Posted in Behind the News

When and how to report on propaganda?

, by John Daniszewski

We are living in an era of sophisticated propaganda coming from many directions, including various extremist groups, advocacy organizations and governments.

Sometimes it is necessary to quote from the propaganda of organizations such as the Islamic State group, or from governments such as North Korea. Before we do so, we should ask some basic questions.

Does the statement have legitimate news value or is it repetition of well-known rhetoric that we would be better off ignoring? Will this statement be taken at face value by our audience, or are there obvious falsehoods that should be pointed out? Are we presenting enough of the context or countervailing information to allow readers and viewers to make a reasoned assessment of the statements? Are we quoting it at the right length?

Often terrorist or extremist groups will issue videotapes of captives to make threats, convey demands or put pressure on governments and families to pay ransoms or make concessions. For news organizations, the challenge is to report on these while avoiding being used.

In this image from video released by Taliban Media in December 2016, Caitlan Coleman talks while her Canadian husband Joshua Boyle holds two of their children. The couple was abducted five years ago while traveling in Afghanistan and the family was freed in October. (Taliban Media via AP)

For several years, we have had in place a protocol to convey only enough of these statements to establish basic facts about the kidnapping. We keep to a minimum any direct quotes that might aid the kidnappers in their cause. We edit videotape to minimize the propagandistic effects and messages. We note that any statements from hostages, such as appeals to their governments or denunciations of policy, have been made under duress.

Sometimes a claim of responsibility for a bombing or other violent act is an important development in a story. However, before publishing, we should assess whether there is any inherent plausibility to the claim or corroborating information to support it. In every case, be careful about lending credibility to the claims and use common sense about disseminating them unless and until there is evidence or reasonable indications that the claim could be true.

When prominent extremist fugitives release a speech, it often contains some news. However, their speeches also are laced with propaganda to encourage followers and recruit new adherents. Report enough to inform the audience of the existence of these statements and their gist, but not so much that we become an additional channel for their messaging. Extract the information that is new and relevant to our audience. Be sure to include expert analysis about the meaning and importance of the statements. 

Propaganda is pollution in the world’s information ecosystem. However, its impact can be blunted with facts. When we show something to be propaganda and detail its deceptions and distortions, we help the audience that relies on us for verified information.