How to Tell News from Propaganda

(I first wrote this post as a Quora answer a couple of days ago. I’m reposting here for your benefit.)

I’ve never lived in a country without freedom of speech, so I’m used to judging news outlets based on what I assume the owner’s editorial policy and agenda is, and it’s easy to compare different sources to get the full picture.

I have, however, studied the effects of censorship and state-control on speech during my history studies and later for my writing. I think these principles could help people identify when their news is significantly tainted with propaganda, whether state-controlled or otherwise:

    • Too Simple – Truth is always complex and subtle. Any story that is too simple is not complete and therefore suspected propaganda. If you are not given facts that go against the primary narrative, then what you are reading is not reporting but an opinion piece disguised as reporting.


    • No Disclosure of Biases – Every person has biases. When the person does not admit and disclose his biases in reporting, and does not acknowledge the possibility that others might disagree with him, that is likely propaganda.


    • Single Interpretation – Facts have more than one interpretation. If you are only presented with one interpretation, someone wants you to draw particular conclusions. In which case, you may have to doubt the facts, too.


    • Consistent Glamorization or Attacks – Reporting that consistently sucks up or glamorizes people in power is propaganda. The same is true of reporting that attacks certain people consistently and no matter what they do.


    • Strong Emotional Tone – When there is a very strong emotional tone to the news, without an attempt at objective detachment, you know that there is at least grave risk of propaganda.


    • Drowned Voices – When one side never gets to finish a sentence, when it is clear that interviews have been heavily edited, when one side of a debate is demonized without having a chance to speak for itself, that is very likely propaganda.


    • Hypocricy & Contradictions – When obvious contradictions and hypocrisy are ignored: for instance one moment praising candidate X for doing something, the next condemning candidate Y for doing the same thing, this is propaganda.


Hope this helps!