How to identify media propaganda

BY ANUP KUMAR| IN Media Practice | 28/03/2017
Any news that does not contain facts and shades of opinion that allow readers to draw their own meaning is inadvertent propaganda.
ANUP KUMAR dissects this phenomenon


Recently, Ravish Kumar of NDTV-Khabar gave a speech in his characteristic idiom that was critically reflexive and simultaneously ironical. He said, “Those who throw ink have become party spokesperson, those who use ink are propagandist.”

He spoke these words while accepting the first Kuldip Nayyar Award for Journalism. Many of us, for reasons well-known, would like to interpret the criticism as being directed only towards his competition; however, he seems to be aware of his own performance as a television anchor. It is rare for television anchors, who are celebrities as well, to be critical of the role they might be unwittingly playing in any media propaganda.

Kumar has shown us that in order to think critically we first require learning to be aware. To be aware about our own strongly held “truths” about the world and normative assumptions. To be aware about how we assemble facts and draw our meanings.

This was not the first time that Kumar has talked in a self-conscious manner about the growing threat of media propaganda. He has written about it on his blog and has done exclusive shows trying to understand and explain the concept of media propaganda to his audiences.

I recall that after the unexpected results of the 2014 Lok Sabha election he explored how large sections of the media had played along with the Modi-led BJP’s campaign. Then, during the horrid media coverage of the protests in JNU, he famously switched the television screen to black with a montage of text and voice-over to draw the attention of his peers, more than that of his audiences, to how news becomes a media event that constructs a narrative which has very little to do with the event itself.

I am not one who believes that the overwhelming majority of journalists get marching orders from their owners to participate in a propaganda campaign. Yet, I do agree that the two biggest crises of contemporary news media ecology are news bubbles and inadvertent propaganda.

Today, fake news has emerged as a meme to explain lies and falsehood in the media. Propaganda is much more complex than “fake news”. Unlike in authoritarian countries where propaganda is associated with censorship routinely, propaganda in democratic countries is difficult to identify and resist.

"Yet, I do agree that the two biggest crises of contemporary news media ecology are news bubbles and inadvertent propaganda."

We often flippantly call anything in the media that seems contrary to our core beliefs and interests ‘propaganda’, such as when some on the right see sections of the English media as propagandists while many on the left see the Hindi and other Indian-language media as propagandists. Even well- corroborated facts do not change our minds. This likely happens because either granular facts do not confirm our own cognitive biases or because news journalists assemble (frame) facts in a way to produce meanings that are a result of spin or bias.

Scholars who study the social production of news tell us that all meanings in the news are social construction. News is constructed from a journalist’s observations, insights and interactions with sources. This is why it would be journalistic hubris to claim that news presents meanings that are truths out there in real world. At best, the meanings are a reflection of the truths out there.

What ensures that journalists do not weave their own version of reality is a set of professional norms and values that require them to be fact-based, relatively objective, and fair to all sides. We should be pleased to know that most journalists adhere to these professional norms. So what is propaganda and how do we identify it when we see it?

Propaganda techniques have been ensnared in reporting practices since the invention of news as a modern industrial commodity of print capitalism in the early nineteenth century. In the ensuing 100 years, these techniques have surreptitiously worked alongside legitimate news work. To understand this, it is always best to look at news organizations known for the best practices in journalism.

This is exactly what Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky did in Manufacturing of Consent. They presented a compelling portrayal of how media propaganda works within some of the best news organizations in the world. The problem is that the Herman-Chomsky Propaganda Model is less understood in all its nuances, largely perhaps because of the inductive methodology that requires careful and close reading of propaganda as a media narrative.

