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date: 15 November 2019

Propaganda and Journalism

Summary and Keywords

Journalism defined itself as a profession in opposition to sensationalism and propaganda at the beginning of the 20th century. The American Society of News Editors statement of principles was written to codify “sound practice and just aspirations” of journalism after the public learned how the press was complicit in misinforming and deceiving the American people during World War I. As part of a massive propaganda campaign to win support for the war, the government fed false information and misleading stories to the press to make the public see the war as they desired it to be seen. Most definitions of propaganda converge toward the idea of organized influence on group attitudes through manipulation of symbols for a desired purpose of propagandist. The ASNE 1923 statement of principles clearly differentiated journalism from propaganda by its processes (to inform and scrutinize) and its purpose (to hold power accountable). However, many times since then the news media have been often accused of unintentionally becoming one of the most effective vehicles of political propaganda. Journalism’s proximity to the political world, and at the same time its obligation to bring independent and impartial scrutiny to that world, creates a set of contradictions and opens cracks where propaganda can get a foothold. In the political world, truth is to a large degree subjective and irreducible to facts. Journalistic practices that equate truth to a collection of facts, without questioning of why these particular facts are chosen and how they are presented, introduce various biases that amount to propaganda. Subtle suggestions based on facts, and faulty interpretations that do not follow from facts make propaganda truly dangerous because it is hidden behind ideologies of a free and objective press. With the growing mastery of media technology, propaganda is becoming an even more formidable force, perhaps easier to detect but more difficult to combat.

Keywords: public opinion, news, truth, facts, influence, bias, audience, effects, journalism studies

The Many Meanings of Propaganda

Propaganda is a dirty word. To call something propaganda instantly identifies it as a lie, distortion, or deception. In everyday use, the word “propaganda” is almost always used as an all-purpose insult, to delegitimize a statement of a speaker, or to show a disagreement with any opinion one does not like. As expressing and publicizing one’s convictions or beliefs, the term has a non-controversial meaning similar to how it was originally used in the 17th century by the Roman Catholic Church to refer to the organization, Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, dedicated to dissemination of its teaching in foreign non-Catholic countries. In Protestant countries, where the congregation was spreading its beliefs, the term had acquired a pejorative meaning by the mid-19th century (Cunningham, 2002). In the broadest sense, propaganda as a means of human communication, can be almost everything (Bernays, 1928), and as a technique of mass influence, it can be everywhere (Pratkanis & Aronson, 1992).

The sample of the definitions in Table 1 shows that there is no standard definition of propaganda. Propaganda can be defined by answering the classic questions pertinent to the study of any form of communication: “Who says what, how and why, to whom, and with what effect?” These questions also suggest various dimensions, such as motives, methods, purposes, and objectives, as bases for the classification of various approaches to analysis of propaganda (Doob, 1948). In terms of motives, most definitions consider propaganda to be intentional (i.e., deliberate and systematic) activity, but propaganda can also be unintentional when an individual is not aware of promoting a particular idea (Doob, 1935) but repeats those ideas in validation of one’s own biases, wishes, hopes, and fears (Lippmann & Merz, 1920). Methods and techniques of propaganda are diverse, but most definitions focus on manipulation of representations (i.e., symbols), messages, or by the psychology of individuals and persuasion. Many definitions identify propaganda by its self-interested purpose although acknowledging that the concealment of a true purpose is one of the main features of successful propaganda. Despite negative connotations the term “propaganda” carries in everyday use, most definitions are neutral regarding its objectives or consequences. Calling propaganda good or bad is unavoidably based on some subjective or socially and philosophically prejudiced criteria applied to either its goals or methods.

Propaganda is a multi-dimensional, multi-level, and multi-temporal concept, and after 90 years of propaganda scholarship, attempts to capture the “true” meaning of the concept continue. Propaganda may be disseminated by individuals, interpersonal networks, organizations, or nations. And its effects may be elaborated or diminished at all these levels. Processes and effects of propaganda are also thought to be affected by the economic and social conditions prevailing at a given period. No definition of propaganda will thereby be optimal for all levels or times. Defining propaganda in more specific ways, such as in Sproule and Parry-Gilles’s definitions, limits its scope to only particular social conditions and within communication practices akin to institutionalized advertising and public relations, whereas more general and inclusive definitions of Lasswell, Bernays, and Kenez present the challenge of distinguishing propaganda from other forms of communication such as education, news, publicity, or art (Fellows, 1957). A clear demarcation line is weakened in practice where propaganda is routinely camouflaging as just factual information or innocuous entertainment to achieve its full potential. Propaganda in a democracy is always hidden and is most powerful when undetected.

Table 1. Propaganda Definitions

■ Propaganda is the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols (Lasswell, 1927, p. 627).

■ A consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea or group (Bernays, 1928, p. 52).

■ An expression of opinion or action by individuals or groups deliberately designed to influence opinions or actions of other individuals or groups with reference to predetermined ends (Miller, 1939).

■ A process which deliberately attempts through persuasion-techniques to secure from the propagandee, before he can deliberate freely, the responses desired by the propagandist (Henderson, 1943, p. 83).

■ The attempt to affect the personalities and to control the behavior of individuals towards ends considered unscientific or of doubtful value in a society at a particular time (Doob, 1948, p. 240).

■ Biased communication is a sophisticated term for propaganda, a word feared or avoided by all objective people and therefore a source of darkness and obscurity since nobody wants to talk about it but nevertheless everybody uses it. (Dovring & Lasswell, 1959, p. 5).

