Propaganda School Part 6: Metaphor

The subject of this post is one that is close to my heart. I did my degree in linguistics where I ended up writing an honours thesis in the field of cognitive linguistics and specifically on the subject of metaphor as a cognitive process. Metaphor is a usage in language where you attempt to elucidate the properties of one thing by likening it to another. “All the world’s a stage…” is one of the famous examples. In cognitive linguistics, it is believed that metaphor is not just a fancy way for a writer to show off their skills but a fundamental process of human cognition. That is, in understanding the world, we make use of more concrete domains such as space to help us make sense of more abstract domains such as time. There is ample empirical evidence for this claim built right into the deep structures of grammar. For any interested readers wanting to know more, the classic text in the field is George Lakoff’s Metaphors We Live By.

Metaphors work to elucidate the properties of one thing by carrying over properties from another. Because metaphors are not logical, they can’t be proven false by argument. They can’t be fact checked. There are rules to metaphor construction that can be shown by cognitive science. But, for everyday purposes, a metaphor is either valid or invalid. Well-chosen or clumsy. Let’s look at some examples.

British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is a walking metaphor generator (yes, that was a metaphor). One of his recent efforts was in relation to a corona vaccine where he said that he “welcomed the toot of the scientific cavalry from over the hill.”

In this case he is elucidating the efforts of vaccine scientists by reference to an army in battle. The implication is that the corona event is like a war and the vaccine scientists are our allies coming to our aid.

Is this valid? Is this a well-chosen metaphor? It’s true that the discipline and rigor shown in an army is similar to the discipline and rigor shown in a modern laboratory (presumably, the modern lab also shows the same obedience to authority and lack of creativity and critical thinking as well). Is the corona event like a war? It certainly is similar to war in Britain at the moment, although whether it needs to be is another question. Corona is not a war in the literal sense. But it is like a war and that is the framing that Johnson wants to foreground. If people accept the metaphor, they accept that understanding and will welcome the vaccine scientists as allies. Ironically, vaccine science has become very nationalistic in that we will only accept the vaccine of ‘our’ scientists. Nobody in Britain is going to be taking the Russian or the Chinese vaccine, for example.

So, yes, Johnson’s metaphor is well constructed. It validly compares its source domain to its target domain and conveys the implication that Johnson wants the public to understand: we are in a kind of war but the scientists are coming to save us. You can disagree with that framing of the reality, but not with the validity of the metaphor.

Let’s look at a more clumsy metaphor on the same subject. The British health minister, Matt Hancock, said in an address to parliament that the NHS would be “injecting hope” into the population of Britain when the vaccine arrived.

The main problem with his metaphor is the choice of the source domain. Hancock foregrounds the process of being injected with something. But being injected with something is never good. Nobody likes getting a needle and many people downright hate it. If Hancock was trying to put a positive spin on the matter, he should not have chosen a source domain that is inherently disagreeable.

Then we have the fact that the needle is filled with hope. What has hope got to do with it? A vaccine is supposed to be based on science. The whole point of science is that it works. And the whole point of the vaccine is that it is supposed to bring the corona business to an end. Nobody wants to take the vaccine and hope that it works. They want it to work. By using the word hope, Hancock is invoking an almost religious sentiment. To my mind, this also raised another connotation of ‘injecting’ which is drug use and addiction. I instantly thought of hopium, which rhymes with another thing which you can inject into your arm. Are vaccines now the hopium of the masses?

So, Hancock’s metaphor is clumsy. He was trying to put a positive spin on events but didn’t achieve his goal. Perhaps that’s why he’s health minister and Johnson is Prime Minister.

Metaphors can be novel, such as “injecting hope” or established like “they shoved it down his throat.” Here’s a nice example of a mixture of novel and established metaphors in this article from RT which is also about vaccines.  I have highlighted the metaphors.

“…working with the IATA as well as the International Civil Aviation Organization to shove the program down the world’s throat.

