Skip to main content

Propaganda 102: Evaluative vs. Informative Writing

by Hiram R. Diaz III

Whereas our first exploration of propaganda was concerned with defining propaganda and exposing one of its more subtle forms, this article will examine the use of adjectives in propaganda. As I noted in the first article, journalists are trained to be objective reporters of historical facts. Such writing does not make for good entertainment, but that is not the point of journalism. Journalism is supposed to embody objectivity, which Walter Kronkite once defined as –

‘…the reporting of reality, of facts, as nearly as they can be obtained without the injection of prejudice and personal opinion.’1

This means that purported news articles which color our interpretation of reality by explicitly, implicitly, or suggestively demonstrating their authors’ prejudice and personal opinion do not qualify as objective reports of what was the case, is now the case, and will likely be the case, but are instances of propaganda.

In this article, we will learn how to spot prejudice and personal opinion communicated via evaluative judgments and, thereby, not be deceived into promoting ideas and practices which we do not actually support. This will, I hope, enable us to better identify those authors who are willing to abuse language in order to achieve a particular political end, and avoid partaking in their sins.

Unnecessary Adjectives & Phrases

Firstly, we need to acknowledge that adjectives are a necessary component of communication, and they play different roles in different forms of discourse. It is within the context of journalism – which is supposed to be objective – that adjectives can be used to subtly influence readers’ feelings and opinions about some person, place, practice, or thing. Non-journalistic writing and speaking occurs in contexts where a speaker’s idiolect can usually be understood fairly well by his audience, given he and his audience share a common, geographically distinct way of speaking. If that way of speaking is not shared by the interlocutors, however, then each party will likely misinterpret one another.

For instance, as David Marcus notes, in the outer boroughs of New York City – The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island –

…hyperbolic analogy is extremely common along the lines of, “This freakin’ guy, I’m waiting three days for a cup of coffee.” Obviously this is not meant to be taken literally, it’s a way to… express displeasure.2

This way of speaking is common among native New Yorkers, but it is not common among native Idahoans. An Idahoan vacationing in New York City, therefore, may find himself at a loss for understanding as to why people on the subway are “rude,” “pushy,” or “crass.” The New Yorker is speaking to a non-native as he would speak to a native New Yorker (and expecting a New Yorker’s response), and the Idahoan is interpreting the New Yorker as if the New Yorker were speaking as an Idahoan would (and subsequently giving an Idahoan’s response).3

Consequently, in an effort to produce objective reports academics, lawyers, judges, police officers, scientists, and journalists are trained to eliminate as many of these interpretive problems by reducing their use of evaluative language.4 If a news report is laden with evaluative assertions, then, it is not objective reporting but propaganda. For example, consider the following example from the Mark Scolforo and Colleen Long of the Associated Press –

“In blistering ruling, judge throws out Trump suit in Pa.”5

The word “blistering” is evaluative, an adjective that represents the interpretation of the authors rather than the mere facts of the event under consideration. Their intention is to portray Trump’s case as being an annoyance or insult to serious legal work. This is confirmed by the opening paragraphs. There we read –

A federal judge issued a scathing order Saturday dismissing the Trump campaign’s futile effort to block the certification of votes in Pennsylvania, shooting down claims of widespread irregularities with mail-in ballots.

The case was always a long shot to stop President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, but it was President Donald Trump’s best hope to affect the election results through the courts, mostly because of the number of electoral votes, 20, at stake in Pennsylvania. His personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, stepped into a courtroom for the first time in decades to argue the case this past week.

If we remove the emphasized words and phrases, we are left with the following –

A federal judge issued an order Saturday dismissing the Trump campaign’s effort to block the certification of votes in Pennsylvania, rejecting claims of widespread irregularities with mail-in ballots.

It was President Donald Trump’s best hope to challenge the projected election results through the courts, mostly because of the number of electoral votes, 20, at stake in Pennsylvania. His personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, argued the case.

We can now look at the words removed from the article.

Scathing – This is an interpretation of the mood/attitude of the judge.