What is well known about their propaganda model is the influence that concentration of ownership, advertising and anti-left ideology has on media coverage making it a vehicle to sustain a capitalist political system. However, their implicit argument is that media propaganda techniques are not merely about how propagandists convert lies into truth by repetition, but how journalistic processes themselves are used to block audiences from critically thinking about the facts, opinions and meanings presented to them. For example, in the domain of foreign news Chomsky found that reporting norms privilege official sources of information as authoritative and experts associated with the establishment are included as purveyors of analysis. The voices, domestic and foreign, representing views outside the elite consensus in the U.S. were either delegitimized or blocked out. This is why unless we focus on sources in the news propaganda will be neither easy to identify or avoid both by producers and consumers of news.


Media propaganda, where it comes from?

The term propaganda did not always have the pejorative connotation that it has today, with reference to spreading lies, half-truths, and alternative facts. Throughout history, until recently, propaganda was a synonym of its rather benign cousin ‘publicity.’ There is a very thin line that separates propaganda from publicity and persuasion.

In its very basic formulation, propaganda is a set of communication strategies used to propagate or diffuse a message in a population. This is how, for example, the propaganda ministry of the Catholic Church understood the term and this is what most left-wing political parties have in mind when they create a propaganda wing in their parties.

"There is a very thin line that separates propaganda from publicity and persuasion."

The first major advancement in the dark art and science of propaganda was an American project. During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson set up The Committee on Public Information (CIP), under the leadership of George Creel, who was a journalist, to build support among the American public for fighting the war in Europe.

Chomsky writes that the Creel Committee “succeeded within six months” to make Americans eager to participate in the war to destroy Germany and everything German. The Creel Committee developed techniques and strategies that were designed for the mass media age. After the war, professionals from marketing, public relations and political campaigning re-purposed the propaganda techniques developed by the Creel Committee.

The father of modern public relations and author of Crystallizing Public Opinion, Edward Bernays, was a member of the CIP. So was Walter Lippmann, the author of The Phantom Public and the high priest of republican democracy. Additionally, the work of the CIP even inspired the propaganda techniques developed by the Nazis and Soviets.

After World War II and on the eve of the Cold War, yet another American president played a central role in advancing the propaganda model - most importantly, the view that propaganda is not always about spreading lies and repeating lies so that people will eventually come to believe the lies to be true.

President Harry Truman heralded the next phase in the development of propaganda techniques with his classification of the ‘white’, ‘grey’, and ‘black’ propaganda in his Campaign of Truth. Truman had asked the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of the CIA, to counter the ‘black’ propaganda of the Soviets with American white and grey propaganda.

"President Harry Truman heralded the next phase in the development of propaganda techniques with his classification of the ‘white’, ‘grey’, and ‘black’ propaganda in his Campaign of Truth."

Without going into complexities, for our purposes here, it should suffice to say that white propaganda is similar to classical aggressive open publicity, using facts selectively, grey propaganda relies on half-truths and techniques to suppress counter information, and black propaganda uses lies and subterfuge in secret.

One of the most successful worldwide programmes in grey propaganda was carried on by the Congress of Cultural Freedom, which was a CIA front that funded literary magazines such as Encounter, Paris Review, and Quest. The CIA-funded propagandist did not peddle lies, except in rare instances; they peddled a version of truths that had to be uncritically accepted.

According to Joel Whitney, during the Cold War, the Congress pushed capitalist ideology and even was successful in placing pro-West journalists in all major newsrooms across the world including in India. They used what can be best described as white and grey propaganda techniques that included use of half-truths, withholding of facts, discrediting sources, and distortions. Today we may associate these attributes with what we call media spin, bias, and framing.

Unfortunately, a significant part of media coverage likely falls in either white or grey propaganda, which is why propaganda in the news cannot be easily identified by merely looking for lies, falsehoods and alternative facts. In the sense of publicity, it is very hard to identify white propaganda. Yet, it is possible for both journalists and their audiences to avoid grey propaganda in most cases, and definitely black propaganda in all cases. 