■ The deliberate attempt by some individual or group to form, control, or alter the attitudes of other groups by the use of the instruments of communication, with the intention that in any given situation the reaction of those so influenced will be that desired by the propagandist (Qualter, 1962, p. 27).

■ A set of methods employed by an organized group that wants to bring about the active or passive participation in its actions of a mass of individuals, psychologically unified through psychological manipulation and incorporated in an organization (Ellul, 1965, p. 61).

■ Propaganda is nothing more than the attempt to transmit social and political values in the hope of affecting people’s thinking, emotions, and thereby behavior (Kenez, 1985, p. 4).

■ Propaganda is the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist (Jowett & O’Donnell, 1986, p. 7).

■ Any conscious and open attempt to influence the beliefs of an individual or group, guided by a predetermined end and characterized by the systematic use of irrational and often unethical techniques of persuasion (Smith III, 1989, p. 80).

■ Communication to convey a message, an idea, or an ideology that is designed primarily to serve the self-interests of the person doing the communicating (Taylor, 1990, p. 7).

■ Mass suggestion or influence through the manipulation of symbols and the psychology of individual (Pratkanis & Aronson, 1992, p. 11).

■ Propaganda represents the work of large organizations or groups to win over the public for special interests through a massive orchestration of attractive conclusions packaged to conceal both their persuasive purpose and lack of sound supporting reasons (Sproule, 1994, p. 8).

■ Communications where the form and content is selected with the single-minded purpose of bringing some target audience to adopt attitudes and beliefs chosen in advance by the sponsors of communications (Carey, 1997, p. 20).

■ Strategically-devised messages that are disseminated to masses of people by an institution for the purpose of generating action benefiting its source (Parry-Giles, 2002, p. xxvi).

■ The organized attempt through communication to affect belief or action or inculcate attitudes in a large audience in ways that circumvent or suppress an individual’s adequately informed, rational, reflective judgment (Marlin, 2013, p. 12).

■ Propaganda is manipulation of the rational will to close off debate (Stanley, 2015, p. 48).

Political scientist Harold Lasswell broadly defined propaganda as “the technique of influencing human action by the manipulation of representations” (Lasswell, 1934, p. 521). Lasswell said that his definition encompassed both advertising and publicity, but in subsequent research his attention turned to the news as a distributor of key symbols (i.e., representations). Key symbols, words, and slogans that refer to society’s main values, are “social suggestions” (Lasswell, 1927, p. 9) that provide a common experience and elicit sentiments of loyalty among everyone (Lasswell & Leites, 1949). Lasswell believed that news reports and stories contain the most important symbols instrumental in elite’s control of collective attitudes and that their identification, categorization, and frequency of use was crucial in detecting propaganda. He devised eight standards or tests for detecting propaganda in news by means of an objective procedure (i.e., content analysis) (Lasswell & Leites, 1949).

Three of the tests indicate partisan bias detected when the communication content (1) identified with one side of a controversy (i.e., avowal test), (2) corresponded with the content of a known propaganda channel, such as party newsletters (i.e., parallel test), and (3) showed agreement in a stream of communication with the declared propaganda aim of a party (i.e., consistency test). Two tests indicated selection bias when (1) communication content heavily relied upon one party for material (i.e., source test), and (2) there was no disclosure regarding a heavy reliance on one party material (i.e., concealed source test). The remaining three tests indicated presentation bias when (1) there is imbalance of favorable and unfavorable treatments given to each symbol and statement in a controversy (i.e., presentation test), (2) the vocabulary is specific to one side of a controversy (i.e., distinctiveness test), and (3) statements on a common topic are persistently modified by omission, addition or under/over-emphasis in a direction favorable to one side. These eight tests boil down to empirical explication of propaganda as biased communication regardless of communicators’ real or perceived intentions to spread propaganda.

The news media have been accused many times of various biases amounting to claims of their functioning effectively as propaganda channels. Those accusations culminated in a propaganda attempt in its own right when the “legacy” news media organizations in the United States during the 2016 presidential campaign were labeled “fake news.” “Fake news” was named the “Word of the Year” by Collins Dictionary. It was defined as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting” (Collins English Dictionary). When masqueraded as journalism, propaganda exploits its hard-earned public trust to provide objective information for “selfish motives” and “unworthy purposes” that serve interests of those in power instead of “general welfare” (from American Society of News Editors Statement of Principles).

Propaganda and JournalismClick to view larger

Figure 1. Propaganda by the numbers.

Figure 1 shows the popularity of the word “propaganda” as indicated by its use in New York Times articles since 1900. The news media use the term mostly in the context of foreign countries, war, and politics. The peaks of use were in 1940, 1950, 1919, 1960, and 2014. Those are the years of World War II, Cold War, World War I, Vietnam War, and Islamic State (ISIS). The period of lowest use was before World War I, and in 1994 when the United States was not involved in any overt war, and the nation was transfixed by the O. J. Simpson murder trial. With the exception of 2014, the level of use of the word “propaganda” in 2016 and 2017 was at 1980 levels when the attempt to rescue American hostages held in the U.S. embassy in Iran failed. This most recent count is somewhat deceptive because the phrase “fake news” was used as often as “propaganda.” However, the phrase and the word “propaganda” appeared together in the same article only 13 times in 2017 and three times in 2016, suggesting that the New York Times failed to make a connection between the two and explain to its readers that fake news is propaganda. The phrase was weaponized by the Trump campaign to discredit the news media as an institution and further undermine the society’s trust in news reporting. “Fake news” has a long history. It was never news at all. In 1894, when journalists lacked formal education and professional standards, and often valued the “scoop” above accuracy, the New York Times published the following story reprinted from The Utica Herald:

The Western Associated Press ‘beat’ everybody Saturday night, with the news that ‘United States troops’ had fired upon and slain twenty-five rioters and wounded nobody knew how many more. It scored a ‘beat’ also in making Gen. Miles comment on the affair. Such fake ‘news’ the United Press avoids. The firing was by a company of Illinois militia, the number of killed and wounded did not exceed a score. The Gen. Miles interview published by a Syracuse paper in an extra was a pure invention.

