Propaganda, Opinion, News, Advertising: Can You Tell Them Apart?

It's trickier than ever before.

Wouldn’t it be nice if every piece of content that we encountered came with a clear ‘nutrition label’ stating which is which?

Unfortunately, our daily media consumption is more like khichdi or pongal: news, opinion, advertising and propaganda all come to us mashed together. And we swallow the lot without chewing it over.

(I was going to add one more metaphor about food here, something about getting an upset stomach, but you get the picture. 🤓)

Bottomline: In today’s post-truth landscape, it is useful to be able to identify the differences between various types of information. To that end, I take up four issues and round off with a checklist of questions for you to ask yourself from time to time.

1. Raw Information vs News vs Journalism

Consider the following four paragraphs, part of a report from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address on 29th September. Modi was speaking on the inauguration of six projects related to the cleanup of the river Ganga:

The Prime Minister listed various initiatives of the Government…which were opposed by the opposition in spite of the benefits accrued to the people at large.

He said it is the same people who opposed modernisation of the Air Force and provision of modern fighter planes to it. The very same people also opposed the One Rank One Pension policy of the Government, whereas the Government already paid dues of over Rs 11,000 Crores in the form of arrears to the pensioners of the armed forces.

He said these are the very same people who criticised the surgical strike and asked the soldiers to prove that there was a surgical strike. Shri Modi said this makes clear to the whole country what their actual intentions are.

He added with passage of time these people who oppose and protest are becoming irrelevant.

It looks like a straightforward report doesn’t it? But it is not ‘news’. These lines are part of a press release from the Prime Minister’s Office. They have not been written by a journalist but by a government staffer.

Such press releases—from the PMO and other significant posts—are routinely published as news by several media companies with barely a change or two to the words.

It is important to note that this press release is raw information. It has not been contextualised or verified.

Here’s how the The Indian Express covered the speech:

That’s the headline and sub-header. Here’s the first line from the report:

Targeting the Opposition for protesting against the new farm laws, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday said “these people are neither with the farmer, nor with the youth, nor with the soldiers”.

The rest of the report contains several lines from the press release. The difference between the press release and this account is in the way it has been headlined and written with a little bit of context.

This is news.

But it is not journalism.

There is no attempt in The Indian Express piece to fact-check the Prime Minister’s claims or verify whether what he said is true or not. No indication at all that this is anything other than a one-sided account of what the Prime Minister said. It is inherently newsworthy because Modi used the occasion to attack those he disagrees with. But that’s all it is.

The word ‘said’ appears 11 times in the piece (“he said”, or “Modi said”). The word ‘claimed’ does not appear at all.

When events are reported in a one-sided manner and there is no attempt at explaining the context or towards providing other perspectives and analysis, it may be news, but it is definitely not journalism.

(I’m not talking about the merits of these two ways of covering events of importance here, that will be a topic for another post.)

2. News vs Opinion vs Analysis

Take a look at the following three headlines. Can you tell which is a news story, which is analysis, and which is opinion?

  • US President Donald Trump Nominated for 2021 Nobel Peace Prize (The Quint)

  • How did India manage to lose its neighbourhood? Answers lie at home (The Indian Express)

  • Bihar election: Paswan vs Manjhi via Nitish Kumar, a headache for BJP in NDA (India Today)

Here’s a thumb rule. News tells you ‘what happened’. Analysis is usually about ‘how and why it happened’. And opinion is usually one person’s view or perspective about a news event.

The first headline, taken from The Quint, is a plain statement, and is therefore likely to be a news story. The second one, taken from The Indian Express promises to be a ‘how it happened’ piece, and therefore should contain analysis. The third one, taken from India Today seems to be an opinion piece.

Yet, headlines two and three are not what they seem. The piece titled, “how did India manage to lost its neighbourhood…” is an opinion piece, written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta. It contains a lot of intelligent analysis, but it is ultimately one person’s opinion. The third piece, on Bihar’s election, is a clear cut analysis.

