Civics Connection

Distinguishing among news, opinion and propaganda

John Silva, NBCT

Director of education


When learning about a cause or an issue, students need to recognize whether they are reading news, opinion or propaganda.

When you watch cable news programs on CNN, Fox or MSNBC, do you notice how often they switch between straight news reporting and commentary? Can you tell which person on screen is a journalist and which is a pundit? The ability to distinguish news from opinion is a foundational news literacy skill, and it’s an essential one for students engaged in a cause or advocacy. And if that isn’t enough, students must also learn to know the difference between opinion and propaganda.

What Is News?

What we call “quality journalism” aspires to ethical standards. These are codified, with some variations, by professional journalism associations, journalism schools and individual news organizations. These standards include:

  • Truthfulness/accuracy: Verifying all details that can be checked; using multiple original sources (individuals and documentation) wherever possible.
  • Independence: Putting the interests of the public above self-interest or special interests.
  • Balance: Giving a voice to multiple perspectives.
  • Fairness/avoidance of bias: Presenting facts and details in appropriate context, using neutral language.
  • Accountability: Acknowledging errors and correcting them promptly.

There are others, of course, and there is significant detail that can be added to these. The key to approaching the question “What is news?” with your students is this: A quality news article can be objectively identified using such standards. “Getting the Story” (Module 4, Lesson 1) in the Checkology® virtual classroom introduces the standards of quality journalism in an engaging simulation.

Opinion vs. Propaganda

Here’s where things can get a little tricky. The key is to determine the purpose of what you’re reading, watching or hearing.

“Opinion” (often described by news outlets as “commentary” or “editorials/op-eds”) presents a specific perspective on a topic or issue. While it may use emotional appeals to persuade readers, viewers or listeners to consider the position it’s arguing for (or against), the message includes verifiable facts and evidence. That evidence may be open to some interpretation, but it is still clear and supported by reasoning. In addition, other perspectives and positions may be presented for balance and contrast. The best opinion pieces use facts and coherent arguments to explain why we should agree with the position.

“Propaganda” has a wide variety of definitions. The most important elements of propaganda are that it speaks to our fears and insecurities, it distorts and manipulates facts and information, it often includes falsehoods and it’s one-sided. Propaganda most commonly uses logical fallacies in its efforts to persuade — especially attacks on opponents and strong emotional appeals.

Propaganda also uses misinformation and disinformation. While students often think of these as synonymous, there is an important distinction: Does the person who is sharing the information believe that it’s true, or does he or she know that it’s false but is sharing it anyway? The former is misinformation, the latter is disinformation. Propaganda uses both.

The ability to distinguish among news, opinion and propaganda becomes particularly important when students become engaged in a social or political cause. As they learn more about an issue, they will inevitably be confronted with all three categories. Recognizing the differences empowers students to seek out reliable, factual sources and to ignore misinformation and disinformation.

With this knowledge, students can move from passively consuming information to actively creating it. They can write about the world around them (or produce videos or podcasts) and try to persuade others to support their causes and issues. When students are reliably informed, they become empowered to express their own beliefs and add their voices to discussions of issues and policy.

Resources

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