(New York Times, 1894)

Historical Encounters Between Journalism and Propaganda

Almost a century ago, in 1922, five editors of American newspapers, St. Louis Globe Democrat, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Detroit News, Chicago Tribune, and the Chicago Daily News, met in New York City during the American Newspaper Publishers Association convention to write a code of ethics for the organization to be named the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) (Saalberg, 1973). The intention was to codify “sound practice and just aspirations of American journalism” (Chicago Tribune, 1923) so that journalism becomes a true profession. The code was written in reaction to the sensational journalism of the early 1920s (Daniels, 1965). At that time, Americans also discovered the full extent of the nations’ newspapers involvement in government’s propaganda during World War I with the publication of the book How We Advertised America by George Creel (1920). Woodrow Wilson appointed George Creel in 1917, upon the country’s entry in WWI, as the chairman of the Committee on Public Information (CPI), a governmental agency created to enlist public support for the war effort. The agency unleashed the full power of commercial public relations and the advertising industry in the service of war propaganda. Every possible means was used, pamphlets, news handouts, magazine advertisements, films, speakers, posters, and war expositions (Sproule, 1994).

Particularly troubling was the work of the committee’s “news division” as a “machinery for the collection and issuance of the official news of government” (Creel, 1920, p. 70). Creel also importantly states:

Newspaper men of standing and ability were sworn into government service and placed at the very heart of endeavor in the War and Navy departments, in the War Trade Board, the War Industries Board, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Labor. It was their job to take deadwood out of the channels of information, permitting a free and continuous flow.

(Creel, 1920, p. 72)

Every “story,” on the moment of its completion, was mimeographed and “put on the table” in the press room where the news associations kept regular men, and to which the correspondents came regularly. These government-written stories appeared in at least 20,000 newspaper columns each week (Daly, 2017). Creel’s stories were occasionally exposed as misinformation and exaggerations that were misleading newspapers and deceiving American people (New York Times, 1917). But, overall, history characterized World War I journalism as willing to publish propaganda as facts, accept censorship, and fail to hold power to account (Greenslade, 2014). Ironically, the spike in the use of word “propaganda” in 1919 is a result of its use in the context of Red, Bolshevik, and German propaganda rather than Creel’s committee propaganda.

While World War I has been viewed as a “watershed event in the development of modern propaganda” in the United States (Wells, 2014), on the international stage, its effects precipitated Russian Communist revolution of 1917 and gave rise to the Soviet Union as the first “propaganda state” (Kenez, 1985). According to the Marxist-Leninist ideology, Bolshevik revolutionaries conceived propaganda as part of the education of people living in a new society to learn both fundamentals of knowledge and socialism. Propaganda was unabashedly embraced as a project of shaping the mind of a new socialist man. In this project, the only role of the press was to spread and advertise the policies and decisions of the Communist Party. Lenin considered the notion of “freedom of press” to be the freedom of the rich who owned the newspapers to deceive the oppressed and exploited masses, and therefore as counter-revolutionary (Resis, 1977). The suppression and destruction of the anti-Bolshevik press in the Soviet Union through penalties, confiscations of property, and imprisonments of journalists was completed by early 1919.

Between Two World Wars

One of the prominent critics of Creel’s operations was Walter Lippmann. Based on his reputation as a writer for The New Republic and public intellectual, the Wilson administration sent him as an intelligence officer to Paris where he had a chance to more closely observe Allied censorship and propaganda (Sproule, 1994). These wartime experiences were the source of his interest in public opinion (Jansen, 2013). In his book Public Opinion (1922), Lipmann described Allied military communiqués that exaggerated enemy losses and fed this false information to the press. “We have learned to call this propaganda. A group of men, who can prevent independent access to the event, arrange the news of it to suit their purpose. That the purpose was in this case patriotic does not affect the argument at all (Lippmann, 1922, p. 26). By manipulating news reports, the military created “mental pictures” to make the public see the war as they desired it to be seen. The same effect was probably accomplished more subtly by the embedding of reporters within military units during the Iraq War, but few dared call it propaganda.

Lippmann recognized the centrality of news for democracy in “supplying the information on which public opinion feeds” but also was aware of its susceptibility to external manipulation and internal distortions in the form ranging from unconscious bias to corruption (Lippmann & Merz, 1920). In the first systematic study of news content, Lippmann and Merz (1920) tested accuracy and reliability of the news reports in the New York Times on the topic of the Russian Revolution. The judgment of the performance of “one of the really great newspapers of the world” was brutal: “From the point of professional journalism the reporting of the Russian Revolution is nothing short of disaster. On the essential questions the net effect was almost always misleading, and misleading news is worse than none at all” (p. 4). The New York Times was “derelict” in their duty to supply the accurate information regardless of their motives. “The chief censor and the chief propagandist were hope and fear in the minds of reporters and editors,” but Lippmann and Merz also identified the reliance on official and anonymous sources, as well as the lack of proper training and expert knowledge as the basis for New York Times biases. However, there was “no reason to charge a conspiracy by Americans.”