Not that it’ll need much shoving. The powers-that-be seem confident that, after ‘Lockdown 2.0’, most people will be so eaten up with cabin fever they’ll jump through any hoop imaginable just to climb onboard a plane and get out of wherever they are. ‘Flights to nowhere’ taking off and landing at the same airports in Australia and Hong Kong earlier this year have already proved frequent flyers are jonesing to get back in the air.”

Whew! That’s a lot of metaphors. RT op-eds are the best place to overdose on metaphors outside of a Boris Johnson press conference and this article is no different. This author has managed to cram more than one metaphor per sentence into this section of text. The result is an indistinct mess. Because metaphors don’t rely on either logic or fact, their overuse leads to wishy-washy argumentation.

Sometimes a poorly constructed metaphor can be just plain weird. Recall that metaphor works by invoking a concrete, easily understandable domain (like troops marching over the hill) to elucidate a less concrete domain (like vaccine science). A common way to misconstruct a metaphor is to start with a source domain that is too abstract. Here is a classic example in that category courtesy of yet another RT op-ed this time from a journalist from my home town, Caitlin Johnstone. Here is the metaphor in question:

“…social media is notorious for the way it creates tightly insulated echo chambers which masturbate our confirmation bias…”

I must admit, this hurt my brain the first time I read it. Let’s unpack it.

An “echo chamber” is a well-established metaphor in common usage. The source domain is a room which echoes your own voice back to you. Such rooms are used in audio production as a way to create a reverberation effect. That concrete, physical meaning was extended to elucidate the more abstract social phenomenon where people congregate with other people who share the same worldview and therefore end up echoing each other’s opinion back to themselves. The metaphor works nicely and has found a permanent place in the lexicon especially with the advent of social media.

However, Johnstone uses that metaphor as a subject in a larger metaphor. The echo chamber as metaphor is now masturbating confirmation bias. There are several problems with this. Firstly, masturbation is something you do to yourself. The verb masturbate is thus an intransitive verb that does not take a direct object. But in the metaphor, Johnstone is using it as a transitive verb. Because of this, the verb itself is functioning metaphorically. Specifically, it’s a synechdoche: the use of part for a whole. Johnstone wants to choose the connotation of masturbation as useless self-pleasuring to say something like echo chambers cause the useless self-pleasuring of our confirmation bias. So, we have a metaphor as subject, a verb being used metaphorically and a grammatical direct object which is an abstract concept (psychological bias).

To make matters worse, confirmation bias is what motives echo chambers in the first place. It is because we want to hear our existing opinions confirmed that we form ourselves into social groups that echo those opinions to us. Johnstone has constructed a metaphor where the metaphorical echo chamber is acting upon the psychological bias which motivates it.

It would be an interesting exercise in cognitive linguistics to unpack all the rules of metaphor creation that Johnstone has broken in the construction of her masturbation metaphor. The result, however, is quite clear. Her statement is nonsense, albeit very complicated nonsense.

It’s not the clumsy metaphors we need to worry about. It’s the well-constructed ones which form effective propaganda. A metaphor which slips under the radar can do powerful work in skewing our perception of what is going on. To be immune, we must first learn to spot metaphors every time they are being used and then to get into the habit of unpacking them. This takes time and energy but it becomes a lot easier as you go. If you stick at it, you’ll start seeing patterns in metaphor use which reveal much about our culture and you’ll realise how powerful metaphors are as a tool of propaganda.

Reader Exercise

Have a read of this article in the RT and highlight every metaphor you can find. I count 18.

This series of posts will be much more fun if readers can contribute. Feel free to comment with any examples of metaphors you find.

All posts in this series:

Propaganda School Part 5: Anchoring

Most techniques of propaganda also have a concomitant form as a cognitive bias or even a logical fallacy. There was an idea that was popular about a hundred years ago that, if all these biases were removed and only strictly logical information produced, then all propaganda, bias and fallacious reasoning would go away and we would live happily ever after in a reasonable and rational utopia. That’s not going to happen for a variety of reasons that are too long to go into here. The best we can do is simply be aware of our biases and the biases we are being invited to fall into when consuming propaganda.

