Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Fred Wilson Asked, Fred Wilson Gets

Fred Wilson Asked, Fred Wilson Gets
Todd Herman, SpinSpotter Founder

World Famous Venture Capitalist Fred Wilson wrote on his blog yesterday:

"I have never spent much time trying to obtain perfect grammar, spelling, and wording .... I'm not a perfect speller by any means. And I mess up/mix up its and it's all the time. I went to an engineering school not a liberal arts school and it shows at times ...... But there is a solution that I'd love someone to build. If anyone could make basic edits to this post that don't change the meaning, I'd love that. I don't want an editor, but I am quite taken with the idea of audience powered editing."

Mr. Wilson, you asked and you shall now receive. Though our tool is not meant for that -it is meant to crowd-edit news stories for spin and inaccuracies- it will work perfectly well for this.

I am not a grammar expert -and commit typos faster than I type- but, I did have fun in the guise of a nit picky editor. Based on my personal experiences with editors, I also performed one of their most egregious, rude and, sadly, common errors---take a look at the extract and, see if you also find it nearly unforgivable!

If you would like to see how that changes appear on your blog, please simply add Spinoculars to your Firefox browser: When you have Spinoculars, visit your post.

For Mr. Wilson's readers: please feel free to augment my additions to the article---and, please, vote down or edit my rude pseudo-error. You can all vote them up or down without the Toolbar at or, you can create your own edits to Mr. Wilson's piece on his own page with our toolbar.

Monday, December 29, 2008

News Transparency Brothers and Sisters

News Transparency Brothers and Sisters
By Todd Herman, SpinSpotter Founder

Many of you read about, a news start-up from the halls of academia who hope to remake the new world by turning to readers to decide which stories get investigated---because only stories that get funded make are published. It's a cool idea which has garnered a lot of press.

I hope won't mind if I consider them part of a movement we call News Transparency. This is a movement peopled by folks like us,, and the like: all of us seem to have the goal of news unfettered by bias or inaccuracies. Where we seem to differ, though, if in whether or not a commercial entity can be trusted to provide that type of look into media. is a for profit business, as is SpinSpotter and some feel that make us less trustworthy.

I do think that entities who demand transparency must themselves provide it. In the case of SpinSpotter, we went to come fairy unusual degrees to be transparent ourselves; have you read our management bios? We list, among other things, our political donations (all of them of which we are aware---not just the so called "big ones"), our charitable donations and our political points-of-view; at regular intervals we also publish our advertisers and business partners, for all the same reasons. While one could still be a transparent cheat, we think that exposing our interests will make it easier for you to expose us should we ever skew results to make ourselves happy or to drive an agenda other than our stated one: to make news reporting transparent.

Here, though, is a question for the non-profit entities in the equation: how you do you deal with issues of transparency as relates your donor base. Do you think your users have a right to know all of your donors? It's a sincere questions, not a jab. Please let us know.

Monday, December 22, 2008

When will the NY Times get better at being lazy?

When will the NY Times get better at being lazy?
By Todd Herman, SpinSpotter Founder

Is this laziness, spin or ... actually, there is no "or" for this.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Magic Legitimacy of the Neutral Professor

The Magic Legitimacy of the Neutral Professor


If SpinSpotter can figure this out why can't Fox News?

By Todd Herman, SpinSpotter Founder based on the work of SpinSpotter Community Member Devio.

Tort Lawyers and some News Organizations have a game they like to play. It's called the Magic Legitimacy of the Neutral Professor. The game works like this: when someone is a professor, they are perfectly and permanently neutral. They are great "experts" in court. In fact, they are so neutral that such Ph.D'd professional experts often specialize as defense experts or prosecution experts. And, magically enough, they are still just seeking truth. After all, they are professors and, as such, they are above having a point of view.

When the magically neutral are quoted in news articles, they enjoy the same veneer and, often, employ the same decision to specialize. It's a neat game when it works. It's no fun when you get caught doing it and that magic assumption of neutrality falls away.

This week, Fox News played that game with three people in a single article which seemed to attack the Associated Press's analysis of Global Warming. Read the Fox News piece yourself and then tell me, would you noticed this and this?

For the bereft of time---here's a screen shot (click to enlarge:

In the case of Fox News vs. AP on the topic of Global Warming, Professor Deming seems an excellent choice to play the role of the prosecution witness/genetically neutral brain without guile or ambition.