The fundamental problem of propaganda contaminating journalism cannot be reduced to the violation of professional standards, and the solution is not solely in achieving accuracy. Lippmann made clear that “news and truth are not the same thing” (Lippmann, 1922, p. 189). Lippmann goes on to say that

the function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them into relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act. Only at those points, where social conditions take recognizable and measurable shape, do the body of truth and the body of news coincide.”

(Lippmann, 1922, p. 189)

The best journalists can do is to admit their limitations in accessing truth and to criticize, agitate, and prod social scientists and statesmen to establish more usable information and more visible institutions. Propaganda can be combatted most effectively by letting scientific experts sort out facts from opinions and serve out the truth to administrators. In the review of the Public Opinion book, John Dewey wrote that “Lippmann seems to surrender the case for the press too readily” (Dewey, 1922) by confining it forever to reporting sensational facts to satisfy reader’s interests. Dewey made two suggestions of how newspapers could perform better. First, the press can treat “news events in the light of the continuing study and record of underlying conditions” by employing the art of literary presentation. Second, the press can report on events as “signals of hidden facts, of facts set in relation to one another, a picture of situations on which men can act intelligently.” In the speech that Lippmann gave to the International Press Institute in London (1965), he expressed his optimism with the development of journalism as a more specialized profession that

introduces into conscience of the working journalists a commitment to seek the truth which is independent of and superior to all his other commitments—his commitment to newspapers that will sell, his commitment to his political party, his commitment even to promote the policies of his government.

The public’s distrust of propaganda after World War I sparked debate of the function and role of propaganda in a democratic society especially in peace time. Edward Bernays, the acclaimed “father” of public relations who lent his pioneering publicity techniques to World War I propaganda efforts, viewed propaganda in neutral terms despite the fact that the word carried negative connotations. His views that propaganda is “the mechanism by which ideas are disseminated on a large scale” (Bernays, 1928, p. 48) to “create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea or group” (1928, p. 48) are in the 21st century subsumed by the public relations and advertising industries. Bernays argued that whether “propaganda is good or bad depends upon the merit of the cause urged, and the correctness of the information published” (1928, p. 48). Propaganda serves a useful purpose in building public support for ideas, inventions, and products for the public’s benefit. It is an instrument that in modern society increases general knowledge and keeps debate open for the truth to prevail, essentially not different from any other “avenues of approach to the public mind” (Bernays, 1928, p. 167).

Journalism has defined itself in contrast to industries of public relations and advertising primarily by its service to the public rather than the private or “state” interests. The concept of “neutral” propaganda violates two of the basic principles of journalism—independence and impartiality, and any encroachment of “neutral” propaganda in reporting is negatively sanctioned in the newsrooms that operate according to the ASNE principles. Professional journalists also rejected Bernays’s ideas of pro-social propaganda without accountability but paradoxically found a lifeline in a ready supply of facts in a glut of public relations releases (St. John, 2009).

The interest in propaganda in peace time waned somewhat, but again it started increasing in 1933 with Hitler’s becoming Chancellor of Germany. With German propaganda intensifying, a nonprofit organization, the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, was formed “to assist the public in detecting and analyzing propaganda by conducting scientific research and education in the methods by which public opinion is influenced” (New York Times, 1937). The institute aimed for making Americans able to recognize propaganda, to analyze it, and to appraise it so that they understand conditions and what to do about it. The institute identified seven common propaganda devices that were mainly derived from rhetoric and called them: Name calling, glittering generalities, transfer, testimonial, plain folks, card stacking, and band wagon. They “fool” because they appeal to emotions rather than to reason, and they work most effectively at those times when people are too lazy to think for themselves (Institute for Propaganda Analysis, 1937). The approach of the Institute was criticized for not making differences between good or evil ends of propaganda, and for ignoring social contexts by reducing propaganda to verbal and psychological tricks (Garbner, 1942).

World War II

The Nazis in the 1930s used American research on techniques of propaganda as a manual to generate support for the murderous regime (Gunderman, 2015). One of the priorities for Nazi propaganda apparatus was to eliminate every alternative source of information and to achieve uniformity of the press (Zeman, 1964). That was a difficult task because of a wide diversity, tradition, and national reputation of some German newspapers. First, all Communist and Social Democrat papers were suppressed or banned. Second, the regime controlled the admission of journalists to the official press conferences and favored Nazi journalists. Third, a law was passed that banned Jews from being editors, stripped any independence from all other editors, and denied rights to journalists to express personal opinion on government. Fourth, as leftist and Jewish publishers were harassed and robbed of their businesses, their publications were seized by the Nazi allies. By 1944, about 80% of almost 5,000 German newspapers disappeared, and about the same proportion of the remaining ones were controlled by the Nazis (Zeman, 1964). Before the Nazis had control of the press through censorship, intimidation, and violence, Hitler referred to the oppositional Communist press as Lugenpresse or “lying press.” Labeling events, objects, and people with distinctive phrases or slogans became one of the principles in the arsenal of Nazis total propaganda strategy (Doob, 1950). The German far right supporters resurrected the term in recent years, and Trump supporters used it to attack the mainstream media during the 2016 presidential campaign (Noack, 2016).

