Defense against the Dark Arts: Propaganda vs. journalism and rhetoric

As the race for the White House gears up, you are being bombarded with stories, 30-second ads, attack tweets and Instagram videos.

Back in the 1970s, the average person got hit with 500 messages a day: ads in the paper to buy Fords, radio spots for Richard Nixon, promos for the latest ABBA album and billboards for Coke.

Today, the average person is buried with 5,000 messages a day.

So how do you tell the difference between propaganda vs. journalism and rhetoric?

I did a series of posts about this for, back when it was owned by The New York Times, and it’s a topic worth revisiting.


Journalism doesn’t have an agenda. Journalists seeks the truth so they can inform readers and do it first. When they’re offering an opinion, they make that clear by putting it on the opinion page or saying so up front.

Propaganda starts with an agenda and conclusion, then uses lies, rumors and fear to manipulate an audience, often into doing something against their self-interest. They’re always offering an opinon while trying to disguise that fact. Cigarettes are healthy. Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. President Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya.

Rhetoric is trying to persuade you—but with arguments, facts and logic, and the goal isn’t hidden or evil. Wear your seat-belt. Vote. Don’t drink and drive.

Names and reputations

Journalists and speakers put their name next to what they write or say, and if they make an error about facts, they correct it—because they’re only as good as their name. They’re proud of what they write.

Propagandists hide their identity in order to say and do outrageous things. If they make an error about facts, they don’t publish a correction—they double-down on the lie.

Education and ethics

Journalists usually get education and training for the job, and treat it as a profession, a calling, with a set of ethics and rules.

Speakers are typically leaders in their community, and while they don’t have a standardized set of ethics like journalists, speakers can’t afford to use propaganda methods, because they’d get publicly caught in half-truths, lies and manipulation. The press and public would cease to believe them.

Propagandists don’t have a background in journalism or rhetoric and do whatever they think will work. Because it’s only cheating if you get caught.

2 thoughts on “Defense against the Dark Arts: Propaganda vs. journalism and rhetoric

  1. First: Love Snape.
    Second: Failure of the media to inform with facts, explains why people often vote against their own best interests. Their new mantra is: “Let Me Entertain You!”
    Third: Maintenance of their own lives eats up all or most of an individual’s time, so they have none left to investigate who is telling the truth and who is lying. Their vote is based on a bumper sticker they saw on the car in front of them on the way to work.
    Fourth: Love Snape.


  2. I agree except in this new age journalists have become propagandists. Annoys the hell outta me. I automatically assume there is bias. Probably there was always bias, just not as blatant. How I miss the days of Deep Throat…


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