All great professors have points of view, all great journalists do as well. But, if a journalist uses a source so easily attached to a point of view, that journalist simply must disclose that. If the journalist is writing from a point of view, they should disclose that as well. To do otherwise seems a little less than honest ... in fact, it seems like game-play.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

What Channel Will You De-Spin?

What Channel Will You De-Spin?
Todd Herman, SpinSpotter Founder

As we near the release of our Explorer Toolbar for Human Spin Spotters, we are testing a new video that which you can see right here. This has already caused a little bit of controversy ... right now 50% of people who have commented on it think it's "anti-Obama" and 50% think it's "anti-Bush". So, perhaps we made the vaunted middle-ground for lending offense. But, we didn't mean to lean either way...the piece is about Spin Images, be they words, pictures, camera angles, lighting, special effects of complete doctoring of photos. Can you spot the spin? Are we re-spinning?

If this video inspires you to do something about media-spin then please grab your Spinoculars and set forth; the most efficient, fun and easy way to contribute to a de-spun news media is to de-spin the channel you think is most guilty of spin. You will enjoy the feeling of editing their pages! Do this once a day and share what you find, through our share tool, by joining our Facebook Group or simply my leaving your comment here.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Fox News: Let’s play obscure that source

Fox News: Let’s play obscure that source
Todd Herman, SpinSpotter Founder

An excellent, text-book piece of really bad journalism from Fox News.

Human SpinSpotter prepare_for_y2k finds Fox News using an expert to deride Federal Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald---the man prosecuting Governor Blago. The problem is, Fox News chooses not to tell you why this expert has a dog in the race. This is why you need SpinSpotter.

Fox News: Let’s play obscure that source

The New York Times: Psychiatrists

The New York Times: Psychiatrists
Todd Herman, SpinSpotter Founder

Isn’t it great when your newspaper can magically examine people’s psychological health---without ever examining them, or having anyone else do that?

Today, the New York Times, explains that Governor Blago is not corrupt, he’s insane.

Add your own edits, here.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Opinalysis: The Mystery Meat Of Journalism

Analysis: The “Mystery-Meat” of Journalism
Todd Herman, SpinSpotter Founder

News Publishers have taken a bad rap for their supposed failure to innovate. In fact, they have never been more creative: the Big Picture from allows readers to make the decisions faced by newsmakers, and iReport from CNN meaningfully combines reader input with CNN content; these are two examples of brave new ways to tell a story. In terms of impact on the craft, tough, they pale in comparison to an industry-wide invention. In the past few years, News Publishers invented a brand new class of writing: Opinalysis (not be confused with Analypinion, the distinction requires no explanation). 

Clamato™ is a blend of the bodily fluids of clams and tomatoes; Opinalysis is a blend of two things: one-part professional writers, objectively and carefully analyzing objective data in their area of expertise in search of verifiable changes in trajectory worthy of note and one-part someone with a keyboard belittling people or actions they don’t like. The mix is not always 50/50, sometimes it approaches 0/100, as in this case from the New York Times (best viewed with Spinoculars; that is not -just- a sales pitch, it’s true).

In this Opinalysis, New York Times writer Alessandra Stanley analyzes the final debate between Senators Obama and McCain. The reader can discern what mix of clam fluids and tomatoes the piece contains---among the statements:

“Barack Obama looked like a polished summation in a long civil case, Joe the Plumber v. George W. Bush. John McCain was closer to a personal injury lawyer, staring into the camera to address “Joe the Plumber” as if he were standing by with an 800 number. (‘If you or a loved one has been wronged in an accident ...’ or in this case, in an Obama tax bracket.)”

“[McCain] kept taking out his pen to write on his yellow pad, almost as though it were a surrogate for reaching across and throttling the younger man he does not think should be challenging him because, as his aides put it, he hasn’t bled.” 

Is there a living editor who can explain the objective data-set Alessandra Stanley used to analyze this debate? Did the CNN crawler’s live-feed of McCain’s brainwaves, heartbeat and temperature and Ms. Stanley’s advanced medical degree enable her to Opinalyze that McCain was contemplating violence against the now President-elect? Was it Frank Luntz whispering creepily in her ear from a Fox News production studio that his live-feeds from his panelist’s bodies indicated Senator Obama was, in a scientifically verifiable way, coming across as a “polished summation”? 

