the "spinoculars" to highlight sections of a story that are biased and to view the results of the other media watchdogs. Since this community is self-selecting, it will inherently reflect the biases of its own community. Readers without the SpinSpotter applications will have no idea stories are marked as biased. Stories are already quickly processed and critiqued by the blogeratti. By the time the SpinSpotters have their say, newshounds will have already jumped ahead to the next juicy story.

Furthermore, the goal of restoring "objective news" is fundamentally invalid. One person's bailout is another person's rescue package. The era of "just the facts" journalism is getting a lot more complicated. Americans are no longer dependent on their metropolitan newspaper's monopoly over what has happened and we are free to peruse multiple accounts of an event on the web. Online news comparisons help reveal how all journalists inevitably inject bias into the news, but that is only half the story.

It is more likely that publishers tailor the bias of their reporting to cater to the political biases of their audiences, not the other way around, at least according to a recent study, "What Drives Media Slant? Evidence from U.S. Daily Newspapers"" (May 2007) by two University of Chicago professors, Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro (for an explanation suitable to the layperson, we recommend the Economist's review of their paper). If the study is valid, then publishers are just trying to capitalize on the partisan demands of their readerships. Now that anyone can read news from anywhere online, newspaper competition has increased. Publications are probably going to become more partisan in the years ahead as each paper tries to win over audience niches that are more political than geographical.

But there is a problem now that people can solely read the news sites and blogs that reconfirm and validate their own biases. Liberal blogs only link to other liberal blogs and conservatives link to other conservative resources.

A better way to improve our public discourse is to create forums where people with different biases and views actually have a reason to interact with each other. This is one reason why we created the Exception magazine, a nonpartisan news site for people that are interested in getting a straight account of the events, but from multiple perspectives. When reporting the news, we try to present both sides as each would like to be represented, yet we are unafraid to conclude which view we think has more merit. Our audience is free and capable of choosing for themselves whether they agree with us. The inherent skepticism that Americans have over the media is a good thing in our opinion, not a symptom of a problem that can be solved by some well-financed website with a grudge against the New York Times.

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