Spin journal

Analyzing and researching an important news story from three different perspectives

You will analyze a news story, choosing 3 news articles covering the story in the news. You’ll be looking for evidence of bias, filtering, etc.—differences in coverage explainable in terms of biased reporting. The bias could be political, could be commercial, and the use of techniques designed to deceive, either by the news media outlet or by newsmakers. The book ‘How to detect media bias & propaganda’ is your guide—you’ll want to read through it carefully, probably more than once (it’s short! Well … tiny), to help you identify and describe the techniques of manipulation covered by the authors. Note: Part of this assignment involves choosing a story where there are some pretty clear differences of political perspective, especially where the stakes are high. As per the course’s title.

So, just to make it clear: one story, three versions of it, spread across outlets with left, center and right-leaning political tendencies. This makes your choices important. Definitely you’ll want the stories appearing on the same day, as you know how news stories  and politicians’ spin on the previous day’s quotes can change rapidly.

Spin involves the manipulation of language, used to defend one’s views, attack others’ move public opinion, etc.—is but one of many techniques used to try to influence. For instance, was the war in Iraq about freedom and democracy? Or oil? Why were Iraq’s (alleged) weapons referred to in the US by politicians and the media as ‘weapons of mass destruction’ while the US’ weapons had names like ‘smart bombs,’ ‘precision munitions,’ ‘daisy cutters’ and ‘bunker busters?’ Did the enemies of the U.S. really hate our freedoms? Or did they have quarrels with U.S. foreign policy? Did the US military ‘torture’ prisoners, or engage in ‘enhanced interrogation?’ Is a person who supports a woman’s reproductive rights pro-choice, pro-abortion, or anti-life? Are those who oppose abortion pro-life, anti-abortion or anti-choice? Is the republican party really the party of family values? Are the democrats really the champions of the poor? Was President Obama a socialist? Is President Trump a fascist? Is withholding evidence of state-sponsored spying on US journalists really about national security, or avoiding bad press?

There are many techniques designed to ‘frame’ issues in deceptive and self-serving ways, and part of what I’ll be looking for in your paper is whether you can identify them when they are used by people in the news, and by those who report the news. This means knowing the story well, so the other major requirement is to do some background research on the topic (at least 3 outside sources).

Deception could come from individuals quoted in an article, it could be the spin of the media outlet or the author of the story, or the author might take an entirely uncritical view of quotes or statements in the story (reporting newsmakers’ spin as straight news). Even the headline of an article can be spun—so watch for spin, deception and propaganda in different places.

Some basic rules

  • Same topic please! Choose a story that covers the same topic. In other words, choose three articles covering the same story in the same time period, so they’re comparable. Also . . . the story must be something happening during the term—this is a class dealing with current events, not last year’s news.
  • Things to avoid. Among the three versions you choose to compare for your story:
    • Avoid editorial articles—Your assignment is to compare/contrast news stories—the reader should expect spin from an op-ed (editorial). Although you could supplement your stories by reading editorials to help you with your analysis and identifying different perspectives. Now it may be true that some news is editorialized, but you should be able to tell the difference between an article that is reporting, versus one that is clearly an opinion piece (Note: If you see ‘opinion’ or ‘views’ in the URL, I will, too when I look at your citations). Stick with articles that at least claim to be news. No editorials! The insidious part of the commercial news business is when editorials are sold as news, and it happens all the time in story selection, sources used, language used, etc. Don’t get caught doing what we’re trying to expose in this class—it would suggest a learning deficit.
    • No more than one newswire story (e.g., Reuters, Associated Press). Many news organizations subscribe to newswires and can use their stories in their own papers/websites. That means that they may reflect more the perspective of the newswire than the subscribing organization (but the organization did choose to carry it, right?), and you may not find variation from one site/paper to the next if they’re both carrying the same newswire story—nothing to compare, and that won’t be good for your analysis or grade because you should have caught it when documenting the source. It also means that the same AP or Reuters or Cox story covered by two outlets might read pretty much the same. So part of this assignment requires you be able to identify if you’ve chosen a newswire story. Know your original sources.
  • Choosing stories, sources. You must choose one article from each of these three groups:
  • Doing background research on your story. There are many ways to do this—use your common sense. What do you need to know to understand the story and its dimensions, and from what sources? Some examples:
    • Looking up an organization, who funds it, whether it’s affiliated with one party or movement
    • Looking up the author(s) of the stories
    • Informing yourself by checking out reference sources (e.g., a reputable scientific website, a non-profit research cite [Pew Research, for instance], a LexisNexis or Google News search of previous coverage), other prior news coverage on the topic (from enough sources not to fall into a bias trap on the research), a report issued by a public or non-profit agency, etc. Lots of ways to go (some resources here, too). So be smart about the sources you use that help you understand the story better so you can analyze it for this assignment. A minimum of three outside sources required (above and beyond the three versions of the story you chose). One of those can be the ‘How to detect’ booklet. And remember, journalists try to seek the truth and report it–not our personal truth, but verifiable, fact-based truth.

Resources for completing this assignment:

The ‘How to detect media bias and propaganda’ book gives you examples of deception in action. I would recommend ordering it through the Critical Thinking Foundation’s website, the price has increased, alas, and a downloadable pdf is no longer available.

News weblogs

There are many ‘weblogs’ whose owners analyze, critique, and/or fact-check the day’s news.