The New York Times is far from alone in this: CNN Opinalyzes that, when she becomes Secretary of State, Senator Hillary Clinton must become an “honest broker.”

“If confirmed by the Senate, Clinton will have to transform herself from politician to diplomat, and her biggest challenge will be changing the vision she expressed as a senator from New York and as a presidential candidate and become an ‘honest broker’ [emphasis mine] the role the U.S. secretary of state often plays in the world's hot spots.”

Is there a set of data -beyond what which resides in the the gray matter of those who think of Senator Clinton is a dishonest broker- from which CNN’s State Department Producer Elise Labott draws this conclusion? How about one of her other conclusions that President-elect Obama’s national defense team is an “all star cast?” It would be tremendously nice of CNN to share with us where Mr. Labott’s “analysis” and “opinion diverge” ... if anyone at CNN knows the mix or the rules of the official difference.

Fox News, though, practices a form of analysis that is perhaps the sneakiest. In this case, as SpinSpotter user Sylvia L points out, Fox News invents an angle (President-elect Barack Obama and Indicted Governor Rod Blagojevich had “Ties”).

“The matter also highlights ties between the disgraced Democratic governor and some members of Obama's inner circle. His top campaign strategist, David Axelrod -- who will move to the White House for a senior adviser's job -- lists Blagojevich on his firm's Web site as one of his clients, when the politician was a candidate for Congress.”

Sylvia L user the Spinoculars “Edit” function to correct the record (in her opinion, you are welcome to disagree here.) Note her edit after the strike out:

How much of the discussion about Obama’s “ties” are organically grown and how much came through “Opinalysis" by the media?

This is the precise problem with Opinalysis: how much clam-juice and how much tomato will one swallow? 

The free press, a necessary component of a free democracy, is well within its rights to create words in blenders. The readers of a free press, a necessary component of a non-Federally subsidized News Publishing industry, are free to reject them. According to Pew, 56% of Americans actually believe that our free press is “bad for democracy”, 70% believe reporters try to get the candidates they support elected. The full data-set is too long for a blog but it suggests some obvious questions. According to Pew, only 16% of Americans “believe all of most of what [the New York Times says]”, do News Publishers become more worthy of being believed when they create the journalistic equivalent of Mystery Meat? News Publishers are competing against Twitter for debate coverage; do they serve themselves when they publish something other than that for which they are uniquely able and inclined to deliver? Now that they are competing with billions of personalities, are they choosing a wise battle by turning journalism into personality media?

Americans historically desire one thing from powerful institutions, a group of which the News Media is still a member. Americans want honesty. Like all weasel words and faux-phrases - “sources say”, “cheese-food” and “mistakes-were-made”- “Analysis” when used like “meat by-product”, will engender distrust because it is neither clam nor tomato, neither cheese nor food. It is not an honest claim. 

News Publishers have, in fact, been wildly inventive: iPredict lets users predict what will be news; (born from students of the Columbia School of Journalism) is news funded directly by readers who vote with their dollars on what the team investigates. But, the GMO-like Opinalysis is a bad invention. Like other bad inventions -Hairless Cats, Vista Capable and Turkey-Drops- it should be discontinued. News Publishers should reject this sausage. They should create and publish rules for what constitutes analysis. Writing that is actually one person’s feelings or reactions to a person or event and is in no way based upon any form of objective data should be labeled what it is: Opinion. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Uber-Spin of the "Auto-Industry Bailout"

By Todd Herman, Founder of SpinSpotter

Before I use Google News Search to track a little spin today (see below), I have the fiscal duty and general joy to say that SpinSpotter is a great tool for seeing spin on the big-five news sites. As we grow and as you teach our SpinBot, it will be a great tool on all of them. As proof of that I offer this: our users have already taught us that the phrase indusrty-bailout is a “dead give away for advocacy of the plan” they have also taught us that “The Big Three” is also a Spin-Laden term especially since Toyota is number one, and Detroit’s automakers are near collapse unless they get our tax money (or, rather, our line of national credit). Our SpinBot has been calling those phrases out since before the CEO’s from Detroit flew to D.C. in their Globe-Warming machines.