One bias that is invoked all the time in propaganda is anchoring bias. Anchoring bias occurs when we allow an ‘anchor’ to skew our judgement on a particular matter. Often the anchor is the first piece of information we receive but it can be any other piece of information to which we give unjustified importance. As with other general cognitive biases, anchoring bias is not just seen in propaganda. It is a technique that is also used by skilled negotiators. Let me give an example from my experience so we can see how it works.

In China, as in most Asian countries, it is expected that you will haggle about the price of an item you are thinking about buying at a flea market. In fact, it is considered bad manners not to haggle. This is something we westerners have almost no experience in and so we tend to make very clumsy moves in such a negotiation. I never really got the hang of haggling. However, I was fortunate on one occasion to see an expert form of negotiation and also a classic example of overcoming anchoring bias.

I was on a work trip to China. An Indian colleague and I were walking around a flea market. He wanted to buy a trinket to take home to his wife and spotted a piece of jewelry that he thought she would like. We stopped at the stall and he asked the woman behind the table what the price was. She said it was 200 yuan. That was the anchor – the initial price from which all further negotiation will take place. If it was me, I would probably have counter-offered with 75 yuan. The stall holder would then probably say 150 yuan and we would end up somewhere in between. As a naïve westerner, I would get the experience of feeling like I had negotiated well and the stall holder would get probably ten times what the item was worth. Win-win.

But on this occasion the stall holder was negotiating with an Indian. If my experience is anything to go by, the Indians take such negotiations even more seriously than the Chinese. In India it is common to negotiate a price even in a regular shop and the negotiation ritual can be incredibly elaborate. One negotiation I witnessed on a trip to India, which was exhausting even as a spectator, lasted more than an hour and included several cups of tea and plates of sweets during which time various store clerks tried to offer me several other items that I didn’t want. So, I wasn’t that surprised when my Indian colleague approached the negotiation with the Chinese stall holder very differently than I would have. Her initial price, remember, was 200 yuan. He counter-offered with 5 yuan. She pretended to be outraged at this grievous insult to her intelligence and reputation (a common negotiation tactic) but, rather than play along, my colleague simply turned and started walking away. The stall holder, knowing she had one last move in the game, shouted out “10 yuan”! My colleague turned around, pulled 10 yuan from his wallet and the sale was made at 5% of the initial price the stall holder had set.

Technically, anchoring bias occurs whenever you allow your judgement to be skewed by one piece of information. Usually, this is the first piece of information. In this case, the first piece of information was an offer of 200 yuan. My colleague simply ignored that and made an offer based on what he thought the item was really worth. This is the best way to get around anchoring bias. In a negotiation, or in propaganda, your judgement is being skewed by information that somebody else gives you. If you have your own independent source of information and understanding, you become more or less immune to the tactic.

To a certain extent, the power and influence of the media is almost wholly predicated on anchoring bias because as readers we don’t have independent access to alternative sources of information. You can verify this for yourself. Every now and then a media story comes along which is about something that we have intimate knowledge about. Usually, this is something related to our job or it can be an event where we were an eyewitness. We read the article and marvel at how badly the journalist got the story wrong. Then we go to the next article and read it as if it is the truth. Of course, that article is just as wrong as the previous one, the only difference is we don’t have our own anchor from which to make sense of it. If I’m reading about the latest goings on in some exotic location on the other side of the planet, I won’t know whether the paper is skewing the information. This is less true in the age of the internet where the information for us to make our own judgement is usually out there waiting to be found. But most of the time we are reading the news precisely because we don’t want to spend the time and energy to verify the facts. We are outsourcing our understanding to others.

Anchoring bias is also a favourite tactic of politicians whose job involves framing issues in their favour. A classic example of this was seen in my home town this year due to the ‘second wave’ corona outbreak in Melbourne. To give overseas readers a lightning overview of what happened, the corona numbers went down all across Australia once the international borders were closed in March. Almost every state got to almost 0 ‘cases’. Then, the numbers started to rise in Melbourne and they shot up to about 700 a day before the government implemented one of the longest and hardest lockdowns of anywhere on the planet which ended up lasting four months before numbers got back to around 0. This was obviously a huge political problem for the government of Victoria . Every other state in the country had got the numbers under control, but not us. There was a lot of political pressure put on the state Premier in particular for some mistakes made in hotel quarantine programs.

