I’ve been thinking about how the media works, and how to push the press to cover a particular side of the story because at work, I’ve been dealing with this. (Which is one story in this whole slew of stories.) Here are my thoughts based on my experience as a student reporter, as a political candidate who relied on the media to some extent (again in college), and on my experience in the middle of the two waves of coverage in the previously mentioned story (first a few months ago with the noose, and now with the plagiarism charges).
What has passed for objective journalism in recent history consists almost entirely of “he said, she said” recitations of competing allegations.
Headline: John Kerry Denies He is a Traitor
“He said John Kerry is a traitor.”
“She said he’s not a traitor.” ((This Washington Post article from September 2004 doesn’t delve into the issue much more than this above summary – except second to last sentence which says, “some of the independent organization’s assertions were refuted.”))
Anyone reading this is left uncertain as to whether or not John Kerry is in fact a traitor. This is a typical problem in much media coverage – and one which extremists and media spinners of every political stripe have learned to exploit. Glenn Greenwald described precisely how this style is actually an abdication of the responsibility of a journalist in this post this past November:
When a government official or candidate makes a factually false statement, the role of the reporter is not merely to pass it on, nor is it simply to note that “some” dispute the false statement. The role of the reporter is to state the actual facts, which means stating clearly when someone lies or otherwise makes a false statement.
As more academics and senior journalists echo Mr. Greenwald’s point – and given the reality of being misled in the run-up to the Iraq war and during the 2004 election, many reporters to become more resistant to the simple “he said, she said” school of journalism. But they still try to maintain their facade of objectivity, which they associate with avoiding making overt judgments about what they are covering, while also telegraphing what their judgments to their readers. A prime example of this can be seen in the coverage of former Senator John Edwards. To telegraph their private belief that Mr. Edwards was a phony, many reporters included such sentences as “John Edwards, who recently made news for his $400 haircut, continued to talk about his poverty initiatives.” ((It is certainly astounding to look at how many times the $400 haircut came up in coverage of Mr. Edwards’ campaign.))
Especially given these realities about reporting, “spinning” the media coverage becomes essential for any subject of reportage. Spinning can be defined as an attempt to get journalists to insert implied judgments and premises favorable to a particular side into their reporting.
Effective spin is a dialogue; it takes this into account each reporter’s preconceptions (and as most of the press operates as a herd, this isn’t as hard as it could be) and excuses these preconceptions while pushing the story in a friendly direction. This involves creating storylines that engulf the previous stories: taking all the other angles into account, explaining them, and setting the reporters in a different direction. The last thing any reporter wants to hear is that they are wrong or biased – rather they must be told that they only were able to get to half of the story by their deadline. When the other half of the story unfolds, the reporter is able both to save face and move the narrative in a favorable direction. This is successful spin.