In the media narrative, though, how is the phrase “auto-industry bailout” being utilized? A self-serving way to ask that: what is the Uber-Spin?

Google News Search is a really cool way to tap the Uber-Spin, the evolving narrative around how news gets colored---one day we will do a better job at that. From Google’s servers, then, comes today’s object-lesson in Uber-Spin. The American Media seems to have invested in, and helped re-sell the phrase “auto-industry bailout” and the meme that it’s the industry -not three companies- that need a “bailout”.

Fun with Google News Search:

Auto-industry bailout”: returns 5,755 stories:

Adding “Toyota” and “BMW” to the Search returns three (6) news stories!

That means Google News found all of six news stories about the so called "industry bailout" which contain any discussion of the number one automaker, Toyota and another brand which builds cars in the United States.

The search returns for “auto-industry bailout” and “Toyota” is better at 294 returns though it clearly indicates the fact that the news media accepts the notion that this is an industry-wide bailout.

Tomorrow I will take a look at how are human Spin Spotters edit the phases “bailout” and “auto-industry bailout”.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A game conservatives play called 'name that party"

UPDATED: The New York Times is either watching SpinSpotter or thinks exactly like our user, TMills. They have adopted the user's edits word-for-word. Either way: Kudos to the Times!


I don't know how many conservatives -like me- deeply enjoy the voice and intellect of the Times' writers but are still bothered by their sometimes really obvious slants on the news. Maybe you will let me know. This morning the New York Times is an interesting study in comparative disclosure tactics---when to disclose or not disclose a politician's party affiliation, a game conservatives call "name that party."

1. Here is the way the Times covered Senator Ted Stevens---a corruptocratic Republican:

"Updated A federal grand jury has indicted longtime Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, on charges of failing to disclose receiving gifts of services and construction work as part of a wide-ranging corruption inquiry involving public officials and corporations in his home state."

Here is how they covered Governor Rod Blagojevich: From SpinSpotter TMills emails:

If you want a fun look at some Rock Star Citizen-Editing, get Spinoculars installed and go see how TMills de-spun the Times.

In case you are curious:

Fox News and CNN played name that party, Yahoo! News (AP) and correctly identified the governor as a Democrat.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Go on, take Spinoculars and run

Whether Obama's victory on Tuesday sent you on a jubilant high or felt more like an ideological punch in the gut, we the people of SpinSpotter are curious about something: Looking back at the mainstream media's election coverage, would you classify it as "fairly fair," "fraught with favoritism," or something in the middle?

One of our devoted SpinSpotters, Uriah, answered that question by taking our Rules of Spin and applying them to a different realm: videos. So, as you feast your eyes upon his thoughtful de-spin of a Fox News report on alleged voter intimidation in Philly, we hope it inspires you (as it has inspired us) to take your conceptual pair of Spinoculars with you wherever you go. And when you do, please share your findings with us so we can enjoy and showcase the fruits of your critical minds in action.

After all, while our main gig here at SpinSpotter is to promote transparency in the written news, we heartily welcome your de-spins of anything that strikes you as particularly biased: video news reports, neighborhood newsletters, or the nutritional label on your can of alphabet soup.

In short, take it and run with it, folks.

Check out Uriah's de-spin here.

Community Manager at SpinSpotter

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Some video examples: SpinSpotting, annotation and editing news article

Last week we spent some time on a video project, the full fruits of which will call for videos of your de-spins. We decided to upload some portions of these videos. There are two here from which to choose (I suggest the second one).

The quickest one is simply me, Todd, doing some SpinSpotting; it shows how my cynical, pop-culture-addled little mind works and, much more importantly, it highlights what we call deep de-spinning. That is, in addition to the easier ways to be a SpinSpotter --highlighting reporter and editor opinion which creep into news, or calling out inaccurate information-- all of which teach our SpinBot what to find in all news, we show some deeper work can do to make news transparent (caution: I find deep de-spinning addictive). Use Spinoculars to reference source material, to out-link to additional information like a YouTube video. You can view that one, here.

