Chris Trent

Here’s an example (generalized, of course) from my own experience.

Headline A: “Federal Agency Finds .03 Parts-per-Million Toxins in State Water Supply”

Headline B: “Federal Agency Finds State Water Supply’s Toxin Levels Below National Average”

Headline C: “Federal Agency Finds State Water Supply’s Toxin Levels Below EPA Thresholds”

Each of these examples could be, wholly and completely, truthful. Each, however, could carry very different meanings depending on the context. If the national average is dangerously high, Headline B is a farce, or if EPA thresholds are negligently loose, Headline C is insulting. But without any additional information, Headline A could be misinterpreted as a negative finding when it is actually good news.

I also remind folks from time to time that “Headline Z” is always an option, too. Federal agencies are not required to produce press releases and talking points for every piece of information they produce.

My point is simply that “spin” is the process by which we choose which of the four options to take. None of them are right and all of them depend on context to justify. As Danielle rightly pointed out, the question is who controls the context.

Access to the raw data gives citizens greater powers of contextualization, but citizens can, and frequently do, mis-contextualize information. Moreover, it is not just “citizens” that access the data, but interest groups and media outlets which do not necessarily have the same ethical constraints as Federal employees.

When I meet with Congressional staffers, I like to tell them that it is not my agency’s job to provide information that settles debates. It is our job to make sure that they engage in fair policy fights, with everyone having the same information.

In my opinion, it is the government communicator’s job not necessarily to disclose information most fully, but most fairly. That ought to be the standard applied when deciding which headline to write.