The point is that today, opinion and analysis go hand in hand with news. Newspaper reports, especially page one stories, feature heavy analysis and bits of opinion creeping in here and there.

None of this is bad in itself, but next time you read anything at all, it might be useful to ask yourself whether you’re reading news, analysis, opinion or a blend of the three.

3. What about propaganda?

Propaganda is found everywhere: within news, opinion, advertising, governmental messaging and even peer-to-peer messaging such as on WhatsApp.

But what is propaganda exactly?

Here are some common characteristics of propaganda, adapted from the Media Education Lab:

  1. It is information that appeals to our insecurities and anxieties (Jacques Ellul).

  2. It is designed with a clear purpose to get us to respond emotionally (Neil Postman).

  3. It can be indifferent to the truth.

  4. It uses any means to accomplish its ends (Walter Cunningham).

  5. It aims to influence not just our attitudes, but also our behaviour.

  6. It aim to influence large populations toward some type of cause or position.

The thing with propaganda is that while it can be easy to recognize it, it can also be very subtle.

Consider this image I received on WhatsApp recently. Is it propaganda?

To start with, it is designed to arouse a mix of emotions: pride, indignation, anger and hatred. For Indians, it arouses complex emotions regarding Pakistan and Islam.

Further, it is clearly political given the ‘Nation with Namo’ label displayed in a prominent position. For those who fervently support the Prime Minister and his politics, it acts as a dog-whistle.

Once our emotions are activated, it becomes difficult to spot that the statement— “had they been allowed to advance, history would’ve been very different today”—is pure speculation. Yes, history would have been different. But we don’t know exactly. Or whether things would have been better or worse.

I would say that this is a clear example of propaganda. There are far more subtle examples out there.

(Propaganda can be both bad and good. I’ll tackle those questions in a separate post.)

4. Advertising in news

The thing I like most about advertising (other than the fact that it can be truly entertaining) is that it can be honest. Everybody is clear about its role, which is to get us to buy a product. There’s no other agenda at work.

Except when advertising is dishonest. When it makes false claims, or when it wears the garb of news.

Unfortunately, this sort of advertising is increasingly common in the news.

  1. Advertorials: A combination of the words ‘advertising’ and ‘editorial’, an advertorial is an ad masquerading as news. The city editions of The Times of India, such as Bombay Times is a good example. There are plenty of ads in these supplements, but even the articles—especially the front page ones are usually paid for. Needless to say, these articles are not labelled as advertisements.

  2. Sponsored Content: Normally, ad agencies come up with ads, but in the past few years, we’ve seen the rise of publishers and news organizations creating content featuring or pushing products. Sometimes they are clearly labelled as ‘sponsored content’, but many times they’re not, or they’re given an alternate name such as ‘partner content’.

  3. Branded Content: This is the same as sponsored content but with one exception: the ‘ad’ (content) is created by the brand and not the publisher.

  4. Native advertising: This is an umbrella term which includes sponsored and branded content. In such cases, ads are designed to look like news stories. The best media organizations clearly label native advertising, but people can miss it.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Advertising comes in myriad forms. Google searches turn up sponsored hits. Facebook and Twitter posts can be promoted or boosted. And so on.

There’s nothing wrong with advertising so long as it’s clearly labelled. In all other cases, hidden ads can cause harm and cognitive confusion.


Your final checklist

So when reading a piece or viewing something, it can be useful to have these questions hovering over the edges of your mind.

  1. Am I reading a press release?

  2. Is this news or journalism?

  3. Is this news, opinion or analysis?

  4. Is it a blend of news, opinion or analysis?

  5. Am I reading or watching propaganda?

  6. Though it doesn’t look like it, is this an advertisement?

The point is not that we ought to know the answers to these questions. We can’t all be fact-checkers. But if we learn to think and reflect about all the stuff that comes our way, we won’t be so easily swayed.


Thanks to Samantha Stanley and Masato Kajimoto for teaching and research resources.

Cover illustration: H R Venkatesh