The second video is, in effect, the longer version of the above, but it is eminently more interesting with the appearance of Amy McDougall, journalism teacher and SpinSpotter Community Manager. If you view only one of them, make it this one. Amy and I both talk about our excuse for existing and how groups can work together to be SpinSpotters the way some college students have already begun to function. SpinSpotter, featuring Amy, is here:

Friday, October 24, 2008

An Example of how you can SpinSpot Errors of Omission

I was reflecting about the post below ("ABC News Columnist 'Embarassed to be a journalist'") and how SpinSpotter can go past the spin-words on a page and better address stories that the media is not covering, what we might call Selective Disclosure, and how we can draw attention to omitted facts in automated form. Those things are on our road map filed under v-next. In geek-speak: something we want to do. Then it occurred to me that, in the same way that people teach our SpinBot what spin looks like when they mark up a story, users have already begun to point out errors of commission. I wanted a really quick example and remembered a piece I did some work on along with other SpinSpotters (you'll see their markers as well). The New York Times displayed a delicious spin-phrase as the reporter wrote:

Once, the artist formerly known as Barack Obama, the slim, smooth-faced fellow with the close-cropped hair and the trumpet of a voice would riff on 14 varieties of hope and propel crowds higher and higher until he sent them spinning out into the night ready to change the world. Teleprompters were for the earthbound.

I created a marker on the phrase "Teleprompters were for the earthbound" and used the SpinRule Reporter's Voice to describe this case of Spin which has subsequently been voted up to the highest Spin-Rating (5) and has entered into our SpinBot---in the unlikely event that the phrase somehow reappear on a page we scan, we'll tag it.

I copied a technique I picked up from another users (hat tip to "TMills"): I provided a link to a YouTube video showing Senator Obama speaking sans Teleprompter and asked the reader to judge for themselves whether it was hyperbolic to claim --as the Times Reporter had-- that Senator rarely or never used Teleprompters before this stage of the campaign. Here is the SpinSpotter article extract. You'll need Spinoculars to see the marked up original article.

When you see errors of omission you can use similar annotation to add links to where those stories are covered. Specific to the case below, if you believe the media has chosen not to interview Ayers --and, to be fair, he may refuse interviews so as not to add to the controversy if he wants Senator Obama elected-- then you use the SpinRule "Selective Disclosure" and add links to, in that case, the most recent Ayers interviews which disclose, at least, the man's most current public statement. It wouldn't be an interview about his alleged ties to Senator Obama but it may be more disclosure than the media may have provided on whom Ayers is now.

An ABC News Columnist "ashamed to be a journalist"

I find the words of ABC News Columnist Michael S. Malone, an extract of which appears below, both heartbreaking and heartening (does that make me bi-polar?). Malone is abjectly upsets at his profession because of what he considers their bias and their apparent lack of interest in hiding it. It breaks my heart to read that he is ashamed to be a journalist; I am heartened that he had the courage --a trait I still ascribe to the well-practiced profession of journalism-- to pen this. Selfishly, this is why SpinSpotter exists. Read Malone's entire piece, here. Hat tip to LittleGreenFootballs.

The traditional media is playing a very, very dangerous game. With its readers, with the Constitution, and with its own fate.

The sheer bias in the print and television coverage of this election campaign is not just bewildering, but appalling. And over the last few months I’ve found myself slowly moving from shaking my head at the obvious one-sided reporting, to actually shouting at the screen of my television and my laptop computer.

But worst of all, for the last couple weeks, I’ve begun — for the first time in my adult life — to be embarrassed to admit what I do for a living. A few days ago, when asked by a new acquaintance what I did for a living, I replied that I was “a writer”, because I couldn’t bring myself to admit to a stranger that I’m a journalist

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The New York Times on SpinSpotter and, well...

Wow. Richard Perez-Pena at the New York Times wrote an exhaustive piece about us. I got to meet Mr. Pena while in New York as I blushed and gushed my way through the incredible new lobby of the New York Times building which is very much like a modern art exhibit on the power of words. Mr. Pena asks tough questions but also really dug into where we are at the beta stage.

On the topic of coverage, we have gotten a ton of press and some spot-on criticism from bloggers (as well as some praise). I thank anyone who took the time to think about us at all, not to mentioning writing about our little start-up.

