Spinning Presidential Politics

“Words mean something.”

I heard that line from one of the candidates for the US presidency as he chided his opponent during a stump speech.

Words do mean something, but unfortunately they can be slanted by context, tone of voice, body language, and innuendo to mean more … or less, than the original speaker intended. This, coupled with editing a fifty-minute speech into ten-second sound bites for television news shows, and a person’s message is easy to distort.

Once upon a time we called the purposeful misconstruction of meaning propaganda. Now we call it spin, or maybe advertising.

What disturbs me most is that Americans no longer know how to recognize these tactics. Unfortunately, much of what passes as campaigning these days is a war of competing commercials, written by slick campaign strategists who know what hot buttons to push.

Of course there are also media reports. Some journalists purposefully misconstrue the views of the candidate with whom they disagree. Some do so unintentionally because they too are unaware of the tactics that shape a message. (And some intentionally because they know the spin will sell more newspapers).

Although I grew up in an era that taught children in school how to recognize propaganda, covering high school sports for a local newspaper group showed me first hand how a writer shapes a story.

After all, the games I attended lasted two and a half hours, but I generally had less than ten inches of (newspaper column width) copy to write. The key was to write only the most important information. And of course, I got to decide what was important.

Should I feature the offensive line that didn’t allow a quarterback sack? The running back who gained over 150 yards? The defensive back who intercepted a pass and ran it back for a score? The place kicker who hit a 40-yard field goal with less than a minute remaining in the game?

The point is, what I left out of my story became lost to the public. Sure, the coaching staff would probably know. The parents who attended might, and the players surely would. But Average Interested Fan who read the article would know only the part of the story I wrote. Only what I considered important.

And what if I had a rooting interest? What if I wanted one team to look better than it actually was? What if I wanted to slant the story to highlight a particular player? What if I had no scruples about telling the truth?

Let me illustrate how easy this shaping is. Here are two accounts of the same (imaginary) athlete. Which one shows my bias against this quarterback?

Brown completed 14 of 22 passes, but yielded a critical intercepted at the close of the first half.

Brown completed 14 of 22 passes, including a ten-yard touchdown strike to put the Vikings ahead for good.

Not too hard to figure out, right? Both lines may be true, but what I write shines the light on this athlete so readers see him as I want them to.

All this to say, I think it is essential for a thinking people to watch news coverage and/or read articles about the political campaign with an eye to the slant that shapes the story. Otherwise, we end up spun.

Published in: on September 8, 2008 at 1:15 pm  Comments (5)  
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