FutileThis is an interpretation of the Trump campaign’s legal case.

Shooting down – This is an interpretation of the judge’s action.

The case was always a long shot – This is an interpretation of the Trump campaign’s legal case.

President-elect Joe Biden – This is an interpretation of the results of the election, which is precisely what is being argued in the court system by the President.

Inauguration – This is an interpretation of the results of the election, which is precisely what is being argued in the court system by the President.

Stepped into a courtroom for the first time in decades This colors Giuliani as ill-equipped or “rusty”.6

To argue the case – This suggests that Giuliani is arguing the case in order to overturn the election results, i.e. he is engaged in partisanship and not concerned with the law and, by logical extension, the voting system.

Speaking in this way in a personal conversation does not amount to propagandizing. However, presenting this kind of writing as objective journalism does amount to propagandizing. Whereas actual news reporting tells readers what has occurred, leaving it up to them to evaluate the facts, propaganda relays the politicized stance of the propagandists under the guise of objectivity. More concisely stated:

Propaganda tells readers how to feel and think about the subject under consideration, actual news does not.

Bearing Witness to the Truth

Given that Christians are to be witnesses to the truth, it follows that we are morally obligated to reject propaganda as wicked. The reasons for this are several.

1. Propaganda is deceitful. It is opinion presented as objective reporting. To endorse propaganda – directly or indirectly – is to endorse the lie that what is being endorsed is actual news when it is, in fact, nothing of the sort.

2. Propaganda is an attempt to short-circuit critical thinking. To endorse propaganda, therefore, is to endorse the bypassing of critical thinking, thereby indirectly encouraging unrighteous judgment.

3. An endorsement of propaganda is an endorsement of communicative chaos. Propaganda purposefully blurs the line between distinct forms of communication. This destabilizes communication and, therefore, rational, moral, and spiritual activity.

The Christian faith does not endorse epistemological, moral, or spiritual relativism. These things are opposed to God himself who is the way, the truth, and the life. Let us, therefore, be critical readers, interpreters, and publishers of the truth – whether we publish by the written or spoken word.

1 Quoted in Steve Maras’ Objectivity in Journalism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013), 7.

2 “To Understand Trump Talk, You Must Speak Outer Borough,” The Federalist, January 8, 2018, Accessed Nov 20, 2020.

3 In his article “Are New Yorkers Really as Rude as Everyone Thinks They Are?”, E. J. White explains that in one study by Deborah Tannen it was shown that

…differences in conversational style between New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers led to frequent hiccups in the conversation. For example, the New Yorkers took for granted that pauses between conversational turns would be shorter than the others expected: “It happened frequently that while the Californians and the British speaker were waiting for a pause that would signal an open floor, a New Yorker, perceiving that the turn-exchange length of pause had come and gone, began speaking.” Because of this, the non-New Yorkers believed they were being interrupted, talked over, ignored. Moreover, during a given speaker’s turn, the New Yorkers would often add side commentary, which linguists call cooperative overlaps: of course, I hate that, I would have done the same. “Because the non-New Yorkers did not use overlap in this way, they frequently mistook these ‘cooperative overlaps’ as attempts to take a turn, that is, to interrupt.” Thus more hiccups in the conversation: a non-New Yorker would be holding the floor; a New Yorker would make a comment sotto voce; the non-New Yorker would pause, tactfully, to yield the floor; the New Yorker would fail to take the floor; and the non-New Yorker would continue. After the conversation, one Californian commented that he had often struggled to “fit in.”

Lit Hub, September 10, 2020, Accessed Nov 20, 2020.

4 For more on the distinction between everyday language speakers and language use among professionals in a given institution see, Zetterberg, Hans L., “The Grammar of Social Science,” in Acta Sociologica, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Sep., 2006), 245-256.


6 See Marc Levy & Mark Scolforo, “A rusty Giuliani returns to the courtroom on Trump’s behalf,” AP News, November 18, 2020, Accessed November 21, 2020.