Startup aims to spot bias in the news

By Michal Lev-Ram

SAN DIEGO – A startup called SpinSpotter wants to bring more transparency to news reporting by distributing software that it claims will detect bias in online articles.

The Seattle-based company launched its spin-catching tool, called Spinoculars, at the DEMO startup conference in San Diego. To use the service, people will first need to download a piece of software from SpinSpotter’s website. It’s free but only works on Firefox browsers; the company says a version for Internet Explorer is in the works.

Spinoculars will then appear as a toolbar on top of your browser. Pull up an article on any news site and, in theory, the program will automatically highlight any signs of spin, including lack of balance, use of personal voice and unattributed adjectives. Click on the highlighted words and a little box pulls up with an explanation of what the perceived bias is. You can also use the system to flag spin and share your own spin-free versions of articles with other users.

But in testing Spinoculars on my computer, I found the service didn’t pick up on any subjective language in multiple stories I checked across a wide range of websites, including opinion pieces on political blogs. The only exception to my experiment was a story used in the company’s demo at DEMO– a CNNMoney article on the recent government bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. (CNNMoney and Fortune are  owned by Time Warner.)

Spinoculars had issue with the use of the words “bond guru” to describe an expert quoted in the story, along with a couple of other phrases. Fair enough, but I have a hard time believing in software that takes issue with the word “guru” and yet can’t catch sentences that begin with the obviously subjective “I think” in multiple columns I tested it on.

Then again, the SpinSpotter says its service relies not only on algorithms but also on input from users to detect bias. In other words, the more people use it, the more the system should get “smarter” at detecting spin. Of course, is that every user brings his or her own biases to the table.

But even if Spinoculator succeeds in picking up on potentially problematic wording in articles, how relevant is bias-detecting software in an age where people are increasingly turning to opinion pieces, pundits and blogs?

As for its business plan, the company says it plans to make money by selling both advertising and data to media organizations and other groups. At the risk of sounding biased, let’s just say I’m skeptical.

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