Therefore, our Premier had a strong vested interest in making the actions of his government look as good as possible. One of the ways he did this was the use of anchoring bias. Rather than compare the numbers in Victoria to other states in Australia, the Premier kept comparing them to numbers in Europe. Against the former numbers, his government looked incompetent, against the latter, it looked good. One specific example of this was the use of France as the anchor. Apparently France had a daily case rate of about 700 back around the same time that Melbourne did (July-August). By October, our Premier pointed out, France was now at 20,000 ‘cases’ a day while Melbourne was back to single digits. Therefore, he must have done a good job. Compared to France, Melbourne looked like a huge success.

As I mentioned above, the best way to defend yourself from anchoring bias is to have your own anchor or anchors, preferably ones that are based in reality. The reality in this case was that France and Melbourne were completely invalid comparisons. In France in July, people were free to do as they pleased, go on holiday and enjoy the summer months. In Melbourne, people were forced to stay at home with curfews and limited hours outside. Nobody was allowed to travel even outside the city boundaries, let alone to another state or country. France was not even trying to control its corona numbers while Melbourne was pursuing an elimination strategy. So, the Premier’s anchor was completely irrelevant. He was comparing apples to oranges. That didn’t stop it from working, however. Many people parroted the Premier’s claim and believed that Melbourne had done something special. They pointed to France as evidence for their belief.

That’s how anchoring bias works. To be on guard against it, we must be very wary about the first pieces of information we are exposed to on a subject. We should definitely be wary about comparisons that somebody else is inviting us to make. We should look for multiple sources of information from multiple actors. And we should use that unfashionable skill called thinking so that we have our own anchor against which to weigh information.

Reader Exercise

The corona event is a case of anchoring bias on steroids but in a specific and unusual way: there was no anchor!

Most members of the public had never given a single thought in their lives to viral disease and had probably never looked at a single statistic related to respiratory viral outbreaks. All of a sudden they were bombarded with graphs and statistics but completely failed to put those statistics into perspective. The media and the politicians failed to give the public any useful anchors. Whether that was done on purpose or because journalists and politicians also had no proper anchor is anybody’s guess. (Our usual choice between incompetence and malice).

Have a look at the following graph which is an attempt to put the corona event into a larger context. The author has inserted their own anchors to guide your understanding and has used Sweden as the overall anchor because Sweden was one of the only countries not to implement masks and lockdowns and therefore the data cannot be explained away by saying “yes, but if they didn’t lockdown the numbers would have been much higher.”

Consider what anchor this graph is using and how it changes your perspective on the statistics that are shown in the media. Do you agree with the use of Sweden as the comparison point? Do you think this framing of the issue is valid?

It is always good to have multiple anchors so that you can put any complex event into proper context. Try to come up with several other anchors about the corona event that would help put it in perspective. This can include the other statistics we are shown in the media as well as non-numerical and even non-scientific points of view.


This series of posts will be a lot more fun if reader can contribute. Feel free to post with any interesting stories of anchoring either from your own experience or something in the media.

All posts in this series:

Cover reveal for Narquinxa and Xandalus

Check this out. It’s the cover for my upcoming novel “Narquinxa and Xandalus”. This is my second collaboration with an artist I found online several months ago (he also did the cover for my last novel “The Order of the Secret Chiefs”). I think we’ve outdone ourselves on this one. It’s almost too good for a book cover. Maybe I should sell it as a full size glossy poster.

Propaganda School Part 4: Headlines and Taglines

Once you learn to take a critical eye to journalism, the exaggerations and even outright distortions are so plain to see that you marvel that anybody could believe any of it. But the reality is that most people are only half paying attention while either reading or watching the media. You ‘watch’ the television news that’s on in the background while you’re getting dinner ready and you leaf through the newspaper while waiting for a train. Rarely do you sit down and give your full intellectual attention to the news.  