In stark contrast to the World War I misinformation campaign, the U.S. government during World War II developed a domestic and overseas propaganda program based on a “policy of truth” (Davis, 1946) according to which it released accurate information to the news media. Although the news was factual, it had a propagandistic effect achieved by selection and emphasis that advanced the U.S. interests. Elmer Davis, the director of the Office of War Information (OWI), concluded that “an inconvertible, undisputed fact—is often the most powerful propaganda” (Davis, 1946, p. 151). Many journalists took official service in the war agencies to help the war effort, and war correspondents had a close access to the troops and front lines (PBS, 2007). However, all news about the war had to pass through the OWI, which ensured that negative news was not reaching the public. Many prominent American social scientists, among them Yale psychologist Carl Hovland, served the war effort by conducting the research on the public’s morale and of propaganda effectiveness, which established the foundation for much of the current research on news media effects. Even more generally, the birth of communication studies in the United States was to a large degree linked to propaganda research.

Post–World War II

After World War II, the word “propaganda” fell out of fashion as the ideas of powerful media faded. The seminal book on voting, The People’s Choice (Lazarsfeld, Berelson, & Gaudet, 1948), summarily referred to radio and newspaper content as well as election campaign communication (candidate speeches and party conventions) as propaganda. Journalists were not differentiated from politicians, party workers, newsreel makers, or community public opinion leaders. Nonetheless, the study concluded that propaganda had not been effective in opinion change. It mostly reinforced people’s partisan predispositions. By 1960, it was generally accepted that the effects of media on attitude change were not massive, direct, and immediate as believed, but minimal and limited by people’s predispositions, and personal relationships (Klapper, 1960). The audiences were viewed as highly active and highly selective, manipulating rather than being manipulated by messages, and to believe in propaganda was considered unsophisticated (Schramm, 1971). Media effects and propaganda shared the fate. The very view that propaganda may be used by democratic states rather than authoritarian governments appeared distant to most people that tended to equate propaganda with the Nazis. Even when the news media were implicated in creating “pseudo-events” (Boorstin, 1971, p. 116) to provide excitement, illusion, and fantasy, they were defended on the basis that they were created in a democratic country. In a democratic society, competing politicians, newsmen, and news media “are free to speculate on facts, to bring new facts into being, to demand answers to their own contrived questions” (Boorstin, 1971, p. 142), as much as people are free to judge among them. Pseudo-events make facts “more subtle,” bring more ambiguity to truth, and therefore, inform: whereas propaganda in a totalitarian society is just an “appealing falsehood” (Boorstin, 1971, p. 141).

When it seemed that massive media impact was becoming a myth (McGuire, 1986) and propaganda just a figment of the liberal imagination, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky published the book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988). The book provoked strong reactions and was called conspiratorial and anti-American. It was marginalized within the field of mass communication for its deterministic view of media behavior. Particularly objectionable was the use of the word “propaganda” to describe the workings of American mainstream news media (Klaehn, 2002).

The book captured trends and implications of commercial encroachments and business pressures on news media. In summary, the book identified advertising as a filter that avoids or eliminates any content that is offensive or unappealing to consumers with the highest purchasing power. The dwindling news-producing resources were said to increase journalists’ dependence on official sources (e.g., governmental institutions, organizations and agencies, business corporations, and trade groups) that deliver talking points and supply readymade news releases. Public relations becomes the main purveyor of newsworthy content and functions as another filter for material that may be inconvenient or critical. By marginalizing news about controversial and complex issues, and by narrowing oppositional perspectives, news media present a picture of reality that serves and protects the interests of those in power. This framework that suggests enormous constraining influences of media on what issues are open for informed discussion in society strikingly resembles Lippmann’s ideas of public opinion and propaganda. The title of the book Manufacturing Consent is a phrase Lippmann used in reference to advantages established leaders of any organization have in creating public consent by “deciding more and more consciously what facts, in what setting, in what guise he shall permit the public to know” (Lippmann, 1922, p. 131). However, as the news put pictures in people’s heads “the ostensible leader often finds that the real leader is a powerful newspaper proprietor” (Lippmann, 1922, p. 129).

Herman and Chomsky’s conclusion that news media disseminate propaganda and manufacture public consent for existing social, political, and economic order was criticized for reliance solely on content and anecdotal evidence. However, their conclusion has been independently supported by the examination of modes of production involved in the construction of “news” during the early Cold War years showing that domestic elite news media were unwitting accomplices of the U.S. government’s propaganda strategy to advance America’s Cold War aims (Parry-Giles, 1996). The Truman and Eisenhower administrations developed covert strategies of information control by relying heavily on private interests to create a sense of “national will” (Parry-Giles, 1996, p. 148). Another study that examined the New York Times coverage of Soviet intervention and withdrawal from Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 showed its consistency with U.S. foreign policy interests, supporting the propaganda model’s predictions (Krishnaiah, Signorielli, & McLeod, 1993). News coverage was favorable toward elements defined as non-threatening by U.S. foreign policy and unfavorable toward threatening elements. More recent analyses suggest that the propaganda model also holds up in a new media environment, with private corporations extending their ownership to Internet news platforms and with the online news business built on page views, visitors, and clickbait (Goss, 2013). Both state and commercial interests are adopting sophisticated techniques to infiltrate and manipulate social media and blogosphere originally hailed as the most inclusive and liberating new media channels (Snow, 2014).