That said ... I really feel badly about this next entry:

We are seeing some early morning action with people teaching our system by de-spinning debate coverage. User name TMills sent this piece to me ... which, I regret to add, is from the folks at the Times who just favored us with very fair and very well done coverage (of course you can de-spin that, too). You'll need Spinoculars to see it's full glory.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Firefox Very Beta Learnings + Herman's Excuse for Lack of Posts

Someone recently asked me to describe what it is like to launch a start-up. I told her it is a bit like scuba diving; you have a tank of air, things you want to accomplish with that air and a huge incentive to make that air last. Wise divers don't go it alone. It's also similar in that it's inconvenient to stick your head up while diving. So, that's my excuse for having not posted more---thanks for your patience.

Here's what's up.

Our current Firefox beta test has taught us a lot:

1. SpinSpotters must be able to find each other's work
2. People are very passionate about media bias
3. Journalists are fascinated by the promise of technologies and systems like SpinSpotter.

So, our reaction to these facts:

SpinSpotters must be able to find each other's work: Man are our users diverse in their news tastes -- from to This means we have tapped a broad audience---it also means we need to do a better job of helping SpinSpotters find the work of their peers. To accomplish this, we have decided to encourage SpinSpotters to focus on some of the top-rated news sites as the places to both go de-spin and to see what others have de-spun. We will be making that easy to do from our web page and, in the next few days, you should be able to find higher quality and quantity de-spins of Yahoo News,, CNN, The New York Times and Yahoo! News. Now, get in there with your Spinoculars and add your voice.

People are passionate about SpinSpotting: I guess we aren't the only ones, which is nice to know. The emails about the potential of SpinSpotter have been overwhelming. Because we had so much new technology to build simply to launch, we have failed to truly reward that passion by showing off the work of the people who have joined us in this very beta stage; that will change. Our next release will offer user pages so SpinSpotters can feature their work. There is an easy work-around to that while we work on the user pages: just click "email the article" after you do the work. The landing page people get isn't great and they will need Spinoculars to see all of your brilliance but, it's there. Please email me the work you do, too---I love this stuff. My name with that circled a and then our domain and the dot-com.

Journalists are fascinated: It is always nice to have people interested in your product, but for news-junkies who have long admired courageous journalism, this feels great. It also indicates what we have always felt about the vast majority of journalists: they are serious about their craft and want to understand how their readers view their work. In fact, we saw an instance just last week where, after a user marked up a news site and edited the story with Spinoculars, the news site actually changed the article in the exact way the SpinSpotter user suggested. It is possible that this was a mere coincidence -- but it still felt cool.

Thanks for reading,

Todd Herman

Monday, September 15, 2008

Response to SpinSpotter unspun

This post is in response to a post by Mark Liberman that appeared on the blog Language Log.  You can see the original post by clicking here.

Well, I can't say I've been called a "flack" before, but I guess readers can decide if it's deserved.  

Given that the top company value at SpinSpotter is transparency, I'll be as open as I can possibly be in responding to Prof. Liberman's post.  It's probably best to start with a detailed description of what SpinSpotter actually does.  

SpinSpotter consists of three key parts:

1)  An advisory board of prominent journalists from across the political spectrum who set objective rules for what constitutes “spin” in journalism.

2)  A guided form of crowd-sourcing that steers users to operate strictly within the rules handed down by the Journalism Advisory Board.

3)  A computer algorithm on the back end that aggregates and analyzes users’ input to isolate the words or phrases that, at any particular point in time, constitute the most consistently egregious instances of spin . The algorithm then leverages this knowledge across the Web by pre-marking those words or phrases wherever they appear, and asking users to rate the spin as being significant or not significant within the context of the article they're reading. So, for example, if a phrase such as "third Bush term" begins to appear repeatedly, is being consistently rated as "High" spin, and tends to consistently fall under the same rule violation, the algorithm will begin marking it as spin, and inviting users to determine if, within each particular context, it is, in fact, being used as spin.

Though there are some complexities to what the algorithm does, it's not what you would call high science. We do have some hopes for expanding the role and sophistication of algorithms in our system down the road to include at least some limited ability to infer spin all on their own. But we realized early on that the state of the technology in this area, even when using the latest in NLP (Natural Language Processing) or even LSA (Latent Symantic Analysis), simply isn't yet up to the task.

So the primary focus of our development efforts has been on developing a very guided form of crowd-sourcing - a system that, once all the kinks have been worked out, rewards objectivity, encourages participation, and makes it as difficult as possible to "game" the system. We recruited a world-class mathematician, Dr. C. Andrew Neff, to help us with this. He has been focused on the development of our trust engine, which is the set of calculations that determine the extent to which any particular user's comments will be seen by other users and influence the back-end inference algorithm.