There does still exist media that is more weighty and requires more attention. There is still the concept or a ‘paper of record’ which is a serious newspaper that exists to verify and publish the hard facts. This can be contrasted with the free newspaper that you pick up at the train station and whose purpose is to distract you on your commute home from work. The latter is low quality while the former is high quality. The same dynamic exists on television in the difference between the evening news bulletin and an hour long investigative journalism show.

These distinctions have collapsed somewhat since the advent of the internet. One of the primary drivers of that is attention. There is no point in producing high quality journalism unless there is a market of people who have the time and energy to consume it. High quality journalism requires giving attention and implies having the time and energy to do so. But that is lacking nowadays as attention spans are now sub-divided between the thousands different competitors vying for eyeballs. For that reason and others, even papers of record have devolved into clickbait, tabloid-style journalism.

The point of clickbait is, you guessed it, to get clicks. On a web-based news site, there are three primary variables you can alter to try and get more clicks: the headline, the tagline and the photo. We have already talked about photographs in a previous post. Headlines and taglines barely require any explanation. The tagline is simply the short sentence beneath the headline that goes into slightly more detail on what the story is about.

Headlines, in particular front page headlines, have always been important as they are the first thing anybody sees whether it’s on a website or on the front of the newspaper sitting in the rack at the supermarket or convenience store. Tabloid newspapers often deliberately exaggerate headlines for effect. Papers of record, on the other hand, are expected to turn out factual and sober headlines that reflect the story accurately.

The simple choice of stories is, of course, the main way in which a newspaper affects its readers view of the world. For that reason, as educated readers we should seek out a variety of news media so that we can get a variety of alternative views on what is happening. Often just scanning the headline and tagline is enough to see what agenda is being pushed by one paper relative to another. Another thing to watch out for if you do read the article is whether the contents of the article actually match the headline. The headline serves as the frame in which the journalist wants to put the story. It predisposes the reader to interpret the article in a certain way. In the desperate fight for attention that predominates on the battleground of modern media, exaggeration in headlines is almost a necessity but there’s a fine line between exaggeration and fabrication.

For an example of exaggeration in a headline, check out this article from the BBC. It’s yet another example of their biased Trump coverage.

The headline states that Republicans were ‘alarmed’ by Trump withdrawing troops from Afghanistan but the body of the article quotes Mitch McConnell and another Republican saying they thought the idea was a ‘mistake’. Calling something a mistake is about as polite as it gets in the world of politics. It certainly does not connotate ‘alarm’. At best, you might say the Republicans in question were critical of Trump withdrawing troops but the BBC felt the need to exaggerate their headline no doubt motivated by their seemingly bottomless desire to make Trump look bad. Most other media outlets I saw simply reported the troop withdrawal and then had a quote criticising it. Apparently only the BBC felt the need to manipulate the headline in this way.

Let’s have a look at a more extreme example of exaggeration which borders on being outright misleading. This is one I came across while researching one of my posts on the coronavirus. As part of my research for that series, I read through a number of articles in media that proclaimed to report on various aspects of the science behind corona. One of the startling patterns I noticed was of a media article that was a misrepresentation of the science. This was often done by summarising a scientific article incorrectly (protip: if you have the time, follows the links in articles and see if the content of the link says what the journalist purported it to say. Often, it won’t).

Another pattern I saw was where the headline of the article did not follow from the content of the article itself. Here is one such example from the publication Nature.

The headline reads “Bat cave solves mystery of deadly SARS virus…”. Then in the first sentence we are told “After a detective hunt across China, researchers chasing the origin of the deadly SARS virus have finally found their smoking gun.”

“Solving the mystery” and finding a “smoking gun” give the reader the firm impression that the scientific evidence is overwhelming. Upon closer reading of the article, however, this is simply not the case.

Take this quote: “Although no single bat had the exact strain of SARS coronavirus that is found in humans, the analysis showed that the strains mix often. The human strain could have emerged from such mixing…”  The word ‘could’ alongside its cousins ‘may’ and ‘might’ have played a big role in the reporting on the corona event. The whole point of a smoking gun is that it is definitive and unarguable. You either have one or you don’t.  Could and might and may are not words you use when you have definitive evidence. So, the science as reported in the article is not conclusive and, ironically, the article even contains a quote from another scientist who throws cold water on the whole theory. The headline is misleading, giving the reader the impression of a certainty which did not exist. A reader not really paying attention, or without the necessary understanding of the science, would have been led to a false impression.

