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).

Postscript

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:

3 thoughts on “Propaganda School Part 3: Editorialising the News”

  1. Hello Simon
    I am fascinated by these articles of yours. Have just started reading them this evening. Many years ago when I was probably about 9 years old during the second world war, my parents had the radio on while I was already in bed in the evening. This would have been the BBC and the programme was about ‘Who are they?’. I have never forgotten it and have remembered that question all my life. ‘They said’ is used so much without identification.

    Inge

  2. Thanks, Inge. Do you mean ‘they’ as in ‘they say the weather will be nice this weekend’?

    A lot of people do treat the news just like gossip. It doesn’t seem to matter who said something. The fact that it was said convinces enough people that it becomes a ‘fact’.

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