The political economy model of propaganda provided a powerful framework for analyses of news media performance in Latin America. Until the late 1980s, journalism in Latin America has been regulated by military regimes that suppressed freedom of speech (Saldana & Mourao, 2018). The lack of personal safety has historically been one of the most critical challenges to journalism in Latin America. Even after democratization that ended official censorship and systematic repression, violence against journalists continued as a state control over media content. Media companies’ dependence on the government and other political elites for subsidies in the form of official advertising, oligarchic media control, authoritarian legislation, the absence of legal mechanisms to access official records and the lack of a legal framework to protect journalists have severely constrained the work of the press in Latin America especially in its watchdog roles (Waisbord, 2000). The development of Latin American broadcast media was heavily influenced by the U.S. broadcast model of commercial support (Salwen & Garrison, 1991). The private ownership of broadcast media financed through commercial means allowed them to grow into powerful political and economic organizations capable of challenging national governments although without having strong commitments to news and public affairs programming. The broadcast media earned some praises of the world press community for exposing dictatorial leaders, but also were criticized for fighting efforts to use the broadcast media to promote national culture (Salwen & Garrison, 1991).

Herman and Chomsky were primarily concerned with analysis of economic bases of journalism, but they suggested that economic and political interests transpire and shape news through selection of topics, distribution of concerns, emphasis, framing of issues, filtering of information, and bounding of debate in news. These are some of the practices viewed in the modern news media theories as the source of various selection and presentation biases that have profound effects on individuals’ perceptions and understanding of reality. Therefore, despite propaganda being a feared, hated, and avoided word, research in propaganda continues by other names, most notably as knowledge gap, cultivation, agenda setting, and framing. In the modern reincarnation, propaganda became biased communication (Dovring & Lasswell, 1959).

The Contradictions of Journalism

Journalism is critical to democracy because it provides citizens with information necessary for them to participate in the public debate and have their will realized in governmental decisions. It is also crucial to assuring the accountability of government to its public. Professional journalism developed through the tension between its special role in a democratic society derived from the constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press, its everyday function as a craft of compelling storytelling, as a profession guided by principles of truth and accuracy, and as a profitable business that never lets the truth stand in a way of a bestseller (Ward, 2015). Journalism’s proximity to the political world, and, at the same time, its obligation to bring independent and impartial scrutiny to that world creates another set of contradictions and opens cracks where propaganda can get a foothold. In the political world, claims of truth by journalists and others are always suspicious because the truth is in large measure subjective, opinions are often disguised as facts, and facts are blurred with emotional appeals. However, when journalists treat all truth claims as equal instead of weighting evidence in their degree of support, and when they do not challenge politicians and their talking-head pundits when they are lying, spinning, and being evasive, they become complicit in their propaganda.

The core of journalism is in gathering and verifying facts, and it is the process of verification that separates journalism from propaganda (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2007). Unfortunately, even facts in a social world are tricky. Many chapters in social science methods textbooks are devoted to procedures of establishing reliability and validity of evidence (i.e., facts) and long lists of threats to them. Extolling the virtue of facts gives journalists a false sense of security in the practice that involves constant selection of “relevant” facts. Journalists cannot hide behind facts because they decide what facts are used and because facts are unintelligible without the interpretation and the point of view. Fact checking of others can be a powerful weapon, but it loses potency when relegated to post analyses and specialized services such as or Effective, instantaneous challenge of misleading claims requires extensive knowledge of facts and understanding what they mean in contexts. Instead of mastering facts, during the 2016 presidential campaign, journalists spent months pondering how should they call a lie: a lie, untruth, or falsehood (Barry, 2017).

The most insidious form of propaganda in journalism is achieved by internalizing a set of justifications for routines that provide for one’s livelihood. Journalistic propaganda does not necessarily rest on intentional and deliberate falsehoods or nefarious motives but in the habits of the mind invested in certain values and belief systems that disregards truly informative and meaningful communication and dismisses the very existence of propaganda (Cunningham, 2002). The mindset that is completely invested in certain values and belief systems unconsciously becomes propagandistic (Black, 2001). Journalists often express aversion toward any overt attempts to be used for propaganda. As unintentional propagandists, journalists believe that they adhere to their professional principles, which entitles them to deny their own responsibility for political consequences of their practices. Instead, they shift the responsibility to their audiences who are “getting what they want.” By blaming their audiences, they become the part of discourse in service of power and undemocratic ideals that undermines both public will and the foundations of their own existence (Stanley, 2015).

Propaganda is a complex communication process that involves individuals, institutions, and organizations: “The process of propaganda takes the form of message flow through a network of systems that includes propaganda agents, various media, and a social network, originating with an institution and ending with the possibility of a response from the public or a target audience within the public” (Jowett & O’Donnell, 1986, p. 389). Propaganda in a modern democratic society is not necessarily a top-down, deliberate process. Instead, it is dispersed through the communication networks in sticky tidbits of information that may coalesce into a micro climate to produce a profound effect (Auerbach & Castranovo, 2013). In the era of custom publics instead of mass public, propaganda does not have to work on everybody to be considered propaganda. Media effects that were called “minimal” because they are averaged across different conditions, may become “massive” effects in certain specific conditions.

