Propaganda: The Media and Moral Panic that Strengthens Negative Stereotypes   

“The public relations industry, which essentially runs the elections, is applying certain principles to undermine democracy which are the same as the principles that applies to undermine markets. The last thing that business wants is markets in the sense of economic theory. Take a course in economics, they tell you a market is based on informed consumers making rational choices. Anyone who’s ever looked at a TV ad knows that’s not true. In fact if we had a market system an ad say for General Motors would be a brief statement of the characteristics of the products for next year. That’s not what you see. You see some movie actress or a football hero or somebody driving a car up a mountain or something like that. And that’s true of all advertising. The goal is to undermine markets by creating uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices and the business world spends huge efforts on that. The same is true when the same industry, the PR industry, turns to undermining democracy. It wants to construct elections in which uninformed voters will make irrational choices. It’s pretty reasonable and it’s so evident you can hardly miss it.” – Noam Chomsky, From lecture titled”The State-Corporate Complex:A Threat to Freedom and Survival,” at the The University of Toronto, April 7, 2011




“People are dangerous. If they’re able to involve themselves in issues that matter, they may change the distribution of power, to the detriment of those who are rich and privileged.”–Noam Chomsky



Social and Ideological Phenomenon: Moral Panic

  • Witches in the 1600s
  • Crazed Rock Stars in the 1960s
  • Muggers in Britain in the 1970s
  • HIV/AIDS in the 1980s
  • African Americans (Sambos, Violent Offenders, Rapists, Wanton and Sex-Crazed) and Crimes in the 1865 – Current

The movie, “The Birth of a Nation” used moral panic to spread fear among a large number of people that evil threatens the well-being of society.  That evil was black men.  It falsified the period of Reconstruction by presenting blacks as dominating Southern whites (almost all of whom are noble in the film) and sexually forcing themselves upon white women. The Klan was portrayed as the South’s savior from this alleged tyranny. Not only was this portrayal untrue, it was the opposite of what actually happened. During Reconstruction, whites dominated blacks and assaulted black women. The Klan was primarily a white terrorist organization that carried out hundreds of murders.

The media has been a powerful creator of racist thought and action. Widely viewed as one of the most racist movies of all time, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation (1915) offered a White supremacist caricature of African-Americans as savages that threatened the sacred American way of life as well as the well-being of White women (Loewen, 2007). President Woodrow Wilson was so enamored with the content of this movie that during a private screening of the film in the White House, he lamented, “It is like history written with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so true” (Loewen, 2007, p. 21). Considered to be an American cinematic classic by some, the film has been historically interpreted as the apex of media framing of Blackness in a negative light on a grand scale, which culminated in the devaluation of Black life. To buttress the aforementioned, soon after the film’s release there was a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, and numerous race riots across the United States which resulted in the loss of thousands of Black lives (Loewen, 2005, 2007). – Chaney and Robertson

Stan Cohen’s study of “mods” and “rockers,” Folk Devils and Moral Panic: Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereo-typical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible (1972:28, quoted in Hall, p. 16). – Stan Cohen


Propaganda Model:

The theory offered by academics Edward Herman (1925– ) and Noam Chomsky (1928– ) as a way of explaining how (US) media routinely circulate and amplify the world view of the wealthy and powerful while marginalizing dissenting perspectives, notwithstanding the views or intentions of the individuals involved in media production. In their influential 1988 book Manufacturing Consent, Herman and Chomsky identified five ‘filters’ that, when applied in combination, have the effect of ensuring privileged media access for government and big business interests. The filters are:

  1. The wealth and concentrated ownership of dominant commercial media firms.
  2. The influence of advertising.
  3. A reliance on accessing information from the most powerful elements within society.
  4. Punitive action or flak unleashed against journalists who transgress.
  5. An ideological backdrop (in the USA in particular) characterized as anti-communism.


Since the end of the Cold War, and particularly since the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, a prevailing anti-communist ideology is said by some to have been replaced by an ethos that is more likely to be anti-Islam or at least anti-militant Islam. The propaganda model has been dismissed by critics as a conspiracy theory and/or as too mechanistic, but Herman and Chomsky counter that their model describes a market system with a tendency towards certain consequences rather than an omnipotent system that controls and explains everything.




The privileged admittance to news organizations and outlets that some sections of society are said to enjoy, while others tend to be marginalized or overlooked. Studies suggest that, although the journalist–source relationship is complex, there is a tendency for more socially and economically powerful individuals and organizations routinely to have advantageous access to the media in general and to journalists in particular.

Primary Definers: 

Those powerful and influential voices who tend to be afforded disproportionate access to the media. In book Policing the Crisis (1978), cultural studies theorist Stuart Hall (1932–2014) and colleagues argued that by enjoying privileged access to the media in general and to news organizations in particular, a society’s more powerful sectors and individuals can to a large extent establish the parameters of debate on many social and political issues. In this way, senior politicians, business leaders, judges, lawyers, and ‘experts’ become the primary definers of the meaning and significance of events and of what are considered to be appropriate responses to such events. According to this analysis, journalists play the role of secondary definers, transmitting the interpretations of the powerful who are almost by definition seen as credible and authoritative sources. Although definitions are not fixed, and can be contested, the theory of primary and secondary definition is put forward to help explain the tendency for the dominant forces within society to have their interpretations disproportionately circulated and amplified by journalists. The theory is sometimes dismissed or criticized for downplaying the potential of powerful media organizations such as the Murdoch empire to become primary definers that, according to some commentators, may be even more powerful than elected politicians.

Watchdog Role: 

A conceptualization of journalism as the eyes and ears of a society’s citizens, checking for and warning of potential danger. This idea of the journalist as watchdog is inextricably linked to concepts such as democracy, the fourth estate, the public interest, and a free press, and it can apply as much to a blogger revealing how much a local council spends on tea and biscuits as it does to the Watergate scandal. The watchdog role is most often claimed for investigative journalism but it is implicit in any form of reporting that records events or statements and makes such information available to the public. However, mainstream media organizations are frequently accused of failing to fulfill the role effectively, and/or of revealing only individual abuses in society while ignoring or downplaying more systemic social issues.

Noam Chomsky asserts that in order to break free, citizens must take 2 actions:

1. They must seek out information from ALTERNATIVE MEDIA (media outside the mainstream and usually having a particular point of view)

2. They must move toward change by becoming engaged in community action — because people can use their ordinary intelligence to make changes in their lives and communities. Grassroots movements begin there.


Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky

Propaganda Model, A Dictionary of Journalism, Oxford University Press, 2014, Tony Harcup

Watchdog Role, A Dictionary of Journalism, Oxford University Press, 2014, Tony Harcup

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