The relationship between propaganda and journalism could be characterized as somewhat ambivalent. That is to say that, it is good for circulation and bad for credibility; it is great for stirring up patriotism and bad for creating a global image in the modern day. First, it is very important to distinguish between propaganda and yellow journalism. Propaganda is a style of presenting selective facts in a manner that is exaggerated or inflammatory, in order to achieve a desired agenda-usually political. Yellow Journalism shares similar attributes, but the only agenda is circulation. There is a fine line being walked here, and it can be distinguished by one common event: war. Conflicts provide yellow journalists with an opportunity to turn their sensationalistic style of reporting into a movement that rallies or breaks the enthusiasm of the public.
So what does Propaganda have to do with the History of Journalism? Is it a good thing for the media? Does propaganda elicit unprofessional or unethical reporting? Let us see…
The history of propaganda dates back into ancient history, but the use of journalism in mass media could be placed on British involvement with the Indian subcontinent. During the so called Indian Rebellion of 1857, British Newspapers like The Times were seizing on false reports of mass rapes of British women by Indian rebels. According to historian Karen Beckman, the media was playing up isolated or even false incidents in order to further the agenda that Indians were in need of pacification by British imperialists. Eventually, the British people were able to rally behind this propaganda and suppress the rebellion. This is clearly and example of where propaganda has that double-edged effect. It was able to rally the British imperialists behind what they then viewed as a worthy cause, but at the cost of a global image. Ultimately, India did gain independence but the seeds of mass media propaganda had been planted.
Later on in the 19th century, there was a pre-dreadnought ship by the name of the USS Maine that happened to sink in Havana Harbor during a tense political situation. For those unfamiliar with what ensued, it involved a little conflict. Okay, quite a big conflict that altered the United States influence globally for the upcoming 20th century. People like Hearst and Pulitzer with their circulation battle in progress went so far as to make up false stories that it was Spanish armaments that sank the Maine when in reality it could very well have been an accident sparked on board by U.S. sailors. But because these media moguls of the 19th century were putting out whatever sensationalistic stories they could to increase circulation, American opinion soon swayed and the Spanish American War ensued. Now while it is safe to say that the propaganda produced by the media directly after the sinking of the Maine did have an effect on American opinion, it was not the sole factor in going to war with Spain. It did prove a very powerful tool as the government soon found out.
The sinking of the USS Maine was not the sole instance in American history where agitation of the public fostered by media propaganda led to a war. In April of 1917, President Woodrow Wilson established the Committee on Public Information, also known as the Creel Committee. Its sole purpose was to find ways by which the government could influence American public opinion in favor of joining World War I. If you think some of the stuff the government tries to shove down your throats in the modern day is bad, it pales in comparison to what was going on in 1917. As Robert Jackall points out, “This raw propaganda included complete fabrications, such as images and stories of German soldiers killing babies and hoisting them on bayonets.” In addition to their print media the CPI had several other mediums of influencing public opinion such as posters, radio, movies, and a volunteer corps. But most effective were the newspaper accounts, radio ads keeping Americans alert for German spies, and influential posters.
With these three examples of propaganda in relation to conflict, it is possible to see a theme forming. Though there are many ways to reach the public in the 19th and early 20th century, newspapers remain effective because they are popular. Word of mouth has virtually disappeared, telegraph can get the news to the people quickly, but only print can explain or persuade the people. Movies could not have the same effect because long production schedules could not keep pace with printing and radio was present but not nearly as affordable or prevalent as newspapers were.
So now the inevitable question: what was the use of propaganda in the history of journalism? In this writer and historian in training’s opinion: it had no use, other than eliciting a base of support for a political agenda. Sure, it is good stuff when it is used on our own side during the conflict or during the political campaign, but afterwards if we really step outside of our ethnocentric bubble, things like this can seem a bit silly.