News Media Effects

Ever since the famous People’s Choice study (1948), researchers have had a hard time showing the influence of partisan propaganda from the news media on how people vote. As a result, the field of journalism has been since the 1970s increasingly reorienting itself toward more subtle news media biases stemming from various professional choices rather than from a “real” political slant. In general, those choices start by the selection of topics, sources, facts, quotes, and continue with a long list of presentational choices: angle, tone, words, labels, identifications, pictures, statistics, ordering of information, length, and context. They have been shown to significantly and systematically distort reality and affect how audience members perceive and understand public affairs issues. Mass communication research focused on studying the pictures “in our heads” (Lippmann, 1922, p. 9), the pictures of ourselves, of others, of our needs, purposes, and relationships that “do not automatically correspond with the world outside” (p. 21). True to Lippmann’s views, propaganda can be seen as emerging from a pattern of journalistic choices that “alter the picture to which men respond, to substitute one social pattern for another” (Lippmann, 1922, p. 6).

The news media effects theories, knowledge gap (Tichernor, Donohue, & Olien, 1970), agenda setting (McCombs & Shaw, 1972), cultivation (Gerbner, 1973), framing (Iyengar & Kinder, 1987), show the influence of news media use on “pictures inside the heads” of individuals, and they all identify various distortions and biases in the news content that contribute to discrepancies between those pictures and reality. The larger the discrepancy the stronger the effect. Knowledge gaps or the lack of equivalence (McLeod, Bybee, & Durall, 1979) occur because certain information is not available or is not simple enough to accommodate audience beliefs and match their competences. The agenda-setting effect is a result of news media selection of topics. Perceptions of reality are cultivated based on symbolic, stereotypical portrayals. Framing effects result from emphasis on certain aspects of reality or an angle to a story topic. All these theories produced a huge body of research, but studies rarely mention propaganda even as a backdrop. Among research making more explicit connection to propaganda is the study that showed during the initial phases of the Iraq War viewers of CBS and Fox News were misinformed about Iraq regardless of their education level (Johansen & Joslyn, 2008). Bard (2016) showed that hosts of Fox News employed different presentational styles (i.e., techniques, formulations, rhetorical devices) while still furthering the network’s arguments on health-care reform and preserving its spurious label “fair and balanced.” Bard’s study followed research that found that Fox News host Bill O’Reilly employed in his show more of the Institute for Propaganda Analyses (IPA) propaganda devices than Father Charles Coughlin in his 1930s speeches (Conway, Grabe, & Grieves, 2007). The application of the IPA devices to news content is extended in the study that found CBS radio news during World War II did not use IPA devices in its coverage. However, only about half of the stories were neutral in tone, and the main vehicle of propaganda was the use of pseudo-attributions (Cozma, 2015).

The problem with most studies that either focus on individuals’ cognitive processes or propagandistic devices in the content of messages is that they fail to examine social environments and institutions responsible for creating conditions in which propaganda thrives. The assumptions of free and independent news media are rarely questioned and studied, and there is little transparency about the conditions of news production that may lead to biases. In addition, the questions of how demands of digital journalism that require changes in the newsroom are reflected in the news content, how the government and other organizations may manipulate news coverage, and how the news media business interests are influencing news reporting are all rarely incorporated in study designs.

Forces that shape the news media messages operate on multiple levels, from journalists’ personal views, professional beliefs, routines, to organizational and institutional pressures. Bennett (2001) identified several flaws in news content such as personalization, fragmentation, dramatization, and normalization, stemming from the production routines; but research that systematically investigates how they are translated into specific audience effects is still lacking (McLeod, Kosicki, & McLeod, 2002). Without recognizing and better understanding of all those aspects of news production and how they interact with audiences’ “readings” of news, propaganda remains covert and hidden behind ideologies of free and objective press (Charney, 2016).

International Propaganda

Propaganda is not a phenomenon restricted to the United States. Unfortunately, scholarship on international propaganda, with the exception of China and Russia, is relatively scarce. In addition, scholarship of propaganda in the English language tends to “define” propaganda in foreign countries within the “Western” conceptual framework, keeping in mind its likely audiences. This somewhat limits the conceptual developments and prevents seeing propaganda in new ways, although it might help scholars better understand the U.S. propaganda system.

Anne-Marie Brady (2008) equated China’s propaganda with Bernays’s “engineering of consent” (Bernays, 1947) approach. The Chinese party-state is engaged in “skillful thought work” to sell the notion of “Chinese dream” bolstered by its economic development and opportunities (p. 5). However, in contrast to American public relations, Chinese propaganda efforts are organized and directed by the Central Propaganda Department. Its primary duty is to organize and monitor the news media, broadcast, television, culture, art, publishing, and so on, to see that they correctly and in a timely fashion promote the Chinese Communist Party’s current line, guiding principles, and policies (p. 15). According to these directives, journalism is censored mainly by the mechanism of party appointment of senior editorial executives, which unavoidably breeds self-censorship among journalists (Simons, Nolan, & Wright, 2017). Chinese market competition may have not necessarily created more democratic communication, a possibility suggested by actual decline in number of investigative journalists since 2011 (Cook & Henochowicz, 2018), but it appears it has created among Chinese journalists’ a sense of professionalism and emboldened “tactical practices and organizational strategies that allow a meaningful autonomy from the state” (Simons, Nolan, & Wright, 2017, p. 235). China’s global expansions and ambitions in acquiring “soft power” through media development raised a question of Chinese news media presence in Africa and their potential role in creating a distinctive narrative as an alternative to dominant Western media styles and perspectives. It appears that opportunities for change have not been fully exploited so far (Gagliardone & Pal, 2017), and Chinese journalists’ reporting was found to be neither more “positive” nor more “investigative” than that of their Western counterparts. Although Chinese media created job opportunities for African journalists, there is little sensitivity toward local traditions, and overall the reporting suffered from the same institutional constraints as in China.