That is the power of headlines and taglines. They massage the meaning in the direction that the journalist or editor wants to go. Sometimes this results in simple exaggeration. Pushed too far, it creates a story where there really isn’t one and actively misleads the reader.

Reader Exercise

A more light-hearted exercise for this post. Check out The Sun, the British newspaper that has turned headlines into an art form and see how they use language playfully to represent what is in their articles.


This series of posts will be a lot more fun if readers can contribute. Feel free to post in the comments with any juicy examples of ‘over-zealous’ headlines.

All posts in this series:

Propaganda School Part 3: Editorialising the News

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when newspapers had practically a monopoly on reporting the news. There used to be two editions of the newspaper per day. The morning edition was the main paper that contained all the editorial, op-ed, cartoons and advertisements etc. Then there was the afternoon edition which reported on the events that had happened during the day. Radio and television presented a challenge to the newspapers’ control when they arrived on the scene. But the three forms of media proved to be complementary and they settled into an equilibrium. It was just as expensive to run a radio or television station as a newspaper and this expense presented a barrier to entry which ensured that the supply of news was tightly controlled among a relatively fixed number of media companies.

Then the internet came along.

Evangelists promised the internet would be a tool of liberation.  Part of the reasoning was that it would remove restrictions on the flow of information. In the music industry, record labels would no longer control who got to record and distribute an album. In the book industry, publishers would no longer hold back the tide of brilliant writers waiting to publish the next War and Peace. And, when it came to news, the media outlets would no longer get to control the news we would access about what was happening in the world. The result would be a cultural revolution as the shackles holding back consciousness were thrown off and the truth would be allowed to flow forth from the fountains of freedom.

It hasn’t exactly panned out that way and one of the main reasons it hasn’t is because the supply side restrictions which got removed actually served a purpose. Record labels, book publishers and news organisations are filters. Their job is to take all the things that could be distributed and remove what is not up to standard. They do not do this out of the goodness of their hearts but because the financial viability of their business relies upon it. As boring and suffocating as they may have seemed, the filtering businesses had one virtue: they ensured a minimum level of quality. The same argument has been made for the success of McDonalds. McDonalds is not a high quality product but the thing that is does is provide a guaranteed minimum quality. Anywhere in the world, you know what you will get when you eat at McDonalds. Same with the filtering businesses. They did not necessarily provide high quality, just a guaranteed minimum of quality.

Did the filter work perfectly all the time? Of course, not. One of the main ways it went wrong was to filter out stuff that people would have liked. No doubt all kinds of brilliant art and important news stories never saw the light of day as they were snuffed out by incompetent editors or coked up A&R executives. That was a definite problem. But now we have a new problem and one that is, in my opinion, worse. Once upon a time, the filterers would have sorted the wheat from the chaff. Now we as consumers must do it for ourselves. The guarantee of minimum quality no longer exists.

Different filterers faced the challenge of the internet in different ways and with differing levels of success. Record labels and the major book publishers survived but, at least in Australia, they play it ultra-safe releasing cheesy, unadventurous clichés. The news media has seen a huge cut in their operating budgets due to falling revenue from sales but also because their advertising revenue was eaten into by a variety of different internet players. Google and Facebook are two obvious ones but real estate and car sales, once the backbone of newspaper advertising, are now run by external companies. That advertising revenue used to subsidise good journalism. But not anymore.

As noted above, newspapers used to provide value by telling readers the facts but the internet made the facts freely available. For most important events, you no longer need a newspaper to tell you what happened, you can watch it on video or look up the information directly from the source. One of the ways in which newspapers in particular have responded to this is to focus less on reporting the news and more on contextualising it. There was an idea within the industry that, with the avalanche of facts which the internet delivered, news readers’ main problem would be to make sense of it all. That was where the newspapers could add value; by helping readers to contextualise the news or, as I am calling it, editorialising the news.