Since our system is fundamentally user-driven, we knew and were concerned about the fact that there would be no spin markers in our system on day one (just as there were no friends in Facebook on the day it launched in 2005). We tried to address this by hiring a small group of journalism students to serve as pre-beta users. Our hope was that they could begin to populate the system with spin markers, and begin to feed the back-end algorithm so that it could start to find likely instances of spin even before we released the beta version of our software to the public. Unfortunately, this plan proved disappointing for two reasons. First, we overestimated the number of hours the students we enlisted would actually put in over the last few weeks of their summer vacations and first few weeks of classes. Consequently, the spin markers that actually appeared, being spread across a range of publications, were barely noticeable. Second, because of the limited number of spin markers being created, we were not able to generate the level of input necessary to make the back-end algorithm produce reliable, high-quality results. It could generate a good number of spin markers if we set it to its lowest trust rating, but the quality of those markers - in terms of the percentage of markers that reflected significant instances of spin - was limited. We ultimately decided is was better to launch without algorithmically-generated spin markers than to launch with suspect algorithmically-generated spin markers, because we didn't feel doing otherwise was fair to journalists, or to the reputation of our system. Of course, we could alternatively have decided to delay our launch until we felt comfortable about the breadth and depth of spin markers populating the system, but - rightly or wrongly - we felt it was more important to get our beta software out there in advance of the U.S presidential election. Given the heat we've been taking from Prof. Liberman and others over the fact that there are so few spin markers in the system, you could argue we made the wrong choice! But we're encouraged by the early activity on the system, and are hopeful there'll be a critical mass of spin markers in the system by the time election day arrives.

No matter how you slice it, we certainly didn't do ourselves any favors by making some key mistakes in our launch communications. Of particular note was a graphic that appeared on our website, since replaced, that was cited by Prof. Liberman for implying that we had in fact developed an inference algorithm capable of identifying spin all on its own. The offending graphic, which appeared on our What We Do page, showed a web page containing spin markers with three call-out boxes around it. The first box said, "SpinSpotter looks for areas of news which appear to present editorial opinion as fact or other instances of 'spin' from a published list of rules of spin." While this sentence accurately describes SpinSpotter's general intent as a company, the way the sentence was positioned in the graphic strongly implied that SpinSpotter had an algorithm to do this, independent of any user involvement. In fact, this sentence should have appeared as the heading of the graphic, and the other two call-out boxes, which describe user input and the way in which SpinSpotter learns from user input to technologically create additional spin markers, should have appeared below it to describe how the system actually works. The fact that this graphic made it into the initial release of our website without being corrected is wholly my responsibility. The graphic was a first draft sent to me shortly before launch, and in reviewing all the copy going into the site - and in the rush of needing to create some crucial copy that was missing - I failed to review it properly before forwarding it to the engineers for posting on our site. To make matters worse, in the rush of launching the service at the DEMOfall08 Conference, I did not proof that page of the site until I got back in the office several days later.

As for the press coverage Prof. Liberman cites, I wasn't there when our founder, Todd Herman, was being interviewed by The New York Times. What I do know is that on the same day Todd spoke with Claire Cain Miller of The New York Times, he also spoke with Elinor Mills of CNET, and the article Ms. Mills produced struck me as a generally accurate description of what we do. I also know that in every interview I've personally been involved in I've bent over backwards to explain how the rule set is used to guide user input, and the user input is then used to feed the algorithms. As an example, you can read the article by Jake Swearingen of Venture Beat, who, interestingly enough, chose to include within his article the offending graphic I describe above, and he still got the story straight. I also feel confident that any reporter who stopped by our booth at the DEMOfall08 Conference pavilion - a group that included the venerable Walt Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal - clearly understood that the system is fundamentally user-driven.

Two technical notes pertaining to Prof. Liberman's post. First, he is absolutely correct that the browser plug-in does not do any analysis within the user's browser, but rather "calls home" to the SpinSpotter server to see if any spin markers exist for the page the user is viewing. The reason for this is simple: Doing any calculations within the browser itself would slow the browser down, which could become really annoying for users. So we do any processing that needs to be done back at the SpinSpotter server, then upload it to the toolbar when the user arrives at the respective web page.

