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Dangers of Spin

It seems like every advocacy group is dedicated to sending out multiple news releases and commissioning reports to put a favorable spin on information backing its positions. Their credibility can be fatally affected if they go too far.
By Susanne Retka Schill | May 21, 2012

This age of spinning and angle on the news, and worse, spinning the facts, requires critical reading skills. It seems like every advocacy group is dedicated to sending out multiple news releases and commissioning reports to put a favorable spin on information backing its positions. Groups that frequently cry wolf need to be careful. Their credibility can be fatally affected if they go too far.

As an industry magazine targeted at ethanol producers, we try to cover the topics around ethanol fairly and accurately. We’re no experts on these issues, but we work hard to be sure we talk to the experts and fairly present differing views. I have to admit that sometimes we find the major ethanol advocating organizations guilty of putting too much spin on their arguments. Sometimes, it would seem as though a clever turn of phrase is the primary goal. Ethanol’s critics are quick to remember those overstatements.

This week, it was the ethanol critic’s turn to threaten their own credibility. A report was released by the Coordinating Research Council, a nonprofit organization funded by automobile and oil companies. It charged the federal government’s testing of E15 was inadequate. The ethanol industry quickly responded. But what added credibility to the industry’s response were the comments of the U.S. DOE vehicle technology program manager. Read the article to learn more about the specifics. The anti-ethanol folks went too far in skewing a study and spinning the report.

What this did for me was add weight to the ethanol industry’s argument that many of these claims laid out against E15, and ethanol in general, are indeed blatant distortions. Am I saying I didn’t believe the ethanol industry before? No. I’ve read enough to know their basic messages are right on, and the more I read, the more of an ethanol advocate I become. But, the tendency for putting too much spin and overstating the issue makes me a skeptical reader. Having the DOE manager bluntly explain the faults of the new report makes me think that perhaps the ethanol industry advocates have not been crying wolf.

There is a lesson, though, in this week’s flawed E15 report. While beating the drums is necessary among advocacy groups, keeping the message sound, and never false, is absolutely crucial to winning over skeptics. It will be a long time before I believe any reports coming out of the oil and auto industries’ Coordinating Research Council.