The word propaganda is bandied about quite a lot lately. Brexit, it seems, occurred because of . American leftists about Trump’s election, while regularly accusing the conservative Fox News network of being a propaganda mill for and . Since everyone knows that propaganda is bad, it follows that political results procured through its use must also be suspect and tainted in the public eye.
But is this all as clear cut as many mainstream media sources make it out to be? Many on the American Right have long accused leading media outlets such as the or Brexiteers also argue that guests on often include many more Remainers than Leave backers. Does such bias in reporting constitute propaganda, even if it is more elegant or finely produced?
Citizens across the developed world increasingly feel they are being propagandised by the media. A recent worldwide poll by Rasmussen Global found that 56% of respondents said they “rarely” or “never” get a neutral take on the news.1 Clearly that’s not down to Fox news and Russian bots alone. To understand this level of distrust you have to look at the major broadcasters and newspapers themselves.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, propaganda is “The systematic dissemination of information, esp. in a biased or misleading way, in order to promote a political cause or point of view.”
By that definition, claims of mainstream media innocence seem difficult to uphold: few news sources both engage in systematic discussion of controversial issues and do so without promoting a cause or point of view.
In America, all sides in the media are guilty of propaganda. According to one study, 91% of television coverage of President Trump in the summer of 2017 was negative.2 Another study found that major newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post published an overwhelming amount of negative press about Trump, with negative tones outstripping positive ones by a 6-1 or 7-1 margin.
Data from Britain show that BBC television and radio coverage of Brexit and EU issues is tilted strongly in favour of pro-EU or pro-Remain views.3 It is difficult to argue that such a heavy tilt reflects chance rather than design.
Supporters of the traditional media might argue that the key element of propaganda is presenting information in a “bias[ed] or misleading way”. Their fact checks and requirement that news stories include a quote or information from both sides of the argument, they claim, precludes their material from being propaganda. But such requirements can be selectively applied, or artfully evaded, through clever writing or editing.
One example of this is a March 2018 New York Times article on President Trump’s policy on transgendered people serving in the military. This article is factually neutral, written in clear language that eschews adjectives or aspersions. But look more closely and there are clear signs of opinion. Only three sources outside the administration are cited – all three are opposed to the policy. The reader is left unaware that conservative groups such as the and the praised the new policy. You don’t have to support the policy to recognise that the article creates a misleading image of Trump standing alone.
The entire way in which the Times treats transgender issues makes plain the paper’s position. A simple search of the Times’ website for “transgender” returns multiple stories. Of those published so far in 2018, the vast majority present transgender people and their causes positively. Every opinion piece published is also in favour of the positions propounded by transgender activist groups. Regardless of your personal perspective, there’s no denying the biased nature of the newspaper’s treatment of the subject. Is this any less propaganda than the fawning coverage of Trump that Fox News so often presents their viewers?
Political issues often produce passionate responses, so it is no surprise that journalists and media outlets take sides in a fight, no matter how much they try or purport to be neutral. In a world increasingly dominated by the easy-to-access internet, competition is probably the best antidote to biased or misleading reporting.
But as citizens increasingly feel unheard and uninformed, perhaps it would be better for the leading lights of journalism to take better care in representing different points of view. The alternative might just be that citizens tire of democracy and turn to regimes that make current claims of “propaganda” laughable by comparison.