Second, Prof. Liberman is also correct that spin markers are unique to the page on which they were created - i.e., you can't mark up a page and then see the markers on a different incarnation of the same story (e.g., in print format, or when reading an AP story that appears in multiple publications). This is due to the fact that, to place a spin marker at the correct location within a web page, we have to work with the XPath of that marker in relation to that page. Because XPaths are like street addresses for the HTML elements on a page, they vary from page to page, and while we can interpolate between pages in some instances, we haven't been able to find a reliable way to interpolate between all. So we keep the spin markers specific to the page on which they were created. Maybe someday we'll find a trick to interpolating between all similar pages, but we aren't there yet.

The bottom line in all this is that we are proud of what we've created; but we also recognize that the beta version of the system is not yet everything we'd like it to be, and we recognize we've made some mistakes (and one key mistake in particular) in how we've presented what we do to the world. At the moment, we're in the process of fixing several early bugs, including a bug in the back-end user input algorithm which has caused us to take it offline for 2-3 days. We'd like to get the Internet Explorer version of the toolbar up and running (hopefully, within a month). And we're still working on getting enough early spin markers into the system to make it interesting for people on first use, at least across some of the top online news sites.

But, in general, we're pleased with how this first-pass beta version of the system is working, and we're excited about the possibilities. We're also incredibly open to suggestions and criticisms. We don't by any stretch claim to have gotten everything right the first time out, and we welcome the input of Prof. Liberman and anyone else willing to take the time to scrutinize what we do with a critical eye.

One final note: We've taken to heart the feedback regarding our semantic sloppiness around our use of the term "Passive Voice," and will be enlisting the help of an English professor to clean up our act.


John Atcheson

SpinSpotter Founder's Letter

Fellow SpinSpotters:

Thank you for caring enough to spend some time at SpinSpotter. I hope this means we share a love of courageously objective journalism, or perhaps an extreme distaste for spin. I hope you are already teaching our algorithm; when you find spin and mark it up, you are teaching SpinSpotter the nuances of spin.

I’ve always been a news junkie. As a radio talk show host I made no bones about my sometimes insane opinions, and I expected others to be as honest about their own. That’s why, when a politician tried to spin me, I’d ask, “Do you want to continue to evade my questions, or would you like to have an honest discussion?”

I subscribe to the idea that free democracies and freedom of the press are mutually dependent. If the people no longer trust that Free Press–as is now the case for the majority of Americans–what happens to a Free Democracy? We cannot have real honest debates on important issues until we can agree on a set of facts. A free and trusted press is key to that.

I’ve had the idea for SpinSpotter™ for ten years. Then, in 2007, I watched my mother listen to a news story that was demonstrably wrong. One that refused to address the key fact of the story. That was the final straw. I decided to leave a great job at Microsoft to do something about news spin. My mother is a smart woman, but spin is pervasive, unrelenting, and sneaky.

As a technology executive with a background in opinion radio–which is not journalism or anything close to that–I knew enough to envision a set of rules for objectivity. I also knew a brilliant coder and mathematician, Christopher Taylor, who could begin to tell me what I didn’t know–just how hard this was going to be. Our rules started with a premise: If a news provider claims to be objective and unbiased, it should make every effort to see that its product lives up to that description.

Based upon that premise, we researched journalism style books, internalized The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, and, most important, we created a Journalism Advisory Board. The distinquished members of our Journalism Advisory Board are the people who will help SpinSpotter get at the much harder elements of spin, such as why some stories are selected over others, and how to tell if corporate interests drive positive coverage. An important note on our rules: There is only one set. Conservatives, liberals, pro-business, and anti-business groups are all rated by one common rule set.

If journalism has become spin-heavy, it might be because some journalists operate in an echo chamber; I know I am susceptible to that as my non-technical friends remind me in no uncertain terms. Closeness of groups can drive closeness of opinion and a consensus thought. Aware of my own susceptibility to echo chambers, I asked my dear friend, former board member and all around heroic guy, John Atcheson, to run my company and be my boss. John is my political opposite–really, my opposite.

Thank you again for caring enough to read this far. If you haven’t done so yet, please install your Spinoculars™. And let’s take back the truth.

Todd Herman
Founder and Chief Creative Officer
Seattle, Washington