Prompt: Spin

The prompt this week was an exercise in writing spin, the tangle we weave when at first we deceive.

Spin is a form of propaganda, a public relations, marketing, and political writing and speaking style to slant the bias interpretation of news, events, campaigns, corporation stances, and products. Manipulative and deceptive, spin uses cleverly phrased words and phrases to twist the truth. Children caught “red-handed” will often spin a yarn (where the term originates) to exaggerate or obfuscate the truth.

The prompt exercise was to pick a newsworthy topic and report on it three ways to explore the concept of spin. We did this in teams of three but it may be done by an individual.

  1. Write a non-biased report of the topic or news item. Keep to the facts.
  2. Write a negative slant on the topic.
  3. Write a positive slant on the topic.

Examine the words in each.

  • Which words are neutral?
  • Which are influential?
  • Which are inflammatory?
  • Which was easier for you to write and why?

Spin doctoring, mastering the art of writing and speaking spin, is a craft based upon Socratic Questioning and rhetoric. Socratic Questions is part of critical thinking, asking enough questions to get the listener to think more about the situation, thus your arguments may become theirs as they question their rationale.

Spin writing was also called rhetoric, explained by Plato as an essential part of the “smooth-tongued oration that would inflame passions and distort the truth.”

In “The History of Political Spin (And Why It’s Not So Bad for Us As You’d Think)” on the Washingtonian, the author describes how Teddy Roosevelt used his famous PR strategy to redirect the citizens to a more hopeful attitude in a country starving and suffering.

Roosevelt reinvented presidential addresses, in those days reserved for lengthy speechmaking in honor of national anniversaries, and turned them into almost daily news events. The presidential secretary, whose role had been expanded under McKinley to include the care and feeding of the press, now offered reporters informal sit-downs with TR, even while he was in his barber’s chair—and distributing wax-cylinder recordings of his speeches. The presidential tour around the country to bolster a political point was another Roosevelt innovation.

Neil Rackman’s book, “Spin Selling,” describes the SPIN cycle as an acronym for situation questions, problem questions, implication questions and need-payoff questions.

Writing spin involves answering these questions:

  • What is the situation and how does it need to change and in whose favor?
  • What is the problem? Clearly identify it. Then ask yourself, is this really the problem or is it something else? A problem with air quality could actually be a bigger problem if the industry closed down and took its jobs somewhere else.
  • What is the implication of the situation and problem? Who and what is harmed? At risk? Potentially damaged? Why? Look at all of the consequences.
  • Identify the need or payoff. Who wins? Who loses? Why? How? Who needs to win the most and why? How do the words chosen sway an opinion or decision toward the desired outcome?

When it comes to writing fiction, we are spinning a tale, taking the reader on a biased journey through their imagination, often leading them down paths they never considered placing a foot, closing the book with their mind stretched into new directions, life journeys altered.

This example of spin explained comes from Shannon L. Alder, author and creator of Shannonisms:

Never give up on someone with a mental illness. When “I” is replaced by “We”, illness becomes wellness.

Famous author, E.B. White said:

I have yet to see a piece of writing, political or non-political, that does not have a slant. All writing slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular.

The art of spin is popular in movies, “Wag the Dog” is a prime blatant example, but there are more subtle examples, too. In the movie, “Promised Land (2012),” the main character, Steve, arrives in a small town as a top sales agency for a natural gas fracking company. Similar to his own impoverished hometown, he is eager to help the people in this small farming community take this “free money” opportunity to get rich quick. At first, people are eager for his arrival and offers. When a local science teacher objects, they pause and reconsider, allowing an environmental advocate to step in and question their loyalty to generations of farming with damning evidence of the impact of fracking. The town sides with him, yet you feel for Steve as he battles against this interloper. As an audience member, you feel yourself shifting sides throughout the story to the stunning but inevitable conclusion.

We are surrounded by media that specializes in convincing us to buy, vote, and choose one side or the other, rarely giving us a chance to make our own decisions based upon unbiased information.

Even reporting on the same subject, news media is found to slant toward their bias. ScienceNews magazine reported recently on how a computer can now determine bias.

Consider this excerpt from The National Review, an outlet that self-identifies as conservative:

“I’m hitting the road to earn your vote because it’s your time, and I hope you’ll join me on this journey.”

Or this slice, featured by The Nation, which self-identifies as liberal:

“Everyday Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion.”

From the quotes alone, you might not be able to tell whether the news outlet is liberal or conservative. But a computer probably can. Scientists developed an algorithm that, after churning through more than 200,000 quotes from 275 news outlets, discovered bias in their quote choice. Creating a graph that grouped media outlets by their selected quotes reveals pockets that pretty accurately reflect the political leanings of the outlets. The research suggests that information about an outlet’s political stripes is embedded in quote choice, surrounding context aside.

“Readers might experience very different personalities of the same politician, depending on what the news outlets they follow choose to quote from that politician’s public speeches,” says Cornell computer scientist Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, a coauthor of the study…Even though readers are exposed to the politician’s own words, “the part of the speech the reader has access to changes,” he says.

Look at the word choices and how they influence your thinking. Learn how to spot them in your own writing as well as use them to sway other characters or the reader.

For more information on writing spin and the art of spin doctors:

Today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups… So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing.
Philip K. Dick


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