  • You can find a small slice of the more trafficked ones here.
  • The blogs will give you many ideas about various angles taken in stories.

Watchdog sites and other possible resources:

These sites keep an eye on news outlets and coverage they suspect of bias (a few examples):

  • FAIR (fairness and accuracy in reporting)
  • Mediaite (news on the news)
  • Columbia Journalism Review (their takes on coverage)
  • PRWatch covers the PR industry and media spin (one of their sites, Sourcewatch, is good for investigating various organizations and agencies). You can use this site to look up information on sources, for instance (e.g., if a story cites a think tank-funded study).
  • Politifact. Fact-checking from the Poynter Institute.
  • The Course Resources page will provide you with some ideas

Even fact checkers could have subtle biases, though. Remember—sometimes ‘left-right’ controversies are just distractions—there may be other biases at work. You should keep that in mind as you go through them, lest you get caught up in the same rhetoric we cover extensively. Also, you can get more resources from the course site’s resources page.

You will produce a report, covering a news story from three different sources and three different points on that political spectrum. It should be 5-7 pages in length, double-spaced—plus a short conclusion. Here’s how points will be distributed:

Story/article choice
Choose from each ‘group,’ a story of political importance (choose wisely, mistakes here cost down below, too)
Summarize the story and use the tools provided to analyze each version of it; support your conclusions with evidence from the articles
Writing, citing sources
Proofread mercilessly, organize, and conclude. Full citations, not URLs!
Story research
Using credible source material: Demonstrated use of blogs, other websites to research a story topic, authors, fact check/watchdog sites; and meaningful use of the ‘How to detect bias’ book
Total points

Good advice:

  • Choice—your choice of a story and articles is important. You’ll want to find three sources that report on the same event or issue, preferably on the same day, and stick to stories of political importance. So a big mistake would be to choose a story where you’re not likely to find any differences—for instance where the political stakes may be low, or where the public simply yawns (e.g., an overthrow of the government in Thailand, or the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh, or famine and war in Yemen), won’t work well for this assignment. They are truly important stories, but American outlets won’t put much effort into covering them because so few Americans follow news that doesn’t directly involve Americans. And … No historical stories—they must be happening during the term.  Make sure you are not using the same story appearing on two different sites (e.g., from the same newswire, like Associated Press, or Reuters).
  • Discussion—you need to exhibit some insight (imagine …). What did you learn? What are the meaningful differences of the story versions you chose? Did the authors seek out credible sources, or go with political hacks repeating talking points? Start with a brief summary, and move into analysis of the articles, the points made, research you’ve done on the topic, the authors, sources, word length, context, etc. Use what we’ve learned in class, and the ‘How to detect media bias & propaganda’ handbook to identify techniques of deception or persuasion being used, and to try to explain the differences between each source’s coverage of the story. This is where choice of sources and story are key. Don’t get so caught up in the story that you forget the point—to analyze its coverage. Yes, summarize it, show you understood it, but the analysis has to do with how the three sources covered it (presumably, differently). Be wary of pushing your own agenda on a story–it will shine through, and not necessarily in a way that highlights insights gleaned from class.
  • Documentation—full citations at the end of the assignment. Original sources (some news sites pull stories from other sources—but the cite should include the original source)! Documentation can also include location (front page, home page, living section, etc.), word length (if you copy and paste into word, you can go to the ‘tools’ menu and do a word count), what sources are used in the article (are they identified, who are the individuals, are they experts, do they work for think tanks, industry, academe, etc.?). Then you may want to check out a source on Google, or sourcewatch, to see if an ‘expert’ sold to the news audience as independent might in fact have a conflict of interest (keep that ‘tools‘ page in mind). Also—show, don’t just tell—don’t make statements without supporting them with evidence or quotes from your articles. You must show me you read them, absorbed them, analyzed the differences, and can point them out in a logical fashion that exhibits what you’ve learned from the ‘How to detect media bias & propaganda’ book and the class.
  • Research/detective work—You need to do research on the topic, on sources quoted in the article, organizations mentioned in the article, the author, etc. If there is any scientific component, you should present that perspective, and obviously any efforts to cloud the scientific issues or the credibility of sources. The resources page has lots of possibilities in terms of looking things up, whether it be a reporter and his/her credentials, website and who funds it, an ‘expert’ and his/her credentials among peers, history behind the topic you’ve chosen, etc. Then you may want to check out a source on Google, or sourcewatch (an excellent source), to see if any of the ‘principals’ in the article have any ideological baggage or commercial interests, unbeknownst to the audience.
  • Following the ‘rules’—I expect that you’ll follow the structure I’ve laid out for this. You simply cannot do this assignment well in less than five pages, double-spaced. Nor can you do this well if you start in the last week of the course. We will have by this time placed great emphasis on the credibility of outside sources used (one always strives for ‘unimpeachable,’ but the key is to disclose any implicit biases), so you will want to do the same in your paper. This is the assignment that demonstrates you pulled together key elements of the class and applied them to a real-world setting, and showed you learned something of value in the process that you were able to communicate. Grades will be earned accordingly.
  • Insight gleaned—Your last paragraph should be a reflection of what you learned from this exercise. If you enjoyed it great, hated it, I’m sorry, but what did you get out of it? Be thoughtful.

100 pts possible, Due Sept 1