In contrast to China, Russia is formally a democracy since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the new Russian Constitution guaranteed freedom of speech and the right of journalists not to be forced to write against their convictions. In the rush of enthusiasm, hundreds of new publications and media companies were registered and thousands of Russians became journalists overnight. By the mid-1990s, the entire system of the press was acquired and divided by the oligarchs, and the news media increasingly started reflecting interests of financial-political groups. Azhgikhina (2007) writes that journalism in Russia in that period was transformed into PR, “basically the same old propaganda” (p. 1253). Further political restructuring and policy changes increased the power of the state and reestablished its Soviet-like monopoly on the news. Despite the censorship ban laws, employees of all media outlets know the limits of what can be said (Oates, 2007). Russian media operate in a “neo-Soviet fashion,” characterized by “rejection of balance or objectivity, flaws in media law, self-censorship, government interference and harassment of media outlets, the lack of journalistic professionalism, and an atmosphere of violence against journalists” (Oates, 2007, p. 1279). Since 1992, 58 Russian journalists were murdered (Committee to Protect Journaists, 2018). State-controlled news media outlets operate as state-sponsored propaganda but even more aggressively and deceptively than in the Soviet Union (Kendall, 2014). In the vein of the Stalinist era of “disinformation” (a literal translation of a Russian word for misinformation “dezinformatsiya”), the contemporary model of Russian propaganda has taken advantage of technology to disseminate partial truths or outright fiction (Paul & Matthews, 2016)) in more efficient and skillful ways both for domestic and international audiences.

Coming of Age

Propaganda is a multidimensional concept that can be approached from many perspectives—historical, cultural, economic, or political. Every approach imbues propaganda with a distinct meaning, but in essence propaganda is a concept grounded in communication. Spread of demonstrably false, inaccurate, and misleading messages represents the simplest form of propaganda in journalism. It is nuances, subtle suggestions based on facts, and faulty interpretations that do not follow from facts that make propaganda truly dangerous. Media literacy, awareness of how propaganda is structured, and knowing how to respond to various truth claims are crucial for an informed public.

All propaganda theories recognize the profound role of media representations in shaping public opinion. Although they show that media effects are not monolithic, patterns of their presentations steadily tip our emotions, perceptions, and thoughts in predictable directions. These effects are facilitated by the development of sophisticated techniques of mass persuasion applicable to all public opinion contexts—political, business, news and entertainment, or social service. News producers use these techniques to sell their content to audiences in a similar way to political campaign managers who use them to sell their candidates to likely voters, or fake-news producers who micro target the most susceptible audiences on social media to sell their lies. A minority of the U.S. adults (27%) were exposed to fake news during the last presidential campaign, and fake news made only 3% of their overall news use, but their effects could have been disproportionately large within smaller groups crucial for Trump’s victory (Guess, Nyhan, & Reifler, 2018).

With the growing mastery of media technology, propaganda is becoming an even more formidable force. New technologies may actually increase our vulnerability to propaganda by lulling us with the sense of individual control and liberation. At the same time when the Internet makes people feel empowered, digital data about what they like and what they buy are assembled to construct profiles responsive to messages customized to activate needs and wants that further the desired goals of the propagandist. Similarly paradoxical is that the Internet’s interactivity and openness democratized the public discourse but also opened the floodgates to unreliable and unverified information. Sacrificing accuracy to authenticity, reliability to credibility, contributes to public misinformation and heightened levels of political polarizations (Mohammed, 2012). Research has shown that individuals in our society are learning less from the media over time despite maintaining their levels of interest and attention to public affairs (Sotirovic & McLeod, 2004). Propaganda analyses of interaction between forms of “biased communication” and audiences’ responses may help solve a puzzle of why the increased levels of formal education and unprecedented availability and quantity of media information fail to translate directly into a more informed citizenry and stronger democracy.

Further Reading

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Bernays, E. (1928). Propaganda. New York, NY: H. Liveright.Find this resource:

Brewer, S. A. (2009). Why America fights: Patriotism and war propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Herman, E. S., & Chomsky, N. (1988). Manufacturing consent: The political economy of the mass media. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.Find this resource:

Hovland, C. I., Lumsdaine, A. A., & Sheffield, F. D. (1971). The effect of presenting ‘one side’ versus ‘both sides’ in changing opinions on controversial subject. In W. Schramm, & D. F. Roberts, The process and effects of mass communication (pp. 467–484). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.Find this resource:

Jowett, G. S., & O’Donnell, V. (1986). Propaganda and persuasion. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

Kenez, P. (2017). A History of the Soviet Union from the beginning to its legacy. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Lippmann, W. (1922). Public opinion. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace and Company.Find this resource:

O’Shaughnessy, N. J. (2004). Politics and propaganda: Weapons of mass seduction. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan PressFind this resource:

Pratkanis, A., & Aronson, E. (1992). Age of propaganda: The everyday use and abuse of persuasion. New York, NY: W. H. Freeman.Find this resource:

Snow, N. (2014). Pervasive propaganda in America. In N. Snow (Ed.), Propaganda and American democracy (pp. 120–147). Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.Find this resource:


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