The Raw Data
Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.
We use the word “spin” to refer to words and phrases that aren’t fact-based or measurable. Instead, they’re inherently vague or dramatic, and when reporters use them they’re often presenting their own opinion as if it were fact. Such language is useful in some types of writing, such as novels or poetry, but it doesn’t lend itself to objective news.
Check out our top picks for spin in this week’s news, along with a brief explanation of why these words are particularly important to detect. (We’ve marked the spin words in red so they’re easier to see.)
Spun: “An explosive White House tell-all hit the bookshelves Friday as President Trump ramped up his attacks on the author’s credibility, saying overnight that Michael Wolff’s account is ‘full of lies.’” (Fox News)
Un-spun version: Michael Wolff’s book was released on Friday and Trump posted on Twitter, saying it was “full of lies, misrepresentations and sources that don’t exist.”
Why does it matter? On Amazon’s order page, Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury” is promoted as an “explosive book” that tells a “riveting story” about the “chaos in the Oval Office.” Why are news outlets adopting this same jargon when the media is in the business of reporting news, not marketing?
#2. Brazen extreme
Spun: “Every president likes to take credit when things go well and pass along blame when they go poorly, but no president is as willing to take that pattern to its brazen extreme like Donald Trump.” (The Atlantic)
Un-spun version: Trump said on Twitter that he has been “very strict” on commercial aviation and there were “zero deaths” in 2017. Neither the Trump administration nor the Federal Aviation Administration have announced changes to commercial aviation rules or regulations since he has been in office.
Why does it matter? This is opinion stated as fact. It isn’t necessary and doesn’t help inform readers about what has, or in this case, hasn’t happened.
Spun: “Iran’s economy has been battered by years of U.S. and international sanctions, which isolated the Islamic republic for its nuclear program.” (The Washington Post)
Un-spun version: Iran has been under U.S. and international sanctions since 1996.
Why does it matter? The Post’s statement that the Iranian economy is “battered” doesn’t give us any measurable facts about how the sanctions affected the country.
Spun: In U.S.-Pakistani relations, “The latest round of tit-for-tat attacks between the two reluctant allies, neither of whom trusts the other, was ignited by Trump’s tweet” on New Year’s Day. (AP)
Un-spun version: Trump posted a comment about Pakistan on Twitter on Jan. 1, then Pakistan’s National Security Council met on Jan. 2 and released a statement that said American leadership “contradicted facts.”
Why does it matter? Saying that “tit-for-tat attacks” were “ignited” isn’t factual reporting about what each party said. Could this kind of spin heighten the drama and even encourage more conflict?
Spun: “CNN — after Breitbart News contacted its corporate communications leadership — stealthily removed [part of] the article without notifying readers.” (Breitbart)
Un-spun version: Breitbart News contacted CNN regarding misinformation in one of CNN’s articles and CNN removed the inaccuracy from its website.
Why does it matter? The word “stealthily” could imply that CNN had done something bad — knowingly — and was trying to hide it. In cases like this, readers would be better informed with evidence rather than insinuation.
#6. Buying bona fides
Spun: “Americans displayed their buying bona fides in the final run-up to Christmas, turning out in force to produce what may be the best holiday shopping season in years.” (Bloomberg)
Un-spun version: During the 2017 holiday season, Americans spent an estimated $671 billion, a 5.5 percent increase from the year before, according to an estimate from Customer Growth Partners.
Why does it matter? “Bona fides,” means “evidence of one’s good faith;” so does “buying bona fides” mean shopping in good faith? In what did shoppers have faith, and how does Bloomberg know?
Spun: Petrobras is trying “to emerge from the scandal that has entangled two former Brazilian presidents and dozens of the country’s corporate executives.” (Reuters)
Un-spun version: As part of the Petrobras investigation, Brazil’s then-President Dilma Rousseff and former-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva were found guilty of crimes.
Why does it matter? It is more objective to tell readers that two former presidents were convicted of crimes, than to say they were “entangled.”
Spun: “The president’s tweet is, once again, circumstantial evidence of his copious television watching—his Tuesday missives closely track stories on Fox News—though he denies he consumes TV.” (The Atlantic)
Un-spun version: President Donald Trump tweeted about commercial aviation on Tuesday, and Fox News reported on the subject that day as well. Trump has previously denied that he watches 4 to 8 hours of television daily and that he watches particular news stations.
Why does it matter? The Atlantic doesn’t explain why readers should care whether Trump watches a “copious” amount of television, nor does it give a measure of what constitutes “copious.” Yet the way it is used here suggests Trump is doing something he shouldn’t be.
Spun: Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on Thursday that he was rescinding an Obama-era policy that had paved the way for legalized marijuana to flourish in states across the country… (Politico)
Un-spun version: Sessions issued a memo that rescinded five Department of Justice memos from the Obama administration that had deprioritized the prosecution of marijuana-related offenses under certain conditions.
Why does it matter? Saying marijuana “flourished” sounds like a pretty significant increase, but it doesn’t really tell us how much usage went up. Given this kind of language, how could we evaluate the significance of the memos?
#10. Unwitting buffoon
Spun: “[Michael Wolff’s] book essentially paints Trump as an unwitting buffoon who doesn’t read, can’t settle on political priorities and is unable to manage a warring cast of advisers who spend their days fighting.” (The Washington Post)
Un-spun version: Journalist Michael Wolff is releasing a book called “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” which includes criticism of President Donald Trump.
Why does it matter? Wolff’s book is indeed disparaging of Trump and his White House. But by using the subjective and disparaging phrase “unwitting buffoon,” the Post reinforces the insults.