Words give shape to ideas and feelings. More truly, how we interpret words as readers and listeners helps to shape understanding, relationship, or action–in turn, helping to shape us. And with “truthiness” rather than truth-telling so common in public communications, how we interpret and use words matters a lot. As noted in my previous blogposts, we rely on each other’s words to “differentiate fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible” (Sayers, 1948, p. 4).
With truth-telling now needed more than ever, our ongoing effort to challenge disinformation, misinformation, and trash-talk is as necessary as reasserting values important to daily life. Perhaps it’s best to keep in mind that the strongest antidote to propaganda and its impact is our own independent thought. And keeping democracy requires that we read, listen, speak, write, and vote thoughtfully. Words used wisely can engage hope, humor, and leadership to counter propaganda and strengthen democracy.
Through the initial handling of the Covid pandemic in 2020 and a remarkable election in the United States, word-salad was so amplified at times that many days felt driven by a juggernaut heading toward ambiguous destinations. Health, safety, and freedoms previously taken for granted were continuously threatened. This was the setting, in May 2020, for starting to write these blogposts as personal reflections every couple of weeks–to help keep perspective.
A midterm election in November 2022 delivered a much-wished-for coalition of voters, for some reprieve from the ongoing threats to health, safety, and freedoms. For any of us who believes in truth, law, and justice though, this remains a challenging time in this country and elsewhere. Outrageous public talk and too little action against the harmful actions of some still present hazard. Word-salad still props up news reports and talk-shows.
A relatively few bright lights in the media have found ways to probe the news while continuously urging accountability. Very often it is investigative journalists who uncover the harmful actions of public figures. Probing commentaries in the media also argue for the rule of law and democratic institutions, but nonetheless offer little solution to the propaganda war.
Many in the media continue to take the bait built into propaganda, to amplify its reach to more people than otherwise possible. From earlier parroting of bandwagon claims about “elites,” through the endless “B-roll” of political rallies, to the latest screams for the camera, this pseudo-news will not “just disappear.” An apparently endless stream of books, along with podcasts and documentaries, expose violations of truth, law, and justice, but even the best of these mostly offer diagnosis and warning.
Perhaps there is promise for the news media to regain credibility and audiences through the growth of “constructive journalism.” This rethinking of news practice steps beyond breaking news and investigative journalism to track public action for the common good. Constructive journalism builds on the premise that to serve democracy, quality reporting must be “critical, inspirational, nuanced, and engaging” (Constructive Institute, 2022). Meanwhile, the tabloid-based, sensational negativities of outrage, trash-talk, and exaggerations continue to be amplified by some public figures, social media, and gatekeepers of the mass media.
My thanks go to readers of the blog throughout the world, for your interest, comments, and feedback. In the spirit of Jacques Ellul's insight that propaganda ceases where simple dialogue begins, let's keep on seeking opportunities to advance the independent thought that strengthens democracy. With best wishes to all who choose the very best words to address the challenges ahead.
& with warmest compliments of the Season!
Constructive Institute (2022), "What Is Constructive Journalism?"
Sayers, Dorothy L. (1948), The Lost Tools of Learning, London: Methuen