COLUMBIA — Republican convention delegates, liberal bloggers, lipstick-wearing hockey moms and anarchists unite: Rooting out media bias is now just a mouse click away.
Hoping to invite news consumers behind the information-gathering curtain, a Seattle entrepreneur and former Microsoft executive has created a new user-driven Web tool he says helps track media spin.
SpinSpotter made its debut at the DEMO technology conference in San Diego earlier this week. On Friday, creator Todd Herman unveiled his product to hundreds of students, professors and working journalists gathered at a centennial celebration of the MU School of Journalism, the world's oldest.
Herman is no mean-spirited media critic: He speaks of an abiding passion and respect for journalism's role in promoting democracy. But he's all too aware that among the masses, the media's credibility keeps sinking.
"Our complete mission is to bring transparency to the news," he said. "We do not want opinion-neutered folks writing news. But knowing that we as human beings have opinions, we want to keep opinions out of the news.
Like Wikipedia, SpinSpotter relies on its users to serve as editors. A proprietary algorithm locates words and phrases that violate six tenets culled from the Society of Professional Journalists' ethics code: personal voice, lack of balance, passive voice, biased source, disregarded content and selective disclosure.
The site's "Spinoculuars" function highlights offending passages in red; readers can then click those passages for details of the transgression.
To avoid the very claims of bias he hopes to highlight, Herman — a self-described conservative who also worked for MSNBC.com — assembled an advisory board of journalists across the ideological spectrum, from The Nation contributor Brooke Allen to National Review's Jonah Goldberg.
Herman's liberal counterpart at SpinSpotter is Chief Executive Officer John Atcheson, the founder of interactive service MusicNet. In addition, a group of SpinSpotter "referees" — primarily journalism graduate students across the country — filter and oversee user comments.
Missouri journalism professor Marty Steffens, a former newspaper editor and SpinSpotter advisory board member, said the site could be especially useful for consumers of business news, where readers and investors "know how exact words need to be to not roil the market."
She also hopes the site can serve as a reminder that the vast majority of professional information gatherers are reporting and writing news free of their own personal beliefs.
"The specter of media bias is being raised all the time, from the business world to political campaigns," she said. "Some of it is ill-founded. Maybe one of the uses of this software could be to show that it's not as bad as we think it is."
Still, some media watchers are leery of relying on a computer program to police what remains a decidedly humanistic endeavor.
"Even if SpinSpotter could somehow perfect its algorithms and unerringly remove all the human perspective and reporter's voice from the articles it points at, you'd find there's nothing of any value left," wrote blogger Scott Rosenberg, a Salon co-founder.