The Editorial was, and still is, that part of the newspaper where the editors of the paper get to express their opinion. It’s the one place where they don’t just report the facts and cite the sources but are free to give an interpretation of events. Usually, this is something to do with the political issues of the day but could also venture into social commentary. It is the prerogative of the editors; a kind of reward for those who rise to the top of their profession.

The editorial is (or was) sharply distinguished from the rest of the newspaper. A journalist writing a news article does not get to insert their opinion. Any opinion they do include must have a source. But that has changed somewhat in the last couple of decades. Although still not common in reputable media outlets, it is no longer unusual to see reporters editorialising the news. The wall separating editorial from news has been, if not fully demolished, certainly reduced in height so that it is easily jumped across by nimble journalists looking to ‘put the news in context’.

We saw in part 2 of this series how the passive voice can be used to say something without giving a source. This is a way for a journalist or media company to insert their bias or agenda into the news while making it look like somebody else is making a claim. Editorialising the news is not nearly so subtle. In fact, editorialising the news involves simply putting opinion directly into a news article. Once upon a time, this would have been considered unthinkable and any journalist trying to do so would have received a firm rebuke from their editor.

Before we get to some examples of editorialising the news, let’s first take a look at an example of good journalism from this article in Reuters.  (Note: although not without its flaws, I find Reuters to be one of the media organisations that consistently upholds the old fashioned standards of journalism). Note that the article is a series of facts and statements. Each fact is referenced to a source and the article even contains the disclaimer – “With most communications down in Tigray and Eritrea, Reuters could not independently confirm the strikes. Officials on both sides could not be reached.” That is what good journalism looks like.

Let’s now have a look at an article which contains editorialising – this article in The Hindu – which is a report on the US presidential election.

“Republican leaders in four critical States won by President-elect Joe Biden say they won’t participate in a legally dubious scheme to flip their State’s electors to vote for President Donald Trump. Their comments effectively shut down a half-baked plot some Republicans floated as a last chance to keep Mr. Trump in the White House.” [emphasis added]

Why is it legally dubious? The article cites no expert opinion to make this claim. Who is making the claim? The journalist? Is the journalist an expert in US law? On what grounds are they claiming it is legally dubious?

Then we have the phrase ‘half-baked plot’ which might be defensible in an op-ed polemic but which is completely unacceptable in a news article.

“Still, it has been promoted by Trump allies, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and is an example of misleading information and false claims fuelling scepticism among Mr. Trump’s supporters about the integrity of the vote.” [emphasis added]

Why is the information misleading? Why are the claims false?

“There has been no finding of widespread fraud or problems in the vote count…”

This is a statement of supposed fact without any reference. It is not even clear what it means given a number of court cases and legal processes are underway or still getting underway.

There are other examples in the article but I’m sure the reader gets the idea. It is not for a journalist to insert their opinion into the news and it is not for a journalist to make claims without reference. This article could easily have been written just sticking to the facts like the Reuters article above. That is what good journalism requires but this article is not good journalism. It is propaganda.

Reader Exercise

Editorialising the news is far more common in the media that comes from countries which do not have the western journalist tradition. You can find it in spades in the English language media that comes out of China, India, Russia and other countries. It may very well be that within the culture of those countries, editorialising has a different connotation. But within the western media, editorialising the news is still relatively rare as it is a blatant breach of the journalistic standards that have evolved over many decades. But that is changing.

The BBC in Britain and their counterpart the ABC in Australia have pretty good journalistic standards overall but, for reasons that perhaps only a psychologist can explain, their reporting on Trump for the last four years has been absolutely abysmal as they threw all pretence of journalistic professionalism out the window. For this week’s exercise, check out this article in the BBC which also reports on developments in the US presidential election. It contains all of the techniques we have analysed so far in this series: guilt by association, the passive voice and amorphous plural nouns. There is also one blatant bit of editorialising. See if you can find it. (Tip: it’s in the section attributed to Will Grant).


This series of posts will be much more fun if readers can contribute. Feel free to post any juicy examples of editorialising you find in the media.

All posts in this series: