A day after watching the Netflix documentary The Great Hack, which is mostly about modern propaganda, I had an exchange on social media that got me thinking about news vs propaganda. What’s the difference? It can be subtle, but here are things I look for, as a former journalist myself.
News follows several rules, but the most important rules are named sources and the quantity. If a story doesn’t have three sources, it’s not news.
The newsroom rules I had to follow
When I studied journalism and worked in a newsroom, the rules I had to follow actually filled a couple of decent-sized books. But there were some fundamental rules. The first was that my sources had to have names. First and last. If they didn’t have names, there had to be a very compelling reason why. For example, when I interviewed the neighbor of a guy who’d seceded from the United States and threatened the lives of several elected officials, he wanted to use an alias. My editor was fine with that. When I interviewed a friend and supporter of the guy and she started reeling off a litany of conspiracy theories, and she refused to give me her name, we didn’t honor her wishes. I had no way to find out her full name, so I just didn’t quote her at all.
The neighbor who told me unfavorable stories had something to fear. Conspiracy Woman had nothing to lose, she was just paranoid.
The only other time I used unnamed sources was when I wrote a story about underage DWIs. The three kids I talked to were more willing to talk openly if I didn’t print their real names.
The other rule is the number of sources. If you don’t talk to at least three people, the story isn’t important enough to print. For that matter, if someone tells you something that isn’t public knowledge and isn’t willing to let you quote them on that, it’s not true until two other people corroborate it. And that doesn’t count as your three. That’s one. You still need two other people on record.
What is propaganda?
Propaganda isn’t news. News’ job is to inform you. Propaganda’s job is to get you to do something, or believe something. While I haven’t written a straight news story since sometime in 1996 or maybe 1997, I’ve written quite a bit of propaganda. When I write something for my employer, it’s propaganda. I go out of my way to make sure what I write is factual and helpful, but my real job is to convince you how smart we are so you’ll let us run your security products for you.
The item that prompted me to write this was a sensational story about a congressman. His name doesn’t matter because it’ll be a different one next week anyway. The story was talking about how unpopular he is in his home district, especially among people the same race as him. The story was not from a source known for deep, hard-hitting, analytical news.
I figured it was propaganda. But I decided to dig into it and see just how bad it was. Sometimes news vs propaganda involves a fine line. This time it didn’t.
The facts in the story
There are several relevant facts in the story. This particular congressman once won an election 98 percent to 2. In the tightest race he ever ran, he won 69 percent to 31. In the most recent election, which was typical of most of his elections, he won 76% of the vote. All of this took me two minutes to verify.
If he’s actually in trouble, it means 1/3 of his support (or more) has evaporated in a year.
Now, if you hold the opposing ideology to this particular congressman, you may think he should be in trouble. But news’ job isn’t to reinforce your opinion about a person. If he really is in trouble, that’s news. But it’s news because it’s unusual for someone to lose 1/3 of their support in a year.
So, the question is, has the congressman lost 1/3 of his support since the 2018 election? Or is the story sensationalist propaganda?
What I would have to do to convince you this congressman is in trouble
The photo in this story wanted to imply to you that this congressman is in trouble with women the same race as he is. So I looked up the population of his district, and the racial breakdown. It has a population of 662,000 and 59 percent of the population is the same race he is. That’s 390,580 people. How many people would I have to talk to in order to extrapolate the prevailing opinion of 390,580?
How do I know that? From the statistics class I took in college. All of the top 3 journalism schools make their journalism students take one. If you have a random sample, you can use math to figure out how big the sample size has to be. In my case, to be 95% confident that the prevailing opinion in my sample population is within 5 percent of the real population, I’d need to get 384 opinions. If a majority of those 384 opinions are negative, then I can conclude that, yes indeed, this congressperson is in trouble. Especially if I find more than 56% of the opinions are negative.
Now, given that he frequently wins elections by large margins, I could skimp. If I’m willing to accept a 25% margin of error, I can talk to 15 people. If 12 or more people hold the same opinion, that tells me more than 50% of the full population does. If 11 or fewer agree, I need a bigger sample size.
Journalism is a skill. There’s a method for testing a hypothesis, and more goes into a story than I think the average reader realizes. It’s not just about talking to a few people and stringing some words together.
How many opinions were in the story in question?
The story that was supposed to convince me that this congressman’s district is on the verge of revolting against him published two opinions. It didn’t conduct any surveys. It concluded that this congressman is in trouble based on two things it found online.
One was a rant on Twitter where someone turned on her cell phone and went on a profanity-laced rant about, well, everything. She only gave her first name. That’s her right, but anyone can post a video of themselves ranting. That doesn’t make her the spokesperson for anyone other than herself.
The other was a letter someone sent in to another extremist online-only publication that caters to the opposite political view that this congressman holds. That’s called an echo chamber.
I can find you two people who hate anything. It took me mere seconds to find two people who hate ice cream. That doesn’t mean the ice cream industry is on the brink of collapse.
If they’d polled just 15 people, it would have been lazy work. But it also would have destroyed the story. That’s the point. There was nothing there. Pulling one source off Twitter and a second out of the echo chamber isn’t just lazy. It’s journalistic malpractice. It’s propaganda. Distinguishing news vs propaganda is child’s play in this case.
News vs propaganda in tougher cases
I’ve written press releases before, on a couple of occasions. My goal was to get newspapers to write a story about whatever it was I cared about. In some cases they printed my release without changing a single word. So it worked. Did I bamboozle the paper and its readers? Kind of. Or you could say the paper bamboozled me, because they got a 400-word story about an autism awareness walk and didn’t have to pay for it.
It worked because I walked right on the line between the news and propaganda. I gave all the important details up front, included quotes from three people, and didn’t say anything controversial.
What if I had? Let’s say it’s flu season, and I want to promote alternative remedies. I could write something about alternative remedies. I could get quotes from three people. I’ll bet you I could even get a quote or two from a chiropractor. If I mention nothing about washing your hands, opening bathroom doors with a paper towel, and getting a flu shot, and I don’t quote anyone actually licensed to treat the flu, it’s propaganda.
Why propaganda is more popular than news
When you read actual news, there will be things in it that you don’t want to hear. Sometimes it’s depressing. Frequently it challenges you. I get mad when I read The Christian Science Monitor because it presents a middle-of-the-road view. I should disagree with half of it, and I probably do.
Propaganda is compelling because it validates what we already believe. It tells us we believe the right thing, and other people believe it too. You may be angry or upset or afraid at what’s going on, but at least a whole bunch of other people are angry or upset or afraid right there with you.
Propaganda is immensely profitable, too. Because people read it, they agree with it, and then they click share. Then all their like-minded friends click like, they comment, and they share. Some of them don’t even read past the headline. They just post a comment that says “The truth hurts,” before they like and share. It spreads like wildfire.
The main reason I see news stories on my social media feeds is because I know 100 other people with journalism degrees. News isn’t profitable, partly because doing a good job with it takes so much time. Working 40 hours a week, it’s hard to write 10 good straight news stories. You can write an effective propaganda piece in 15 minutes, and someone who benefits from it is willing to pay handsomely for it.
But isn’t news flawed on both sides of the spectrum?
I hear the argument a lot that news is flawed on both sides of the spectrum, frequently as an argument to stay on one side, and usually the extreme of one side. That’s not a valid argument. The further out of the mainstream you go, the more propaganda and less news you see. And there’s a big difference between getting it wrong occasionally and not even trying. We also tend to remember that one mistake from three years ago and weigh it more heavily than every story we saw today that was fine.
Propagandists use this argument to lock you into them, so they can continue to manipulate you. I can’t think of another industry that’s never allowed to make a mistake.
Propagandists run stories with mistakes all the time, but that’s the difference. While a good news outlet will print a correction, propagandists only print a correction if they think they’re going to get sued. When you don’t correct your mistakes and you run stories that reinforce your audience’s preconceived notions, it’s easy to create a perception that you’re more reliable.