Spin refers to words and phrases that aren’t fact-based, objective 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 belong in hard news.
Check out our top picks for spin in this week’s news, along with a brief explanation of why these words are important to detect. (We’ve marked the spin words in red so they’re easier to see.)
#1. Enormous strain
Spun: “If all TPS holders return or are deported, it will impose an enormous strain on a country [El Salvador] of 6.2 million people where poverty is widespread and gang violence remains a serious problem.” (The Washington Post)
Un-spun: If all TPS holders return or are deported, approximately 200,000 people would lose their U.S. permits and may return to El Salvador, a country of 6.2 million people. Currently, 17.1 percent of the Salvadoran GDP comes from personal remittances, or money being sent back from other countries, according to World Bank.
Why does it matter? This may be a significant problem, but “enormous strain” is subjective. It doesn’t specify with data the problems El Salvador could have if 200,000 people return.
Spun version: “International organisations including the UN and African Union, politicians and other Africans and Caribbeans are outraged over US President Donald Trump’s latest racist remarks.” (Al Jazeera)
Unspun version: Media outlets cited unnamed sources saying that Trump asked why the U.S. would want immigrants from “sh*thole countries,” referring to El Salvador, Haiti and countries on the African continent. Trump later denied he used that term. The U.N. human rights office spokesman called it “racist.”
Why does it matter? Calling a country a “sh*thole” is disparaging and disrespectful, and it’s possible he could believe some races are superior to others. But his comments don’t prove or disprove his beliefs about race.
#3. Penchant for obsessiveness
Spun: “People who work with proximity to the President have sometimes questioned his erratic moods, short fuse, micro attention span and penchant for obsessiveness.” (CNN)
Un-spun: People who work in proximity to Trump have criticized his behavior.
Why does it matter? This sentence is disparaging and discredits the president, and the only data-based piece of information in it is that unnamed people have opinions about Trump’s behavior. Is that hard news?
Spun: “Upon arrest, they were sent to a notorious maximum-security facility south of Riyadh.” (Al Jazeera)
Un-spun: The 11 princes were sent to a maximum-security facility south of Riyadh.
Why does it matter? It seems this facility is well-known for something bad, but what? Labeling it “notorious” may suggest these are serious criminals, but it doesn’t inform.
#5. Catastrophic crackdown
Spun: “The catastrophic crackdown by Myanmar’s military that followed the attack saw the Rohingya flee en masse, arriving in Bangladesh with chilling accounts of massacres, systematic rape and torching of villages.” (CNN)
Un-spun: The Myanmar army allegedly began “clearance operations” in Rakhine state on Aug. 25 of last year, after an opposition group, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), killed 12 people at a Myanmar police post. Rohingya allege that the operations included killings, rape and the burning of buildings. (See more on this story here).
Why does it matter? “Catastrophic crackdown” is sensationalism. Specific, unambiguous terms would better help readers understand the events that took place, and assess who’s responsible.
Spun: “Stephen K. Bannon stepped down as executive chairman of Breitbart News Network on Tuesday, ending his relationship with the far-right website that he helped become widely influential and which in turn abetted his rise as a political adviser and would-be kingmaker.” (The Washington Post)
Un-spun: Bannon resigned as executive chairman of Breitbart News. He had also worked at Breitbart before becoming an adviser to Donald Trump.
Why does it matter? The word “abet” is commonly used in the phrase “aiding and abetting,” which refers to helping the commission of a crime. Using it here may suggest Bannon didn’t earn his former position honestly.
Spun: Steve Bannon’s “full-throated, unfailing support of Roy S. Moore in Alabama even after allegations surfaced that the former judge preyed on women as young as 14, ended in an embarrassing setback: Democrats took the Senate seat for the first time in a generation.” (The New York Times)
Un-spun: Last year, Bannon publicly supported Roy Moore, who ran in, and lost, Alabama’s Senate election. Moore has been accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls; the youngest was said to be 14-years old.
Why does it matter? Given the sensitive nature of sexual misconduct allegations, it’s important to be precise and objective in the language we use. The verb “prey” means “to hunt and kill for food.” To use it here is a metaphor that furthers the notion that Moore is a predator and it may suggest he’s definitely guilty.
Spun: “The president’s chief of staff, John F. Kelly, scrambled to the Hill, while panicked aides alerted Trump to the firestorm his tweets had caused.” (The Washington Post)
Un-spun: Trump tweeted twice about a FISA surveillance renewal bill before it passed. The first tweet alleged that previous administrations used FISA to “badly surveil and abuse” the Trump campaign. The second, a couple of hours later, said the vote was “about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land. We need it!”
Why does it matter? Trump tweets a lot (2,546 times since inauguration day, to be exact), and a lot of people comment and react to them. But at what point does the response become a “firestorm”? This word adds drama to the reporting.
Spun: “It was a surprise when [Kim Jong Un] deftly seized on the Winter Olympics on Tuesday to turn toward diplomacy with Seoul, playing the part of the statesman …” (The New York Times)
Un-spun: North Korea, under Kim Jong Un, agreed to send a team to the upcoming Olympics in South Korea and hold bilateral talks on the military situation.
Why does it matter? Wait, what’s the news? The Times’ version doesn’t say what decision was made. Also, saying it was a “surprise” that Kim acted “deftly” could suggest he usually isn’t skillful.
Spun: “The decision [to discontinue research] is likely to come as a blow not only to Pfizer employees, but also the millions of people worldwide suffering from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, two neurodegenerative disorders that target memory and motor functions, respectively.” (NPR)
Un-spun: Some Pfizer employees and people with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s may feel disappointed about Pfizer’s decision to discontinue research. Millions of people have Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Why does it matter? It’s understandable that some people will have a negative view of the decision, but calling it a “blow” may imply it’s a sort of attack or strike on employees and patients. Is it?