‘Spin’ can’t be avoided but good journalism can beat it-A A +A
Friday, October 25, 2013
“IN THE midst of the cacophony of voices, the journalist must be able to separate the important from the frivolous, the spin from the facts, the malicious lies from the simple truth.”
--President Noynoy Aquino, at the annual presidential forum of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines, Manila Hotel, Oct. 23, 2013
THE SPIN has acquired a bad reputation largely because of the selfish interest of the spinner: he provides a favorable slant to a news item, actually or potentially unpopular, on behalf of a political personality.
The spinner is usually a public relations person who, for his client, emphasizes the positive and ignores the negative in an incident.
Some examples: Capitol is not able to pay its bills. Its p.r. guys say it’s just a cash problem, not an impending bankruptcy. A politician is rushed to a hospital. No major illness, just a routine checkup. A mayor breaks up with his wife allegedly over a woman 20 years younger. A period of adjustment for the couple and the girl is a relative working through school.
Spin is a modern process that has evolved through the years, getting more sophisticated as the thrusts in handling media become more complex.
In the U.S., after a major speech of the president, p.r. persons issue a press release focusing on the message they want publicized (say, the need for gun control or the merits of Obamacare), talk with reporters at press-con, contact columnists, commentators, and other opinion makers. Besides the p.r. guys, Cabinet members go the rounds of talk shows to hammer on the theme they want the nation to hear.
Locally, in a smaller scale, the governor may tap p.r. persons to employ various means to influence media to play up, say, how the public benefits from the study trip of Provincial Board members to the U.S. A former governor, in coping with bad publicity, used to field p.r. guys to suggest to reporters the lead of the story they’d write.
The spin is a legitimate tool of news sources who want to see in the news the aspect they want top-billed. And increasingly, p.r. outfits have been finding new methods and sharpening old skills in getting into the head of reporters and editors and opinion makers and helping shape content and tone of stories and comments in the next newspaper or newscast.
Choosing the focus
Journalists cannot avoid the spin. Persons in the news use it when they issue statements. Publicists use it for their clients. Even those who tip off reporters and editors pick the focus of what they dish out.
The spin also helps get the “balance” journalists aim for, which requires giving both sides of an issue in a fair way so that media’s public can make up its own mind.
But the journalist may be reminded there’s the other side he must seek out, which the spinner purposely omits because it’s likely to injure his personal interest: his or his client’s.
Efforts at balance help the reporter and the editor decide which slant to use.
(Criticism of some media consumers that a story is “slanted” is off-mark since each news item has a slant. Journalists prefer to use “focus” or “lead” but it is unmistakably a slant.) The right focus, lead or slant gives the true value of the story and helps the reader understand the event or issue.
To beat the spin means not to allow it to control decision-making by the reporter and the editor. The journalist studies the spin and rates its worth but he also looks at the other aspects of the story and decides the lead, which usually also determines the story’s headline.
The reporter verifies the facts of the spin to find out which has been bent or twisted and whether, matched against other facts or the other version of the story, is apparently true and not b.s.
The editor reviews the reporter’s assessment and upholds it or reverses it: a part of the story buried in the 10th paragraph may be rescued and placed on top.
Using same tools
The correspondents the president was speaking to are not sole arbiters of what is important or frivolous, spin or fact, malicious or true.
They help in the news process but a lot of decision-making is done by people at news desks who may have a different idea about which is chaff and which is grain.
I suppose the message also gets to editors who, a former local official once said, are made insensate by central air-conditioning and cannot hear the masses’ shriek of joy or painful groan outside the newsroom.
But the president’s p.r. guys should explain to him the media process and how most journalists try hard “to keep their eyes on the ball” and don’t engage in “a conspiracy” against him.
The crooks are mostly lawmakers who controlled PDAF money but DAP funds, which PNoy controls, also involved bogus NGOs. When the question of possible misuse, along with the constitutionality of DAP, was raised, media had to report it. The “caveat” though was that media must not obscure the pork barrel scandal and not report an allegation as fact.
Probably some PNoy critics wanted to get even with him for the plunder charges filed and distract the nation from the mother issue of pork barrel fraud, but that’s how the ball rolls in the publicity game.
But there’s a correction mechanism both sides can use: the right of reply. A distortion in the paper or the broadcast can be answered and exposed in the next news cycle.
And come to think of it: both PNoy and his enemies employ the same tools of media handling, including the spin. In talking about conspiracy against the administration, isn’t the Palace precisely doing a spin?
(firstname.lastname@example.org)reporter and the editor know they got it right.
Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on October 25, 2013.