In fact, in outwardly looking stable societies and seemingly functioning democracies, it is the white and grey propaganda of the 24x7 news cycle, drip by drip, that lays the ground work for authoritarianism by manufacturing consent in favour of the elite controlled power structure. For example, we have been seeing this in how media has been reporting on economic reforms without unpacking development and phrases such as “ease of doing business”. This is in spite of well-documented economic inequality and accelerating ecological degradation.  In the absence of voices of dissent in the media, who constitute a significant plurality, the ordinary person is made to believe that there is a widespread consensus on the way forward.  

"In fact, in outwardly looking stable societies and seemingly functioning democracies, it is the white and grey propaganda of the 24x7 news cycle, drip by drip, that lays the ground work for authoritarianism by manufacturing consent in favour of the elite controlled power structure."

Ironically, one of the most significant impacts of the work done by the CIP (mentioned earlier) during World War I  was on the evolution of the professional norms of journalism in the United States. Lippmann’s influential work on the role of the news media in shaping public opinion was inspired by his experience as a member of the CIP.

Lippmann advocated that journalists should rely on experts and benevolent elites as go-to sources so that the bewildered masses could be shepherded to form correct opinions on matters of public policy and national agenda. In the 1920s and 30s, when the plebian masses were rebelling against capitalist elites and simultaneously reactionary forces were normalizing fascism across the western world, Lippmann’s journalistic model seemed a logical and compelling solution to the problem.

However, his views quickly came to dominate the mainstream American media norms and values, namely that facts and opinions should be, with a few exceptions, indexed to official and corporate elite point of views. This has now been well-documented by media scholars.


How to recognize when undesired facts are blocked

The Lippmann model was adapted through journalism education and the socialization process in newsrooms around the world including in India. So one of the core objectives of any journalism course or media literacy programme, in addition to how to differentiate facts from non-facts, must be to impart knowledge and skills to identify how the news is indexed to which sources.

The professional job of reporters is to tell us what sources say. Hence, to identify all types of propaganda, critical evaluation of sources is essential, as essential as knowing if reporting is fact-based.

One of the most widely used techniques in white propaganda is the blocking of facts and opinions that go counter to a desired meaning. It obfuscates the task of fact-checking, and succeeds in masquerading as objective news by blocking facts that may undermine a reporter’s desired meaning, claim, or argument. For example, we see this in most of the reporting on terrorist activities. The information gleaned from police and investigating agencies on arrests are taken factual and objective without putting it alongside sources who may have other facts and perspectives.

White propaganda is often strategically presented as objective truth. Recognizing that absolute objectivity is an impossible goal to achieve and all news reporting is from a standpoint leads to being transparent about your standpoint as the first step against inadvertently participating in propaganda.

As media consumers, to feel relatively confident that a news item is free of any stain of propaganda, we must critically notice if a journalist has made the effort to include all possible facts and shades of opinions in the story. This does not mean “he said, she said” journalism. Falsehoods must be called out, but only after giving the opportunity to all sides to present what they see as facts and their opinions.

Moreover, critical media consumption calls for checking if the facts have been independently corroborated. Here, I do not mean that different sides must be allowed to present alternative facts, but that they must have the opportunity to present what they see as relevant facts. There are no alternative facts, but there can always be alternative meanings and opinions.

If the above is done, then media coverage will allow audiences to critically evaluate the meanings of news by looking at facts and opinions in the story itself that may challenge the dominant meaning preferred by a reporter. It is similar to the standard in a classical debate that calls for stating the “purvapaksha” along with its criticism before we present our claims and arguments.

Any news item that does not at least implicitly contain in the story itself facts and shades of opinions that make it possible for news consumers to draw their own meanings, risks coming close to being white propaganda, even if it is factual.

It may seem that it is a very high bar to avoid being propagandist but it is not impossible in news reporting. The ideal reporting norms of objectivity, factuality, and fairness to all sides in case of contestation over meaning is not a very high bar to achieve.


Anup Kumar teaches in the School of Communication at Cleveland State University



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